On January 28th, 2021, The Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) of the Lauder Institute, at The University of Pennsylvania, organized "2021 Global Why Think Tanks Matter Forum." The Forum was a unique event that brought together 430 think tanks, from all the over the world, and over 800 participants. On the event, TTCSP released its benchmark "Global Go To Think Tank Index Report" for the year 2020.
The Liberal Democracy Institute (LDI) had the honor to serve on the planning committee of the forum. Our director, Dalia Ziada, spoke at one of the panels discussing why think tanks matter now and in the future and how think tanks can become smarter, better, faster and more agile, innovative and tech savvy.
Check the full presentation manuscript below, or watch the video above. You may also watch video for the full forum HERE
Global Think Tanks and the Sweet Spot Challenge
presentation by Dalia Ziada, LDI Director
What think tanks are?
Think tanks are the vehicles of knowledge. They are responsible for turning random information and quantitative data into a comprehendible format that decision-makers, in both public and private sectors, can make use of to make people’s lives better.
The sweet spot challenge:
For think tanks to remain important and relevant, in today’s fast and complicated world, they need to meet the sweet spot challenge. The sweet spot challenge is about keeping the perfect balance on five issues:
1. Keeping the sweet spot between academia and journalism or mass media. Think tanks are not media institutions responsible for announcing or disseminating information to the public. Neither, they are academic institutions that is dedicated to do specialized research that only specialized academicians would be interested in, regardless of its relevance to time or location. Rather, think tanks should be invested in keeping pace with current affairs that is happening where they operate, so they can intervene with quick response, enhanced by knowledge and data that helps decision-makers and public citizens understand what is happening and how to deal with it.
2. The sweet spot between specialized audience and general audience. Think tanks are not only working for or with policymakers or political elite in a certain country or region. They should also engage with the public ordinary citizens. They can use them as resources of information, but they also should produce material that can educate the general public / public opinion about current affairs and why decision-makers had to make certain decisions at certain times. This makes citizens more active and makes think tanks act as the perfect channel of communication between citizens and government, which will eventually lead to a better world.
3. The sweet spot between being friendly with decision-makers and being critical of the decisions they make. That is the issue of keeping neutrality and avoiding bias on all levels of the work of the think tank, from administration to the production of research and the process of marketing proposed ideas and policies. Unfortunately, we have seen a lot of bias in the past five years among think tanks, especially in the US and the Middle East, that was somehow affected by the complicated political affairs happening here and there. Remaining neutral and non-biased has become a struggle and very difficult to do for many think tanks. The polarization in our political communities is easily leaking into our think tanks. That is dangerous and needs to be openly addressed by the management of think tanks to keep their credibility against political biases. We may cooperate to make some kind of a code of ethics to be voluntarily followed by think tanks worldwide.
4. To keep the sweet spot between what is local, what is regional, and what is international. Most troubles facing our world today are global. They affect all human kind, regardless of their region or country. Think tanks method of work is usually either topic based (focusing on a specific topic) or regional based (focusing on a specific region or country). The pandemic came to remind us that this method of work needs to change a little bit. So, think tanks should consider adding some programs to their agendas that are of a global nature, that engages all human kind and is beneficial to all humans. This of course requires stronger cooperation between think tanks; which leads us to point five.
5. Keeping the sweet spot between using social media and being consumed by social media. Most think tanks, old and new, have very good presence on social media platforms, especially on Twitter and YouTube. However, their presence does not mean that they are actually making the best use of those platforms or appropriately engaging with their audience there. Usually, they do not comment or reply to comments. They speak at their audience not with their audience. This way they are losing a powerful tool that could enable them to do their job of transferring knowledge better.
On the other hand, the think tankers (that is the researchers working at think tanks) are also having strong presence on social media platforms, especially Twitter. However, they almost always fall into the trap of being consumed by social media, rather than using it as a tool. Unfortunately, I have seen some researchers working for reputable think tanks, using random information posted on Twitter in their research to support their arguments! A few of them do not even make the effort of checking the credibility or reliability of the information posted on these social platforms. That means, think tanks and think tank-ers need to seek training on how to appropriately use social media for the benefit of their work. This is something Dr. Mcgann and his team are trying to do for us.
Right now, at the Liberal Democracy Institute, I am working with my colleagues on solving this particular issue. We are attempting to create a social hub (some kind of a huge virtual laboratory) wherein think tanks and the researchers working at them could use to exchange ideas and start discussions on the topics they are working on. I know this is very ambitious, but not impossible.
End of Presentation