Think tanks and new ways of producing knowledge

9 December 2019
SERIES Ideas, reflections and advice from future think tank leaders 17 items

Over the last few decades, the ways think tanks produce and communicate knowledge has changed. For think tanks, this is an opportunity to hear more voices and to engage with society in new ways.

The transition from old to new

Más Saber América Latina + studies the relationship between think tanks and universities in nine Latin America countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay). The book discusses the challenges that come with transitioning to the new mode of knowledge production in the world of think tanks and academia.

Mode 1, the ‘old’ mode, is traditional academic research production. It is characterised by strong disciplinary theory. Knowledge is produced for and legitimised by the scientific community. It includes different voices, but in a ‘vertical’ flow of information, in which academics are the ones producing the ideas, results and conclusions.

Mode 2, the ‘new’ approach, introduces new and different mechanisms for generating ideas, involving more actors and disciplines. The relevance of the knowledge generated is defined by society, generating highly contextualised results. Knowledge generation is horizontal, with different institutions and the public co-creating.

This shift requires some serious organisational change, specifically in the most ‘academic’ institutions. It pushes think tanks to enter into new practices and new relationships with society and other institutions.

Why are we seeing this shift?

Globalisation and the expansion of information and communication technology have opened up knowledge and empowered people to access and demand it.

The emergence and growth of the middle class with increased access to information has resulted in further demand for democratic participation in knowledge production and public debate.

In Bolivia, where I work, this shift is apparent. Social and political changes over recent years (such as the growth of the middle class, greater recognition of indigenous rights, empowerment of women) has increased awareness among the public about how policy decisions affect their day-to-day life, and they have become more empowered to participate.

If think tanks fail to include the diversity of interests and voices, the recommendations we make to policymakers will have gaps and disconnections and ultimately will lead to the ineffectiveness of policies.

In Bolivia, as in other countries, development paradigms are sometimes imposed and result in failure or ineffectiveness. Every country’s reality is so diverse and complex that some policies can be rejected by the people because they did not adequately represent them. And if policies are not well focused and contextualised, they might not have the desired or intended impact on people’s wellbeing.

Embracing the shift to Mode 2

These new ways of knowledge production are undoubtedly closer to the democratic and inclusion values that many of our institutions aspire to. And think tanks around the world are embracing Mode 2, looking for new ways to actively involve different actors, including the public, in their work – see for example Policy Kitchen,+ ACODE + and Grupo Faro.+ But for many think tanks, moving beyond traditional academic methodologies can be a challenge and have high costs.

I would argue (and I’m not alone) that this new context offers think tanks a fantastic opportunity that should be embraced. But really, think tanks don’t have many options – this knowledge production shift is happening worldwide and soon there will be little room left for Mode 1.

In today’s world, Mode 2 is essential for what we think tanks do: bridge research and policy by bringing fresh, evidence-based ideas.