Give thanks for think tanks?
This can be read as a justification for a plug. The plug is for a series of events that I’m running at the Science Gallery in Dublin, exploring the role of social science in R&D, innovation and job creating economies. The first event is tomorrow (8th October) and features Navi Radjou, Executive Director of the Centre for India & Global Business at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. He is going to be talking about customer-centric innovation and drawing on case studies from Nokia and Microsoft’s work in India. He first came to my attention when he wrote a piece about why companies should hire more anthropologists not engineers. I like people who write things like that….
The series is detailed here; if you’re in Dublin tomorrow night, be there or be square.
Anyway, now for the justification:
After a recent trip to London I boarded the plane back to Dublin convinced of something that, until that point, had been a mere inkling. Ireland is missing a vital infrastructure for the creation, discussion and dissemination of ideas, and plans for renewal, change, re-invigoration. Simply put, what Ireland seems to lack is that layer of wonks, policy jocks and analysts known as think tanks.
Whatever your political persuasion, and whatever axe you have to grind, it is likely that you can find a lawn on which to park your think tank. They may wax and wane, and be intimately linked to one party or direction on the political compass, but politicians (in government or the wilderness) and policy makers can be assured that their policies will be unpicked and interrogated, or upheld, through the work of think tanks.
And, for a party long out of power (the Conservatives now, but Labour before them), there can be a certain reliance on think tanks to provide ideas for tackling the key issues of the day (modernisation of public services in the context of a public spending crisis), and a cadre of wonks, idea-makers and idealists to help shape their pitch for power, and their plans for government.
And, since think tanks rely on commercial money aplenty to fund their research – think tanks create a platform for interaction between those who aspire to power and those who want their interests to be voiced and their opinions to be heard.
I sensed excitement and energy in the air that day in London where politicians (just like in Dublin) are struggling with some unprecedented challenges. The widespread belief in the imminence of the Conservatives’ return to power is energising think tanks – and others – creating a whiff of urgency for fresh new ideas and approaches to what are long term problems or challenges (ageing, obesity, climate change), short or mid-term priorities (health, transport, prisons, education, the financial services sector). The imperative for new ideas, fresh approaches and novel thinking was concentrating minds and in turn likely providing politicians of all hues with a veritable banquet of ideas.
There is lots I don't know or understand about Irish politics (and for my ignorance I can only apologise). But what I do know is that I've yet to discover any think thanks providing such a service for the Irish political class. What this means, it seems to me, is that said Irish political class, and its civil servants, seem to carry a significant weight of responsibility for reinvigorating their own agendas, policies and perspectives.
They are, in a sense, both gamekeeper and poach. And in times of challenging circumstances, when politicians find it hard to get out ahead of events and beyond tomorrow's headlines (when innovative thinking is required) there is little infrastructure to support them in this task. Whatever their faults, think tanks can think beyond the everyday, beyond the short term and look beyond the horizon for examples of policy in practice that existing or future governments can deploy.
I'm perhaps guilty in this commentary of falling foul of Robert Frost's dictum which is that a critic as someone who pisses in a stream and thinks that they've created a river. Maybe I'm overstating the problem (and the contribution of think tanks to political and public life), or understating the alternative infrastructures for ideas and enablement that exist in Ireland. But I know that Demos once though of setting up a 'branch' in Dublin and I've yet to stumble upon some entity in Ireland that invites me to topical debate, launches of interesting pamphlets and gives me access to the civilising and energising ideas I so well remember from my time living and working in London.
Perhaps then I've spotted a gap in the market. But is there a market in the gap. I suspect there is….the next question then is what to do about it. Ask a think tank for advice perhaps?