Two disciplines that almost all think tanks lack: designers and philosophers

31 July 2013

Throughout the world think tanks worry about recruiting and retaining the best talent. Researchers are in extremely high demand but so are communicators and managers. In fact, these latter two are usually harder to find. When it comes to building the right teams, think tanks need more than just lots of great bright scientists.

Anyone joining ODI during the decade that Simon Maxwell was its director would have heard him talk about 4 key aptitudes or skills that research teams in a think tank  needed:

  • Networkers
  • Engineers (or managers or implementers)
  • Story-tellers
  • Fixers

It wasn’t that researchers needed to have these 4 skills (this is unlikely) but teams had to be put together to include them all. Doing good research is not enough to work in a think tank.

I think that we have to go a bit further. Think tanks need more than just a mix of skills, they also need a mix of disciplines. A team of four economists is not as interesting as one with an economist, a political scientist, an engineer, and an anthropologist. Their capacity to explain complex problems and find the most appropriate solutions would surely benefit from the combination of disciplines.

All too often I come across centres that look more like mini-academic departments than they do think tanks. They are structured around disciplines: economics, political science, health, education, etc. and each one of these are staffed by people with the same educational and professional backgrounds.

Some have gone too far (for their own good) in the opposite direction and employ generalists: for instance, development studies graduates -a profession that is becoming all too common among international development think tanks and now, a frightening prospect, among think tanks in developing countries.

A few months ago I wrote about the difference between policy and research questions. To answer a policy question think tanks will need to answer several research questions and having several disciplines (and experiences) to draw from can be an advantage. A homogeneous staff will not help with innovation and originality. When I was at ODI, my research team at RAPID included an engineer, a philosopher and mathematician, an astrophysicist, a linguist, a veterinarian, a political scientist, and an economist. If we included the rest of the team members we counted with a translator and a manager. I’d like to think that it was this combination that allowed us to work across sectors and contexts in the way that we did.

But there was a profession we were missing -everyone was missing, really: designers.

This article by David Kester makes a strong case for hiring or working closely with  designers: Designers make new thinking real. In it he argues that:

[Designers] help connect creativity (the generation of ideas) and innovation (the exploitation of ideas). Quite literally designers make new thinking real.

When the head of the police in the UK wanted to explore how to reduce the human cost of attacks with glasses in pubs, we said we could help and went to work with the Royal College of Art. The breakthrough was a bio-resin film for glassware that minimises the risk of lethal shards from a broken glass. The idea came from material scientists and product designers at Design Bridge and is now sold in the millions around the world by Europe’s largest glassware manufacturer.

When Oxford University wanted to explore new ways to get its discoveries out of the lab and into the market, again we offered designers as companions. The first project we worked on was an algorithm for a smart energy metering system. The final design clips on to any energy source (water, gas, electricity) and within days can identify and monitor every connected device. The University has claimed this project is their most successful spin out to date.

We have created hundreds of similar multidisciplinary explorer teams with designers in a central role. We explored dementia, food, MPs, sexual health, unemployment, hi-tech start-ups, modern manufacturing – the list goes on.

This is particularly relevant for think tanks that want to present themselves as ‘think and do tanks’.

The second discipline that David Kester calls for (although not for think tanks, in his article) is philosophy. in his words:

I think an important new partnership could be between designers and philosophers. Arguably we live in a more secular world.

Modern philosophers are stepping forward in an attempt to provide answers for this group [people without religious affiliation]. In the UK Professor AC Grayling has established an independent University – the New College of Humanities.

The philosopher, Alain de Botton, in his book Religion for Atheists, argues that most people want to do good and that secular society needs to learn from religion. In particular, he argues that religion has evolved behavioural approaches to remind us to do good. These include artefacts, symbols and rituals that have called on mankind’s creative skills over millennia.

But most importantly, philosophy can help with concepts that are often used but rarely understood: fairness, justice, freedom, choice, inequality, etc. How often have we heard researchers and politicians alike call a policy ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’? But rarely will they explain what they mean by fairness. Or write about inequality, without addressing how this is interpreted by different people; or call for the pursuit of choice or freedom are principles to their entire work, without stopping to think about what these ideas really mean.

When a researcher chooses a method of analysis he or she is also making a choice of ‘theory’ of justice. Then a policymaker or a politician chooses between different groups to decide who wins and who losses (how resources are allocated in society) he or she is, at least, implicitly, choosing a way of understanding justice over others. (Here is a good introductory book and videos: Justice with Michael Sandel.) This, the pursuit of precisely these kind of choices, is the bread and butter of think tanks; yet, few will have given them the reflection they demand.

So, design and philosophy, two disciplines we need to see more of in think tanks.