OTT Conference 2021: think tanks and change

Organised by On Think Tanks
Event type Event
Location Online
Start date 20 April 2021 16:00 CEST
End date 22 April 2021 18:00 CEST

Welcome to the OTT Conference 2021, co-hosted by the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

This year, the conference’s main topic is think tanks and change.

Last year we hosted our first online conference, which we split into three online events. We welcomed hundreds of thinktankers, think tank scholars, funders and policymakers from around the world. You can read more about the 2020 events (and watch the recordings) here.

As usual, our 2021 conference will include sessions organised by the OTT team and by partner and friend organisations. Read more about the line-up for the event below.

Day 1: 20 April
Think tanks and change

(All times in CEST = Berlin time)

Opening remarks, Enrique Mendizabal (OTT) and Daniela Schwarzer (DGAP)

16:10 – 17:00
Keynote and Q&A

From think tank to change hub
Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America

co-organised with the Brussels Binder

17:15 – 18:15
Parallel sessions

Parallel session 1: Changing think tanks
with Julia Pomares (CIPPEC, Argentina) and Karin von Hippel (RUSI, UK)

Karin and Julia will consider the paths that RUSI and CIPPEC have followed throughout their history. RUSI, of course, is 190 years old, while CIPPEC, has recently turned 20. Still, they have faced similar decision points in their histories: to adopt new agendas, internationalise, choose new leadership, etc.

Parallel session 2: Think tanks and democratic transitions
with Sonja Stojanovic Gajic (former director BCSP, Serbia) and Ignacio Irarrázaval (Centro de Políticas Públicas UC, Chile)

Sonja and Ignacio will consider the different roles that think tank can play during democratic transition as well as the impact these may have on them. In both Chile and Serbia think tanks played important roles in bringing about democratic change and today, as new both face new pressures to their democratic institutions, think tanks need to respond.

Parallel session 3: Think tanking in the new normal organised by the Think Tank Lab.
The Think Tank Lab is a project of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS). It is kindly supported by Stiftung Mercator and Robert Bosch Stiftung. Facilitation by Weronika Perlinski (DGAP)

What has changed for and in think tanks due to the pandemic? In a facilitated discussion, we will explore how the pandemic has changed the context (political processes, funding structures, etc.) of think tanks around the world and how they have responded with new products, changed work practices and by developing new competencies. In a facilitated discussion, participants will create a snapshot of what think tanking in the new normal means.

18:20 – 18:50
Closing remarks with keynote listeners
with Scarlett Varga (Bruegel, Belgium and the Brussels Binder) and Sherine Ghoneim (Economic Research Forum, Egypt)

Day 2: 21 April
Sessions organised by partner organisations

10:00 – 11:00
Building capacity and resilience of European think tanks, organised by the European Policy Centre (EPC), Brussels

Panelists: Fabian Zuleeg (EPC) and Sophie Pornschlegel (EPC)

How think tanks operate has a significant impact on democracy: they can support it by providing policymakers with evidence-based policy advice or undermine it by deliberately manipulating policymaking and public opinion. In addition, COVID-19 has created a volatile environment for think tanks, especially in terms of governance and financial resources. The well-being of the sector is thus more crucial than ever to ensure independence and ethical standards. In this interactive online session, we would like to discuss with other European thinktankers how to build capacity and resilience of the sector and, more specifically, propose the establishment of a “European Think Tank Centre” or “European Alliance of Independent Think Tanks”, which could advocate for the interests of the sector towards EU institutions, create a common framework of cooperation and joint ethical standards, and help support think tanks in European countries that have experienced democratic erosion.

Follow updates on Twitter: @epc_eu | @FabianZuleeg | @spornschlegel

11:00 – 12:00
Who is setting the agenda? Will there be a bottom up process post-Covid-19 recovery?

Speakers:  Karin Fernando (CEPA, Sri Lanka), Vaqar Ahmed ( SDPI, Pakistan). Facilitated by Annapoorna Ravichander (PAC India)

This session will focus on some of the emerging issues in the South Asia region for recovery after the pandemic. Who is setting the agenda? Karin Fernando will reflect on aspects of poverty and inequality in South Asia, looking at it from a multidimensional lens. She will share some salient features to highlight the threats the region faces, including the increase in educational barriers as we move towards more digital learning, access to health care in the midst of a pandemic, the impact on women and the gender gap, and the harder transition out of jobs that rely on natural resources. Vaqar Ahmed will discuss the key priorities of governments in South Asia post-pandemic,  the response of governments in the region to help overcome the inequality challenge, and the role Asian think tanks are playing in post-pandemic recovery.

11:40 – 13:00
African think tanks and the post-Covid-19 change: challenges and opportunities, organised by the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF)

Speakers: Paul Kariuki (Democracy Development Programme, South Africa), Eugenia Kayitesi (Institute of Policy Analysis and Research, Rwanda), and Chukwuka Onyekwena (Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa, Nigeria). Moderated by Barassou Diawara (African Capacity Building Foundation).

What are the main challenges faced by Africa think tanks in the new normal of post-Covid-19 era? What strategies and arrangements have think tanks in Africa put in place to be relevant in the new normal of post-Covid-19 era? What are the opportunities offered by the new normal of post-Covid-19 era in Africa?

In this session we will exchange ideas and experiences and propose a strategy and plan of action on how to better support think tanks to adapt to the post-Covid-19 changes imposed by the pandemic. We will share the key issues, challenges and (good and bad) practices around the experience of think tanks in adapting to the new normal. We will also share ideas and experiences on the initiatives undertaken and the practical solutions available to ensure that think tanks can continue to do business in the new way of working imposed by the pandemic. Finally, the session will outline specific actions towards ensuring the successful adaptation of think tanks to the changes required for the future.

13:00 – 14:00
Can thinking and planning for scaling the impact of research help bridge the research uptake-to-implementation gap?, organised by OTT

Speakers: Hayley Price-Kelly (IDRC), Kerry Albright (UNICEF), Simon Hearn (OTT) and Enrique Mendizabal (OTT)

In the past, most researchers focused their efforts on generating knowledge. Then, some took on the challenge to communicate their work and to make it more accessible – but that was it. Others have gone the extra mile and tried to get their research to be used in decision making – research uptake – but the boundary has been set here. Implementation is still beyond the reach of most policy researchers and think tanks. Thinking about scaling impact may help to break through this boundary.

But if researchers interested in uptake had to think about communications and engagement more broadly, those interested in scaling impact need to think about: partnerships and coordination (horizontal and vertical), capacity development, implementation gaps, political cycles (long term), the role of every possible actor involved, dynamic evaluation, etc.

In this session we will explore if thinking about scaling impact can help push the research uptake agenda forward.

Follow updates on Twitter: @ScalingScience | @onthinktanks

14:00 – 15:00
A bright future ahead: new participatory approaches to strategic foresight, organised by foraus and the Think Tank Hub Geneva

Speakers: Emily Munro (GCSP),  Andrina Frey (foraus), and Wailea Zuelch (foraus)

We are living in an increasingly unstable and unpredictable world. In the face of global challenges such as climate change, Covid-19 and social inequalities, a growing number of citizens, many of them young people, are disillusioned about both the future and the capacity of political systems to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. This makes it more necessary than ever to involve civil society in decision-making processes, to bridge the gap between science and policy and to prioritize long-term over short-term outcomes in political action.

Conveyed by the think tank foraus – Swiss Forum on Foreign Policy and the Think Tank Hub Geneva, this event aims to discuss the importance and potential of strategic foresight with a focus on participatory strategic foresight. Experts from foraus and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) will present the most recent development in the field using concrete examples drawn from ongoing projects. The session will include an interactive part which will allow participants to practically engage with foresight methodologies.

Follow updates on Twitter: @foraus | @ThinkTankHub_CH

14:00 – 15:00
Building back better: The role of Kenyan think tanks in supporting recovery from Covid-19, 
organised by the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA)

Panelists: Eliud Moyi (KIPPRA), James Kariuki (Kenya Medical Research Institute), Jared Owuor (Samuel Hall), Rachel Osendo (Kenya Law Reform Commission), and Frida Njogu (IDInsight)

This session will leverage on the outcomes of the Kenya Think tanks Symposium 2021, held the past 15 April. During this session, we will explore how Kenyan think tanks are building back their policy research and policy analysis infrastructure to enable them sustain their policy advisory capacity amidst Covid-19. The session will examine the re-orientation of think tanks in terms of changing how they design and develop their policy agenda, how they engage politicians and citizens, how they manage group competition, how they identify windows of opportunity, and how they lobby and advocate for policy influence. Finally, the event will examine how policy and law making was flexed and adapted to accommodate the Covid-19 crisis.

15:00 – 16:00
Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning as a force for change,
organised by the OTT MEL Community of Practice

Facilitators: Rebecca Kendall (R Street Institute), Claire Luzia Leifert (German Council on Foreign Relations, DGAP), Dena Lomofsky (Southern Hemisphere), Sarine Karajerjian (American University Beirut)

This is an interactive workshop to collaboratively explore how monitoring, evaluation and learning can become a force for change in think tanks: for individuals, programs, and organisations – rather than a dull and cumbersome bureaucratic task. We will share our lessons learned and tools from the Community of Practice of MEL practitioners and are curious to learn from your experiences. The results of the workshop will contribute to a blog series that we are planning to publish on the OTT blog.

15:00 – 16:00
Think tanks in a world of shifting political values, organised by Cast From Clay

Speakers: Aidan Muller (Cast From Clay), Natallia Nenarokamava (Cast From Clay), and guest panelists.

Think tankers operate in the marketplace of ideas – a market which flourishes in free, open, pluralistic societies. Until recently, democracy and the rule of law have been guarantors of these political values.

In the past 5 or 6 years, however, you could be forgiven for wondering if Western societies’ commitment to these values was faltering. The UK and the US have witnessed challenges to normal rules of governance. Italy, Poland and Hungary have embraced far-right nationalism. And the 2022 French presidential election is shaping up to be a plebiscite on mainstream politics.

To what extent does this reflect a genuine change in public attitudes towards traditional rules of governance? Have the public fallen out of love with democracy? Is this being driven by the public, or by the political elite? And what does this mean for think tankers?

This session will present a snap preview of research carried out by Cast From Clay, and will start to explore these questions.

15:00 – 16:00
Think tanks and service delivery: keeping up with changes in transparency and accountability, organised by OTT

Panelists: Kwame Owino (IEA Kenya), David Gomez Alvarez (Transversal Mexico), Alfonsina Peñaloza (Co-Impact). Facilitated by Julie LaFrance (OTT)

In a time of uncertainty with social, economic, environmental, and political turmoil across the globe, there is mounting public pressure from citizens for governments to be open and responsive to advance improvements in service delivery in a fair, equitable and transparent manner.  While civil society in many countries are facing a narrowing civic space and limits to freedom of expression, there is a critical role for think tanks to navigate this delicate space. In this session we will explore:

  • What roles are think tanks playing to hold governments accountable for transparent and equitable decision-making? 
  • To what extent can international donors play a role in supporting national think tanks while maintaining neutrality and not being perceived as meddling in national interests?
  • What creative / innovative opportunities exist for donors and think tanks to collaborate towards common goals in advancing transparency and  accountability values?

Join us to learn from the experiences of the Institute of Economic Affair (IEA)- Kenya and Transversal, a think tank in Mexico as well as to gain perspectives from Co-Impact,  a global philanthropic collaborative supporting locally-rooted coalitions working to achieve impact at scale in the Global South.

16:00 – 17:00
The impact of the pandemic and social justice movements on North-South research partnerships, organised by Alexander Wooley (AidData)

Panel participants: Norma Altshuler (Hewlett Foundation),  Rose Oronje (AFIDEP), and Mohammed Awal (Ghana Center for Democratic Development)

Events of the past fifteen months have proven to be both disruptive as well as an opportunity for re-thinking how and why we do what we do, and how we can do it better. This session will focus on North-South research partnership models and opportunities, and the benefits and challenges associated with them. The panel will discuss the practical pros and cons of different approaches, share promising practices, and offer thoughts on how these relationships might prosper as a changed world emerges from lockdown. We’ll also share questions we’re still grappling with, and invite audience views on them.

17:00 – 18:00
Think tanks and the power of imagination, organised by Soapbox

Speakers: Brian Reich (Author of The Imagination Gap and former Director of Policy Communications for Bloomberg 2020) and Rose Abdollahzadeh (Director of Research Partnerships, Chatham House).

In many ways, the role for think tanks is to map the pathways to a different future. Evidence is vital to this process – but it takes a leap of imagination to first of all ask ‘what if’. It takes imagination to explore big challenges from new and different perspectives. And it takes imagination to think about life in a different timeframe – or different place.

Imagination can also help think tanks better connect with audiences. To help them bring ideas and evidence to life in more relatable, understandable and wonderful ways. From video games to board games, fiction to film, creative thinking can transform policy research from the abstract to the real. And in ways that can speak to people more powerfully than data alone.

Hosted by Naomi Isaacs, brand strategist at the think tank design studio Soapbox, this session convenes a panel of leading policy communicators to inject an extra spark of imagination into day two of the conference.

17:30 – 18:45
Think tanks: global reach, global perspectives,
organised by Christopher Rastrick (University of Western Ontario, Canada) and Donald Abelson (Brian Mulroney Institute of Government and St. Francis Xavier University)

Speakers: Heidi Ullrich (ICANN), Karlyn Bowman (American Enterprise Institute), and Nana de Graaf (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)

With the recent release of the “Handbook on Think Tanks in Public Policy”, join several of the groundbreaking authors in exploring key discussions and debates within the think tank literature. Furthermore, this session will explore both practitioner and scholastic approaches to situating these organisations in the highly volatile and generation-defining public policy context of recent years. Hosted by the handbook’s editors—Don Abelson and Chris Rastrick—this session will take stock of the current discourse on think tanks, but will also offer ideas on where the literature could (or perhaps should) head.

Day 3: 22 April

14:00 – 15:30
Changing think tanks from within: Experiences from think tank intrapreneurs, organised by the Think Tank Lab.+

Speakers: Sarah Bressan (GPPI and the “Better Think Tanking” initiative), Claire Luzia Leifert (DGAP and the Think Tank Lab), Annapoorna Ravichander (PAC India), and Chiara Rosselli (Open European Dialogue, The German Marshall Fund of the United States)

Many of us sense that think tanks need to rethink the way they operate to leverage their potential and add value to the democratic policy process. In this session we want to focus on what can be done to change think tanks from within, even if you are not director of a think tank. The speakers will share their intrapreneurship strategies and lessons learned for change management out of three foreign policy think tanks of different size and age. We will discuss how we can change the way we work with policy-makers, how we can make our organizations more diverse, how an innovation unit can help to modernize a traditional think tank, and how a new initiative, the Think Tank Lab, wants to foster the co-creative advancement of the German think tank landscape by building a community of practice, a training program, and a toolbox for thinktankers. And we will want to hear from you: What do you think needs to change in our organisations? And what can each one of us do about it?

Follow updates on Twitter: @bressansar | @claireluzia | @C_Rosselli | @betterttank | @OEDialogue | @pacindia | @dgapev

16:00 – 17:30
Closing panel: The future of think tanks

with Dede Amanor-Wilks (Director of IEA Ghana), Daniela Schwarzer (DGAP, Germany), and Andrea Ordoñez (Southern Voice, Ecuador). Moderated by Sonia Jalfin (Sociopúblico, Argentina)

Think tanks have faced unprecedented pressures over the last year. Many have taken advantage of the opportunities presented by the pandemic to usher radical changes to their strategies and business models. Others have had to change to survive. Around them, new political, economic, social and technological trends are changing the environments in which they exist. How will think tanks respond and evolve over the next 100 years?

17:30 – 17:40
Closing remarks

Throughout the conference

During the online event, there will be several spaces open for participants to engage. These include:

  • Booths for partners to showcase recent work or projects
  • A networking space that randomly connects participants to each other – why not make new friends?
  • ‘Coffee rooms’ for participants to meet in smaller groups and discuss an issue of common interest
  • Chat function for the whole event which will allow participants to share resources with each other – including through direct messaging

This event is possible thanks to the support from the Hewlett Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, Mercator Stiftung, Universidad del Pacífico, and Soapbox.

Follow updates: #OTTConference