The Heraclitus dictum, “the only constant in life is change”, seems a fitting way to describe the current state of the world.
From the fight for the critical raw materials underpinning new technologies, to the race in artificial intelligence (AI), the failed Russian occupation of Ukraine and the ongoing crisis in the Taiwan straits, the world is seeing change at an increased pace.
People and their organisations – who usually prefer routines to make them feel in control – must now face unavoidable fears and adapt to a new reality.
Think tanks are not exempt from this. Irrespective of their specific national and regional context, they must reckon with and find answers to the dominant global political trends of our time.
First, they must factor our planet’s limited resources and changing climate into everything they do. Second, they must adapt to the emergence of a multipolar world, which will shift the context of their analyses and advice. Third, technological advancements in AI and neuroscience will profoundly change the advice industry. Finally, the dramatic increase in the concentration of wealth in democratic and authoritarian countries will test the independence and the intellectual and research integrity of think tanks.
So, what key challenges do these trends’ pose for think tanks?
1. Our planet’s limited resources
Under its fancier name, climate change, this trend is already part of everyone’s life: even if our system still overvalues capital and undervalues labour, without valuing nature at all – or, even worse, commodifying it.
But consideration for the planet is here to stay – from carbon pricing to interventions like the United States’ (US’s) Inflation Reduction Act.
The planet’s limited resources affect policy alternatives and research and policy agendas in different ways across the world. E.g., regions like sub-Saharan Africa are facing droughts, and affluent regions must account for migration and changes to agriculture.
For think tanks, this means moving away from the neo-liberal models of the past to climate-sensitive frameworks. However, this is easier said than done. Think tanks can only nudge those in power; therefore, they must embrace environmental responsibility in all their policy analyses.
2. The multipolar world
This has been spoken about for years and has now become a reality. We may now witness increasing tensions between the US and China, with many regional and mid-size powers stuck in between.
Think tanks must be cautious not to fall into the trap of suzerainty, which may lead them to pander to the interests of a particular political or economic elite. E.g., US-based think tanks may skew their analytical lens to reinforce a state-sanctioned line, toning down their criticism to secure funding at home.
The situation might be even more challenging for those caught between conflicting powers; models of bridging and Track 1.5 or 2 diplomacy may not be possible as an independent undertaking.
Think tanks in the Global South could face direct or indirect cuts to their funding. Their respective governments, in trying to maintain a delicate balancing act, may decide that the best option is to cut access to foreign funding altogether.
On the upside, such a world may bring more heterodoxies. This would challenge the stale positions of international financial institutions and neo-liberal champions, broadening the choice of research areas and policy choices.
As geopolitics further influences domestic politics, security, foreign policy and geo-economic experts will be at the forefront of every discussion. Think tanks may become the gatekeepers who secure the much-needed domestic debates and specific political and social analyses, in tandem with geopolitics.
3. AI and neuroscience
Evidence-based decision-making has suffered from disinformation and misinformation in the public–political sphere for many years. Solid analyses and expert advice have been replaced, and public debate has been stifled. We’re witnessing a rise in dictatorships and an increase in authoritarian styles of governance.
As Hanna Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, a “Dictatorship is a society of lies. Everything becomes fake. Truth does not matter anymore. There is no objective science.” But think tanks have often stood among the few who have defended evidence.
Although less draconian, informational autocracies follow the same path, using technology to curtail individual freedoms. Even the most established democracies allow the public sphere to be dominated by social platforms, which intensify polarisation.
We can only guess what language-based AI applications like Chat GPT will do to the world of analysis.
However, AI doesn’t have to be bad news for the sector. Large language models could carry out simple and cumbersome research tasks, leaving the more sophisticated design and policy-making to the individual researchers.
But for this to happen, regulation must be improved and think tanks must be given more space to innovate around emerging technologies.
Similarly, research, especially in the political sphere, must be more open to the latest developments in neuroscience. While they can be used to manipulate feelings, combining evidence-based research and the science of emotions could lead to unprecedented analyses. Ones that can rethink policies and shape politics beyond their current uses, which are centred on voter segmentation and, often, on manipulation.
In this area, we may see a bigger gulf between think tanks operating in democracies and those in authoritarian societies.
4. Further concentration of wealth
We have witnessed a dramatic increase in wealth and income inequality and concentration of wealth across the world over the last 40 years.. This is recorded by Piketty and colleagues in their World Inequality Database
In Europe, the top 10% of the population owns 60.8% of the wealth, in the US they own 70%, in the Russian Federation, 75% and in Brazil, 79%.
Forbes magazine’s data on billionaires’ wealth present an even more challenging picture: rising from 3% of the global GDP in 1998, to 12% in 2022. These statistics are exacerbated by the fact that part of this wealth comes from crony capitalism, which is sanctioned by authoritarian governments (see this Economist article). This increase is already creating massive challenges and problems in public policy.
Think tank leaders must look at this trend for at least two reasons:
First, climate change, increasing polarisation and AI models that can control human beings require new, bold visions for the economy.
One idea worth considering is the concept of “mission economy” (Mariana Mazzucato). This offers a path to mend capitalism rather than end it, by rejuvenating a more prominent role for the state and reordering economic priorities.
Think tanks have a responsibility to contribute to a different vision for the societies they exist to improve, beyond pragmatic sectoral policies or merely tampering on the edges of the current system.
Second, in times when individuals can purchase entire social platforms or media outlets, think tanks could be abused, becoming tools in a larger ecosystem that protects wealth and influence. Thus, taking them away from promoting evidence-based policy solutions or bold societal ideas. This reason may be more prosaic, but it’s equally vital to think tankers.
While the money of the richest is welcomed by the sector, it should be used to provide general support to enlarge the ecosystem of ideas and policy solutions, not to propel particular belief systems or to create systems to protect their wealth.
These four trends raise many questions that each warrant further discussion.
However, in the end, it boils down to three questions:
- Will mainstream think tanks be brave enough to engage in the big challenges of our time?
- Will they create bold visions for the future by using new technologies and improvements in science?
- Will they avoid becoming another tool for the affluent to preserve their status?
For the sake of our planet, I hope the answer to all these questions is a resounding “Yes!”.
This article is based on a keynote speech delivered at the On Think Tanks (OTT) Conference, “Think tanks and political uncertainty”, held at Chatham House, London, May 10/11, 2023.
The analysis and views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not present the institutional views of the organisation that the author works for.