The questions technology poses think tanks

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

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

It is easy to paint a dystopian picture of fast-approaching ‘technological singularity’ – the point at which artificial intelligence becomes cleverer than us, and probably decides that humans are dysfunctional and need to be eliminated. Before that happens, the robots will have taken most of the jobs, genetically-modified organisms will have destroyed the planet’s biodiversity, and plastic will sit on the earth’s surface a metre deep. Those humans who remain will be locked in air-filtered bubbles, filling our time playing online video games or browsing Facebook. There is a flourishing industry of fiction and nonfiction books predicting societal break-down along these lines.

On the other side of the coin, technology has transformed human possibilities and can contribute to improving health, eliminating drudgery, protecting the environment, connecting the global community, and democratising institutions. We will all be able to devote ourselves to self-improvement and self-realisation (the Californian dream). More practically, we will find solutions to the great challenges facing the world, like tackling climate change, eliminating infectious disease, and providing sustainable, healthy diets to a growing population.

If we are to rescue some kind of utopia, there is work to do. Governments play a key role in funding the research that underpins new technology, and in fostering adoption. They also have a role in regulating technology companies, for example in preventing monopoly, or in setting global tax regimes. Importantly, these tasks increasingly require collaboration and cooperation between countries. Initiatives like the International Solar Alliance illustrate the benefits of bringing countries together to tackle the so called ‘grand challenges’ of the 21st century.

Developing countries might easily find themselves excluded from the research, application, and governance structures that emerge from this kind of conversation. Of course, that is not necessarily the case (the International Solar Alliance is an initiative of the Indian Government for example). However, it is essential that think tanks press for genuinely global participation in what is a global endeavour. Multilateral institutions, especially the UN, need to have a voice in setting research priorities. Aid agencies, for example, need to fund universities and science centres, as well as primary schools.

More generally, think tanks need to focus both on the short-term priorities of the Sustainable Development Goals, but also on the long-term changes, beyond 2030, that technology may facilitate. Working in a think tank, I have often said, is like a driving a car: we need to keep an eye on the potholes in the road immediately ahead, but also look at the horizon to see where the road may lead.

As we do this, technology can be our friend. The internet makes (certain kinds of) research much easier. The availability of big data encourages new forms of analysis. The cost of collaboration has fallen too, as virtual conferencing has spread. Who in 2020 would want to run a think tank without bandwidth? On the demand side, policymakers are working faster, and often more informally. Think tanks need to respond. Never mind the website and regular supply of briefing papers, which think tank these days does not live-stream meetings to the desktop monitors in parliament or government? Which researchers do not have a Twitter account?

However, here there are also risks. In an age of media manipulation and fake news, the questions of ‘whose voice counts?’ and ‘whose voice is real?’ become ever more pertinent. For think tanks, their ‘brand’ becomes an important issue. Alone, or in alliance with others, think tanks need to guard their reputation with all the commitment they can muster. To be acknowledged as the ‘go-to’ source of authoritative advice is the greatest accolade think tanks can garner.

Values and philosophy matter too. Technology can encourage think tank researchers to forget the world, and the ultimate clients and causes they work for. Imagine think tank researchers sitting in darkened rooms, leafing through back copies of the Scientific American or New Scientist, pausing only to run regressions on their laptops, or tweet their findings and opinions to an outside audience. That would not do. Think tanks are driven by a social mission. That implies contact and engagement, not research and policymaking by remote control.

Governance and management issues follow. Boards need to ask for regular horizon-scanning and strategy revision. Managers need to build changing contexts and tools into institutional and programmatic work plans. Individual incentives need to be structured so as to facilitate new agendas and new ways of working. Funders also need to think outside of conventional frames.

The ecosystem of think tanks is highly heterogeneous, in resources and skills to name just a couple. Not every think tank will focus with laser intensity on technical change. Nor will every think tank want to turn their office into the simulacrum of a hipster start-up. Nevertheless, we don’t want to be writing on vellum with quills when the world invents the printing press.