OTT Conference 2023 – Think tanks and political uncertainty

Organised by On Think Tanks
Event type Conference
Location Chatham House, London, UK
Start date 10 May 2023
End date 11 May 2023
New and persistent forms of political uncertainty are impacting think tanks globally. Thinktankers, funders and policy experts from around the world join us in London to discuss the role of think tanks amidst political uncertainty.

51% of organisations in our latest sector survey named political uncertainty as a key challenge, citing polarised elections, regional instability, the rise of populism, eroding democracies, weakened institutions and public distrust as just some of the issues they contend with daily.

At the OTT Conference 2023, we are joined by thinktankers, funders and policy experts from around the world to discuss the role of think tanks amidst political uncertainty. How can think tanks achieve their goals in an area dominated by political uncertainty? What role can think tanks play in countering it and how can donors best support them?

Watch sessions

About the conference

The OTT Conference is a space to exchange knowledge and experience, establish and strengthen partnerships and co-develop solutions to common sector challenges. Our conferences are designed to create opportunity for formal and informal interactions, and for participants to create sessions on topics that are relevant and important to them. The Conference is attended by think tank leaders, funders, policy experts and think tank scholars.

OTT Conference 2023 is an invitation-only two-day event at Chatham House and includes a mix of :

  • Keynote addresses
  • Plenary sessions
  • Parallel sessions designed to explore an issue in more depth
  • Extended coffee and lunch breaks to allow for more informal interaction and relationship building (especially important after three years online!)
  • Marketplace of ideas: a space for organisations to present strategies for working amidst political uncertainty.

Partners and sponsors

The OTT Conference 2023 is held in partnership with, and hosted by Chatham House. The conference is possible thanks to the valuable long term support from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Robert Bosch Stiftung Foundation. We’re grateful for the creative design work of Soapbox. Finally we are grateful for funding from the Ford Foundation, Asia Foundation, and GIZ to bring participants from across the world.

Summary of discussions

Below is a summary of the key discussions and reflections from the conference.

The nature of political uncertainty and how it affects think tanks

Political uncertainty is nothing new; it is the only constant. However, people and organisations from the global south are more accustomed to dealing with it, as uncertainty has been higher there for the past couple of decades.

Yet, as our world becomes more globalised, political uncertainty becomes increasingly difficult to manage due to new variables and actors involved.

We need to position uncertainty on the political spectrum without fetishizing it. To do this, it is important to embrace diverse perspectives in order to understand complex problems and find solutions.

As issues become mainstream, the struggle to promote knowledge, fact-based discussions, and open civic spaces for debates continues. We should not take any of this for granted, particularly as the era of machine intelligence rapidly approaches. This places the responsibility on those entrusted with capabilities to help verify information.

What support & strategies think tanks need to counter it?

  • Collaboration is crucial for think tanks to counter political uncertainty.
  • However, to work together, we need to establish trust through uncomfortable relationships, engage in healthy conflicts and discussions, and avoid being hindered by polarization.
  • Think tanks should prioritize collaboration, healthy conflict, credibility, and transparency to overcome political polarization and make progress.
  • Collaboration takes various forms, with networks being an important but only one.
Funder support
  •  Providing support to organisations before a crisis occurs is essential for funders. This ensures that these organisations are capable of both withstanding and countering the crisis.
  • Dealing with uncertainty requires long-term thinking, investments, and a willingness to embrace new voices and ideas.
  • To gain a better understanding of problems and solutions, we need to think differently and include individuals with diverse perspectives. Restoring trust in expert opinions necessitates the inclusion of underrepresented groups in policy research.
  •  Even during uncertain times, it is possible to forecast the future, and think tanks play a pivotal role in this process. Think tanks should engage in more forward-thinking as a means of addressing political uncertainty.
  • Within the realm of think tanks, the metaphor of bridges needs to be reconsidered. Think tanks are not merely bridges between different actors and evidence; they have their own values and agendas. However, it is still possible to act as a bridge that aims to connect something specific, something that should be perceived and understood in a particular way.
  •  Difficulties in changing our minds may be related to the notion of independence, as our biases help us make sense of the world, causing us to reject what does not align with our worldview.
  • But do we also reject those who operate differently? This raises the question of independence versus neutrality in think tanks.
  •  It is important to acknowledge that think tanks are not neutral; they are driven by values. Free thinking is not free of values.
  • Credibility involves adhering to the rules of the game, and each sector has its own rules. In some contexts, the issue is whether you are left or right, in others, conservative or progressive, and in others, whether you are pro or anti-government. As we navigate the complex world of think tanks, we must be mindful of the language we use and the words we choose to define our values and beliefs.
Countering polarisation
  •  Social media, the fragmentation of media sources, and identity politics are factors contributing to political polarization. Think tanks can promote tools for constructive communication.
  • The role of honest brokering remains critical in advancing policymaking in contexts of high polarization: “Many decision makers have informed us that significant progress is achieved in non-political spaces, often behind closed doors, during these meetings.”


Day one: Wednesday 10 May 2023

9:00 - 10:00

Grab your welcome pack and a cup of coffee and meet fellow conference-goers.

10:00 - 10:30
Keynote 1: The uncertain world today

Patricia Lewis (United Kingdom) Acting Deputy Director, Research Director, Conflict, Science and Transformation at Chatham House.

10:30 -11:00
Coffee break
11:00 - 12:30
Parallel sessions

A. Thinktanking in times of political uncertainty

Anahide Pilibossian (APRI – Armenia), Sonja Stojanovic Gajic (Serbia), Dhananath Fernando (Avocata Institute – Sri Lanka) and Renata Skardziute-Kereselidze (Georgian Institute of Politics – Georgia)

This session will explore the external and internal-facing challenges for think tanks in unstable political environments.

B. New voices, new experts – evolving conversations

Fiona Moejes (Mawazo Institute – Kenya), Scarlett Varga (Bruegel – Belgium) and Denisse Rodriguez Olivari (Voceras – Peru)

It will explore the role of new voices (women, young researchers, typically underrepresented groups in policy research) in the way that the think tank industry can respond to the loss of trust in experts. Experiences from Africa, Latin America and Europe will illustrate the discussion and inform approaches to bring about deliberate change in the sector.

C. Working together: think tank cooperation amid political uncertainty

Sophie Pornschlegel (EPC – Belgium), Nader Kabbani (Middle East Council on Global Affairs – Qatar), Helena Hahn (EPC – Belgium) and Sherine Ghoneim (Economic Research Forum – Egypt)

This session will provide a forum for participants to share their experiences, ideas, and insights on think tank cooperation in times of political uncertainty, and to explore strategies for enhancing the effectiveness and sustainability of networks and coalitions. Cases from the Middle East, West Africa and Europe will be explored.

12:30 - 14:00
14:00 - 15:00
Plenary: Unpopular opinions
15:00 - 15:30
Keynote 2: New certainty - evidence and influence in a multipolar world

Goran Buldioski (Germany), Director of the Open Society Foundations Initiative for Europe.

15:30 - 16:00
Coffee break
16:00 - 17:30
Parallel sessions

A. Bursting the bubble: potentials and ways of public participation for think tanks

Franziska Hackenes (Germany), Weronika Perlinski (DGAP – Germany), Monika Lüke (DGAP – Germany), Chiara Rosselli (Apropos Group – Italy) and Fayyaz Yaseen (Accountability Lab – Pakistan).

This session deals with the importance and potential of reaching politically alienated publics by participatory events in times of political uncertainty.

B. Credibility construction: A de-politicised think tank industry?

Diane Stone (European University Institute – Italy) and Denisse Rodriguez Olivari (Voceras – Peru)

The session will address the ‘myth’ of think tank independence and why the TT sector promotes this (questionable) depoliticised image, and its probable effects – i.e., underwriting policy stability and paradigm maintenance. Rather than non-governmental, or quasi-independent, think tank are mostly ‘near-governmental’.

C. Does AI usher greater uncertainty in the sector?

Sonja Jalfin (Sociopublico – Argentina) and Enrique Mendizabal (OTT – Peru)

This session will go beyond the hype to discuss the most likely impact that AI will have on think tanks contexts and practice.In this session we will explore the practical opportunities and challenges that think tanks and the broader knowledge industry face and identify some interesting and promising efforts to stay ahead of AI developments.

17:30 - 18:00
Plenary: Roundup

Share your reflections and takeaways from the day's sessions.

Day two: Thursday 11 May 2023

9:00 - 10:00

Coffee and pre-conference catchups!

10:00 - 10:30
Keynote 3: The importance of forward thinking in navigating political uncertainty

Gala Diaz Langou (Argentina), Executive Director at the Center for the Implementation of Public Policies for Equity and Growth.

10:30 - 11:00
Coffee break
11:00 - 12:30
Parallel sessions

A. Depolarising public debates – the role of think tanks in developing transformative communication

Ivor Chipkin (New South Institute – South Africa), Igor Bandovic (Belgrade Centre for Security Policy – Serbia) and Jessica Espey (University of Bristol – UK)

This session will delve into the roots of political polarisation and explore how think tanks can develop transformative and de-polarising narratives. The opening speakers will discuss the causes of polarisation in public debates, and how think tanks can foster more productive communication.

B. Futures thinking workshop: bringing citizens along through inclusive approaches to futures

Krizna Gomez (Netherlands) and Reema Patel (Ipsos – UK)

It will explore practical approaches for think tanks to use to creatively engage and involve citizens and members of the public in imaginaries and narratives about (a more stable) future? Cases from the UK, Colombia and Seychelles will inform the discussion.

C. Experts’ trustworthiness in a post-truth world

Christian Acemah (Uganda National Academy of Sciences – Uganda), Celia Nalwadda (Uganda National Academy of Sciences – Uganda) Marcel Mballa-Ekobena (UK), Katy Murray (Cast from Clay – UK) and Aïda Ndiaye (Meta – UK)

This session will provide a neutral platform for participants to candidly discuss opportunities to counter misinformation and disinformation.

12:30 - 14:00
14:00 - 15:00
Plenary: How should funders support think tanks in times of political uncertainty?

During this session, funders will reflect on what they have heard during the conference. They will attempt to: Summarise what they see as the main challenges related to political uncertainty faced by think tanks; reflect on how they own strategies and practices support (or not) think tanks in these contexts; and suggest new ways of working with think tanks in the future.

All participants will have a chance to ask questions, share their own views and offer additional recommendations for action.

Discussion kick-starters: Kristin Corbett (IDRC – Canada); Susanne Zels (Bosch – Germany); Savior Mwambwa (Global Programs, Open Society Foundations New York – United States)

Moderator: Clara Richards (OTT – Argentina)

15:00 - 15:30
Keynote 4: Strategies for think tanks in a shifting global geopolitical landscape

Olumide Abimbola (Germany), Executive Director of the Africa Policy Research Institute.

15:30 - 16:00
Coffee break
16:00 - 17:30
Parallel sessions

A. Working politically: evidence users in times of crisis

Emily Hayter (OTT – UK), Laura Boeira (Veredas Institute – Brazil), Agnes Titriku (African Centre for Parliamentary Affairs – Ghana), Celia (Uganda National Academy of Sciences – Uganda) and Kuranda Morgan (Nesta – UK) are the speakers.

This session aims to bring the practical experiences and needs of evidence users into the conference.

B. Regional meetings

Andrea Baertl (On Think Tanks – Peru)

The aim is to create a space for participants from the same regions to meet, share impressions and consider how they may continue to network, collaborate or cooperate in the future.

C. Policy and bringing order to (ethical) debates

Hans Gutbrod (Germany)

What should think tanks have to do with ethics? On consideration, it turns out that many policy issues can be stuck because of deep and lasting disagreements in society. These disagreements can appear fundamental – and yet, an ethical ordering of the issues at play can sometimes make it possible to come to some kind of accommodation. This talk will focus on the particular contentious question of how to deal with thorny legacies of the past

17:30 - 18:00
Marketplace of Ideas award winners and final roundup

Keynote speakers

Patrica Lewis

Patrica Lewis

Chatham House (United Kingdom)

View 'Patrica Lewis' profile
Goran Buldioski

Goran Buldioski

Open Society Foundations (Germany)

View 'Goran Buldioski' profile
Gala Diaz Langou

Gala Diaz Langou

CIPPEC (Argentina)

View 'Gala Diaz Langou' profile
Olumide Abimbola

Olumide Abimbola

Africa Policy Research Institute (Germany)

View 'Olumide Abimbola' profile