Five new roles for think tanks in the age of polycrisis

19 April 2024
SERIES Think tanks and political uncertainty 7 items

A recurrent theme during the World Economic Forum’s 2024 annual meeting was how the world is now in a state of ‘polycrisis’ – which can be defined as the interaction of multiple, simultaneous global crises.  

This state of polycrisis means that think tanks are now under immense pressure because of the political turmoil and economic uncertainty that is being created.  

This is compounded by increasing competition from non-traditional policy research sources: advocacy organisations, for-profit consulting and law firms.  

All of this is leading to decreased funding for think tanks, which was a prominent concern in OTT’s Think tank state of the sector 2023 

Due to this harsh global context, think tanks must now ask themselves three questions: Is their core mission still relevant? How can they prevent industry stagnation and ensure their success? What opportunities does this polycrisis present? 

Think tanks: navigating the polycrisis 

There are plenty of ways to define what think tanks are and what aims they serve, but, at their core, they aim to conduct non-partisan research to shape policymaking and to facilitate intellectual and respectful debate. 

Therefore, think tanks will be crucial in successfully navigating this polycrisis as they can help ensure that governments’ policies are well-informed and effective.  

The short- and long-term consequences of ill-informed and/or ineffective policies for tackling the significant global crises could be profound. 

However, the traditional think tank industry will need to accommodate five new roles to survive in the current global context.  

1.  A trusted voice/crisis navigator for the public  

The intensity of the polycrisis, its complexity, numerous dramatic changes, and the lack of transparent and trusted information is creating anxiety across various social groups.  

People are looking for answers and they need them from experts. However, relatively few think tanks are widely known by the general public.  

This desire for expert knowledge could be a great opportunity for think tanks; therefore, it’s worth investing time and effort in creating comprehensive content and in rigorously promoting it.  

This could increase their funding, impact, brand awareness and reputation in the long term.  

Economics Explained illustrates this well.

2.    A research arm of civil society: activist think tanks 

There’s been a significant rise in political and social activism across the world. Existing social imbalances and new threats, such as climate change, will continue to fuel this trend.  

To efficiently leverage this energy coming from the civil society and the private sector, expert knowledge is needed. This could be an opportunity for collaboration between civil society and think tanks.  

Think tanks could generate effective, evidence-led solutions and, thus, further strengthen the voice of civil society. This would also increase think tanks’ opportunities – for example, attracting new funders.  

More information on activist think tanks can be found in this article by Simon Maxwell 

3.  A bridge between conflicted international actors  

Increased tensions among powerful international actors, including the rise of regional conflicts and conflicts of interest between traditional and new economies, has created a fragmented global landscape, with few opportunities for discussion.  

Think tanks seem to be one of the few intermediaries left that can bridge the gap between actors with conflicting ideas.  

A good example of think tanks performing this role is the  China–US university think tank dialogue.  

This intermediary role is very much aligned with the core mission of think tanks.   

4.    A bridge between the entangled global crises  

One of the constraints in overcoming this global polycrisis is that each crisis is being treated separately: economic policy, global peace architecture, climate change, biodiversity and viruses are all dealt with in isolation.  

To successfully navigate this polycrisis and to prevent more in the future, we need to explore the connections between these entangled issues – for example, biodiversity and climate change or biodiversity and viruses.  

Think tanks are well-placed to bridge the gap between the multiple global crises and to shape effective interventions. 

Some innovative think tanks, such as the Canadian Cascade Institute, are already trying to fill this niche.

5. A visionary centre

There are countless threats to humanity looming ahead of us. For example, the threats posed by AI and climate change.  

Our lack of a clear vision for the future is frightening. Think tanks have the potential to develop a vision that suits multiple actors by considering long-term perspectives.  

Once the vision is in place, we can work on the instruments of its implementation.  

There are historical precedents for think tanks performing this role, for example after World War 2.  

Although many reputable think tanks, like the Institute for the Future (IFTF), are now working on this agenda, the more think tanks get involved, the better and more inclusive the future will be.