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Technology and think-tanks: two challenges

Technology and think-tanks: two challenges




A version of this article was published in the 2019-20 Annual Review of OnThinkTanks, containing articles by 20 authors on the theme of technology and think-tanks. All the artciles were written before the coronavirus crisis began. OnThinkTanks has a set of resources on the consequences of the crisis for think-tanks. See here.

The issue of ‘technology’ poses two kinds of questions to think-tanks.

First, on substance: what opportunities and problems does technical change create for the world, and how can technology be shaped and governed so that that the benefits are properly shared?

Second, on what we as think-tanks do: how will technical change affect the reach, messaging, opportunities for collaboration, and power hierarchies in policy formation?

On the first question, it is easy to paint a dystopian picture of fast-approaching ‘singularity’ – the point at which artificial intelligence becomes cleverer than us, and probably decides that we 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 Fortnite or browsing Facebook. There is a flourishing industry of fiction and non-fiction books predicting break-down along these lines.

On the other side of the coin, technology has transformed human possibilities and can contribute further: 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: tackling climate change, for example, 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 which 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 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 Government of India. However, it is essential that think-tanks press for genuinely global participation in 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. On the supply side, the barriers to entry for knowledge workers have fallen, as the internet makes research more easily accessible.  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 bandwith? On the demand side, policy-makers are working faster, and often more informally. Think-tanks need to respond. Never mind the website and the regular supply of briefing papers. Which think-tanks, these days, do not live-stream meetings to the desk top monitors in Parliament or Government? Which researchers do not have a Twitter account?

Here, too, however, there are risks. In an age of media manipulation and fake news, the question of ‘Whose Voice Counts?’ and whose voice is real becomes ever more pertinent. For think-tanks, ‘brand’ becomes a pre-eminent 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. Technology can encourage think-tank researchers to forget the world, and the ultimate clients 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, probably all of them, are driven by a social mission. That implies contact and engagement, not research and policy-making by remote control.

Governance and management issues also follow. Boards need to ask for regular horizon-scanning and strategy revision, to take account of changing options with regard to both substance and work planning. Managers need to build changing context 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 conventional frames.

The ecosystem of think-tanks is highly heterogeneous, in resources and skills, as well as in many other ways. Not every think-tank will focus with laser intensity on technical change. Nor will every think-tank want to turn the 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.

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