On think tanks and technology

27 April 2020
SERIES OTT Annual Review 2019: think tanks and technology 14 items

[This article was originally published as the editorial of the OTT Annual Review 2019-2020: think tanks and technology on March 2020.]

We’ve invited authors from across different disciplines, sectors and roles to offer insights into the opportunities and challenges that new technologies present to think tanks.

As ever, we are excited about the possibilities, but with a healthy degree of scepticism. We are quite certain that new technologies are playing, and will continue to play a transformative role in the evolution of think tanks and think tank communities across the world. But we do not think that it will be all it is billed to be. And change, whatever that may be, should be informed by facts, rather than hype and expectation.

Nonetheless, the wealth of insight and experience captured here shows that technology is causing think tanks to rethink their functions, their business models, how they develop and deliver their research agendas, who they communicate with and how they do it, as well as the skills and competencies they need to recruit. Funders too, need to consider how best to support think tanks as technology continues to pose new challenges and opportunities.

The continuing evolution of think tanks

Four years ago, our first global conference was on the theme of evolving think tanks. We’d launched our On Think Tanks School two years before under the same banner, motivated by the fact that think tanks were facing increasingly complex challenges and therefore had to pay greater attention to the competencies and skills they needed to respond – business as usual was (and still is) not an option.

The first annual review drew mostly from our own experience. When we launched it at our annual conference in late January 2017, the discussions that ensued offered a more nuanced and rich understanding of think tanks’ evolution so far and the ideas that would shape think tanks in the future.

Henceforth, we took a different approach: more inclusive and forward looking. Our next review, published in 2018, explored the subject of credibility. The next, published in 2019, focused on public engagement. And in this latest review we tackle the challenges and opportunities presented by new technological developments.

In each case, we have produced reviews that help us and our community to learn more about a field that we knew little about but understood to be important for think tanks. Each review involved contributions from an increasingly large and diverse community of researchers and practitioners in the field. In doing so, we have been able to incorporate the nuance and richness of the annual conferences into the reviews themselves.

The choice of themes illustrates this evolution too. We tackled credibility in 2017 because it repeatedly came up at our first annual conference as an increasingly complex challenge for think tanks. However, credibility appeared to be one of those words that could mean just about anything, thus making it difficult to find common ground between think tanks. The annual review offered an opportunity to develop the foundations for a more nuanced discussion.

When we all met in London for our 2nd annual conference in 2018, we found that the conversation had begun to move on from understanding the factors that explained credibility to the need to find practical solutions. Public engagement emerged as a promising one. Participants at the 2018 conference agreed that it was no longer enough to target a few influential policymakers; think tanks had to consider the wider public in their work: from the way they developed their research agendas to how they delivered them and communicated their findings.

We therefore took on public engagement as the theme of our 3rd annual review. Through it we learned about new forms of engagement, new business models that embed engagement into the organisation’s DNA, and about the organisational and personal skills needed to deliver it.

Its publication and the subsequent discussions on public engagement at the 2019 conference in Geneva, led to the emergence of new issues, such as the effect that greater diversity in think tanks’ workforce has on the effectiveness of their public engagement efforts, or the way in which new technologies are affecting public engagement practice.

And so here we are, exploring the many dimensions in which technology developments are disrupting and innovating our lives, research and policymaking, and how think tanks are – and must – respond.

When we began planning for this annual review we thought that it would be forward looking, as the extent of the technological developments that we discuss here is yet to unfold. Equally, we are yet to fully understand their implications on think tanks and the wider evidence-informed policy community. However, in the time it has taken us to publish it the world has become engulfed in a global crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic. We are witnessing, besides a resurgence of the credibility of experts and evidence, the very central role that technology is playing in both the modelling of the epidemic and the solutions that people and institutions, including think tanks, are appealing to.

We are not yet in a position to fully understand the implications on think tanks and the wider evidence-informed policy community. In some cases, we may find sooner rather than later that the crisis ushers permanent changes to think tanks and the way they engage with technology. In other cases we may have to wait until the dust has settled, as the aftermath of the crisis lays bare the huge inequities, technological and otherwise, that exist in this sector.