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Thursday, 6 December 2018

Think-tanks are having an existential crisis (FT)

A 27 November 2018 article in the Financial Times, "Think-tanks are having an existential crisis", caught my attention. It makes perfect sense in the world of Brexit and Trump which are characterized by fake newspost-truth politics, and the rejection of expert advice.

My recent blogs on the future 7 Belief systems come to a similar conclusion. In the future 7 Belief systems, the future Power dimension appears to be (much) stronger than the future Knowledge dimension. Hence, Knowledge seems to be losing from Power.

It's also tempting to link this future development to Plato's 5 regime types in which democracy is succeeded by tyranny. My 2018 blog, Plato's 5 regime types, outlines this link in a diagram.

Moreover, countries can be characterized by (not) having achieved the stage of Needs (Africa), Wants (China), or Beliefs (USA, western Europe). No civilization seems to have ever achieved the 4th stage of Awakening.

The Great Filters in the rise and fall of civilizations appear to be climate changepandemics, inadequate technological innovation, and - perhaps - the belief that Power is stronger than Knowledge. Please see my related blogs:
2017: Civilizations before 4000 BC and Black Death
2018: Knowledge = Power and the Great Filter in civilisations (part 5).

Last but not least, facts (knowledge) are losing from opinions (beliefs) in the Beliefs stage. Please see my related blogs:
2016: why are opinions stronger than facts?
2018: why are beliefs stronger than intuition, imagination and even knowledge?
2018: what prevents societies from achieving an Awakening?

The November 2018 FT article below suggests that the future may be closer than we like to think.  

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FT title: Think-tanks are having an existential crisis

FT subtitle: The brain trusts are starting to wonder what they are really for

"It reads like the ultimate in navel gazing. Think-tanks, those repositories of sharp, analytical brains, are confronting a new challenge: themselves. The sector is noted for its breezy intellectual confidence — there is no question of policymaking that cannot be answered with a crisp executive summary or a list of punchy bullet points. But it is now going through something of a crisis of confidence. 

So at least argues Robin Niblett, head of Chatham House, one of the grandest think-tanks of them all. In a recent essay and event — a think-tank session on think-tanks, if you like — he offered a clear-sighted analysis of a sector under siege. He diagnosed problems including overcrowding; declining credibility; lack of transparency, particularly around funding, and being increasingly out of touch. The threat is that in a post-truth world where “feeling” trumps all, collections of sober-minded technocrats devising smart solutions to the great questions of our age are becoming irrelevant. Ouch. 

It’s all something of a comedown for a corner of public life that prides itself on a classy pedigree. While claims can be made for brain trusts reaching back in time — some cite the Jixia Academy in China (established 318BC) as the pioneering institution — modern think-tankery is generally judged to have begun around a century ago, when the likes of Chatham House and, in the US, Brookings, Carnegie and the Council on Foreign Relations were founded. They shared common features: set up by the private sector, all were committed to the promotion of peace and ordered international relations through the application of objective analysis. There was also an atmosphere of informal clubbability. 

That changed over the following decades. The cold war, and later its end, fired an expansion. The sector now numbers thousands of institutions, most of them in the US. The range of policy expertise and ideological orientation grew. For some budgets ballooned, turning small, quasi-academic outfits into multimillion dollar enterprises. Think-tanks became handy vehicles of expression for the powerful and wealthy, for whom they also lend intellectual kudos and respectability. 

The role and character of think-tanks also evolved. Like the British constitution as described by Bagehot, they developed “dignified” and “efficient” aspects. Dignified in that they brought sanctuary, titles and status to those who once were. Efficient as a training ground and holding pen for policymakers going in or coming out of government. Youthful energy — and smarts — worked alongside snowy-haired experience and grandeur. At best it was a combination that had the power to shape policy thinking, providing politicians with the ideas and even ready-made plans, for legislation. 

Think-tanks also developed their own culture and language, played out at conferences and retreats punctuated by panels, keynotes, breakout sessions and networking lunches conducted in a common language: challenges are ever present, opportunities there to be balanced by risks, while thinking should be blue-sky and certainly out of the box. And, did anyone mention networks? 

All this, it seems, is now at risk. For high-minded and analytical, read elitist and slow. For exclusive pillar of the Western-led international order, read just another voice in a fast and furious market place of opinion and proposals. (Everyone can be a policy wonk in 280 characters.) 

But the gloom may be misplaced. Think-tanks, after all, relish a challenge. In Washington, Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute recently convened a bipartisan project with the “policy shop”, Opportunity America, aimed at addressing urgent policy areas overlooked in giddier times (translation: America’s working class). Niblett says think-tanks have to get out of their technocratic mindset and “think big”, expanding their field of operations to take in under-explored areas such as faith. But they should also stay true to their purpose of intense debate with rigorous analysis. This may be out of fashion but it may be needed more than ever. 

Put another way, the problem has been identified. The solutions are being crafted into easy-to-grasp points. And coming soon, no doubt, to a roundtable near you." 

Notes:
- FT: "This article has been amended to clarify that Brookings and the AEI were co-conveners of a project with Opportunity America"
- LO: I have added several URL's for clarification purposes.

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