The future of think tanks

4 August 2021

[This article was originally published on Vantage Point, a Cast From Clay series on how think tanks are perceived from the outside.]

Over the last decade, the world has become obsessed with think tanks. The Think Tank Initiative convened global funders such as the Hewlett Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Norad, FCDO (DFID back then) and IDRC to support about 50 think tanks in Latin America, Africa and South Asia.

The Open Society Foundation’s Think Tank Fund focused its efforts on Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans. Australia’s DFAT supported Indonesian think tanks through a programme called Knowledge Sector Initiative.

And a combination of think tank funding scandals, dodgy rankings and, hopefully, On Think Tanks, helped to push think tanks’ popularity to unprecedented levels.

Even President Xi Jinping joined in. Back in 2013, he called for a new type of think tank that would allow China to “promote scientific and democratic decision making […] And strengthen China’s soft power”. By some accounts, more than 200 think tanks were founded in the following three years.

Over the last years I have personally engaged with at least five new think tank initiatives, and OTT’s School for Thinktankers, which attracts emerging think tank leaders, sold out in early 2021.

The function of think tanks

The future looks bright. Not for think tanks, necessarily, but for the think tank function.

Let me explain.

First, most people do not know what a think tank is. And even fewer could name a single one. Think tanks are still mostly popular among those in the know: call it the Westminster Bubble or Inside the Beltway.

Second, the label ‘think tank’ is relatively new – a construct of the planning mindset that dominated think tanks in the US around the time of the Second World War and the pre-eminence of the Rand Corporation and other large American institutions. The label describes a very specific action: to think, in a tank. To develop ideas, in a closed space; isolated from others. It is very logical, lineal, technocratic.

The reality of think tanks is anything but that. Think tanks are ideological, they engage with multiple actors in multiple ways, they serve several de-facto powers, and are certainly not isolated from the world. They are not tanks (neither of the fishbowl nor military types) and, sadly, there is often little thinking going on.

What matters is not the label but the function, or functions, that think tanks fulfil: to develop solutions to social, economic and political problems; inform and educate decisionmakers and the public; promote ideas; advocate for change; hold decisionmakers to account; train the next generations of decisionmakers; create and nurture spaces for informed debate on matters of public interest; and so on.

Research is merely one of the many pathways through which think tanks can make a contribution. When referring to the impact that Chilean think tanks in the 1980s had on Chile’s democratic transition, Jeffrey Puryear argued that, far from intellectual, their contribution had been psychological. They created and nurtured the spaces where the opposition to the Pinochet dictatorship learned how to communicate with each other, debate, negotiate and use evidence to develop policy arguments.

While organisations that we would call think tanks existed before the invention of the label – possibly the oldest think tank still in existence, the Royal Society of the Arts (The RSA), was founded in 1745 – today there are also organisations that reject the label (or choose not to use it). Thomas Medvetz argues that the adoption of the label is a political act – organisations that position themselves in relation to others in their political knowledge regime (to use a concept coined by Adolfo Garcé).

Chatham House refers to itself as a research centre, not a think tank.

And if you were proud to be called a think tank in the Western Balkans in the 1990s and early 2000s, you may think twice about the label today.

Xi Jinping’s call for new think tanks with Chinese characteristics directly rejects the think tank label by attempting to appropriate it and change its meaning – at least for 1.4 billion Chinese and those within China’s sphere of influence.

Therefore, the label may disappear one day; but the functions will remain.

How think tanks are changing

So what will these organisations formerly known as think tanks look like in the future?

This is harder to answer. I will start with think tanks’ most important asset: their people.

People are redefining think tanks

Firstly, the skills that thinktankers bring to think tanks are changing. Not long ago think tanks prioritised academic qualifications in their appointments. Now think tanks recognise that the best thinktankers combine a number of skills – what Simon Maxwell described in his policy entrepreneur model: storytellers, networkers, political fixers and engineers (doers).

This is fuelling new initiatives that often have little to do with research and prioritise efforts to engage with the public, shape new narratives and explore the boundaries with other fields: the media, politics, advocacy and activism, and markets. Chatham House’s simulations are a good example of these changes.

Secondly, the socio-economic make up of think tanks is changing, too. We are still witnessing a slow – too-slow – incorporation of women into all levels and aspects of thinktanking, with young thinktankers themselves leading the change.

But behind them I already note a recognition that think tanks must make an effort to shed their elitist credentials and accommodate thinktankers from socio-economic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds that are more representative of the publics they intend to serve. Black Lives Matter has led to many necessarily uncomfortable conversations.

Finally, think tanks are facing new and increasing competition from individuals who, armed with a few databases, fierce analytical skills, an absolute command of new communication channels and tools, and accurate opportunistic strategies, have displaced many of their scholars from the spaces reserved for experts in media panels and advisory bodies.

Younger thinktankers do not have to wait for their turn to be influential. They can command many more followers on social media than all their seniors put together.

The time of smaller think tanks may be now.

Context is reshaping the role of think tanks

Think tanks are also a product of their context. There is a clear relationship between the strength of the various fields that think tanks interact with and their own strength. Healthy (robust, dynamic, engaging and sustainable) think tank communities benefit from the close presence of programmatic political parties, well-funded and productive academic institutions, an informed and robust media, a thriving civil society, and a responsible and profitable private sector.

Without them, entire think tank communities are impossible to sustain and only a handful of islands of excellence may survive. And these islands are, themselves, unsustainable.

This is the main challenge that many African think tanks face today. Propped up by millions of aid dollars they have defied all logic. But these incredibly valuable organisations, often the only think tank in town, are also impossibly expensive to sustain; and there are no alternative domestic funding sources at hand.

Think tanks, however, are not passive consequences of their contexts. They have the capacity to complement and substitute institutions.

Think tanks in political knowledge regimes dominated by one group of institutions – the state or the market, for instance – tend to associate themselves with them. Think tanks in China are clearly part of the party apparatus; think tanks in Germany are part of the extended state – which is far more lenient and encouraging even of dissenting voices; in the UK they are more closely related to the political party system and the relentless political media cycle; and in the US think tanks reflect the choices of political philanthropy and corporate interests.

But for every think tank that is complementing the dominating field, there are others that seek to substitute the weakened fields and shift the balance of power. Even in China, think tanks have emerged from within the party apparatus to promote reforms. The Unirule Institute of Economics was set up to promote economic and political liberalisation at a time when the field had been opened to ideas. It finally closed in 2019 when the Xi Jinping Thought settled the debate.

This substitution is clearer in the developing world where think tanks are taking over the functions of other institutions.

Many play the role that the media should in disseminating research-based policy arguments to the wider public (such as Redes), undertake the type of academic research that universities should be producing (such as APHRC), take over policymaking responsibilities, and all-but-replace the programmatic capacity of political parties.

As a consequence, there is a huge diversity in think tank models across the developing world – many traditions of think tanks, to borrow a term from Diane Stone – often co-existing in the same countries and sectors, each seeking to correct a failure in the political knowledge regime.

We now see this happening in the US or the UK, too. Think tanks are investing in their own broadcasting studies that are sufficient to rival small TV or radio stations; establishing academies and fellowships to train the next generations of policymakers; and creating, hosting and nurturing spaces for transnational engagement between policymakers at the city and national levels.

These are not traditional think tank roles, but are a response to think tanks’ own view that the institutions meant to fulfil them have failed to deliver.

So what will think tanks look like in the future?

First, there will be greater diversity. The large think tanks will continue to thrive as the world remains or continues to grow more unequal. Big money follows big money. These are the think tanks that complement the dominating institutions. But many more, much smaller, think tanks will emerge to attempt to substitute weakened institutions and attempt to fight back.

Some think tanks will transform into highly engaging and intellectually stimulating publications – using whatever medium is most effective to communicate complex policy arguments. Others will become extended workbenches for flagging political parties with little or no programmatic capacity.

There will be academic think tanks taking over from archaic research institutions while some university research centres will transform themselves into dynamic and engaging think tanks with a greater interest in reaching the public beyond their cloisters than tracking some irrelevant academic impact factor.

The function will also be adopted, as it has already been done to some extent, by other fields: thought leadership platforms like TED; corporations with a mission to shape narratives and agendas; consultancies with spinoff think tanks to claim a space in the marketplace of policy ideas; NGOs with an increasing focus on systemic change; and even foundations whose own staff have realised that their contribution to society lies beyond the dollars they disburse.

Second, I think there will be more temporary think tanks – much like music bands that blend into each other as their members run parallel projects or split and form new ones, experimenting with approaches, partnerships, interests. The power that individuals have to command the functions of thinktanking and the opportunities that exist in other fields, I expect, will prove impossible to resist for new generations of hugely influential gig-thinktankers.

This is already possible. A good example of this is foraus’ Policy Kitchen, which convenes policy entrepreneurs from all walks of life to work together to solve common social challenges.

Without the institutions to worry about, the story will be at the centre of these new think tanks’ missions. Whatever it takes to develop and communicate it.

I imagine a throwback to a time when think tanks were not bound by bricks and mortar but were instead formed and reformed by the interaction of their members.

To a time when The RSA was the Fellows. And all they needed was a coffeehouse to meet.