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Watch YOUR space 2.0

In ’Watch YOUR Space’ I argued that open innovation would provide a new strategic solution for think tanks. I suggested the think net model as a way to keep think tanks on the cutting edge of production and communication of policy relevant, research-based evidence in an increasingly globalised and competitive context. Using this model, the think tank can link knowledge and practice.

The model makes some assumptions (as pointed out in the resulting comments): that all members have the capacity to undertake high quality research and communications; and that ideas from think tanks can, and do, spread virally. In discussing these assumptions, I’ll also look at the communication of ideas, adding value to knowledge through networks and the need to develop strategic partnerships between users and producers of knowledge.

The key message is that the value of the think net lies in its capacity to participate in multiple marketplaces of ideas between users and producers, bridging the gaps between them.

First, as highlighted by Stephen Yeo (who came up with the concept of think nets – and runs one, the CEPR), a think net requires its members to have access to the necessary systems, competencies and skills for high quality research and communications. The model is a knowledge-based partnership where each member fulfils a specific role. Just as in airline code sharing arrangements, where members rely on each other to deliver passengers, think nets rely on their partners to develop and deliver the best and most appropriate knowledge.

Second, the model also assumes that the ideas and concepts in which think tanks trade do not spread like viruses. According to a recent study by HP Labs, ideas tend to decrease in intensity and quality over time and distance. This makes sense – remember the game Chinese whispers? Ideas are shared between people with common backgrounds, views and spaces. The farther from that common bond, the less likely it is for ideas to survive in their original state.

For the social epidemic theory to work, ideas need to stick. To succeed, think tanks need to start crucial chain reactions.

Chance may help but reaching the tipping point, when research naturally leads to practice, is a matter of strategic opportunism. The think net needs not only skilled research partners (for their ideas) but also well connected ones (for their networks).

The potential Catch-22 is that the think net itself might need to develop and maintain the right systems, competencies and skills among its partners (and not just assume they exist) to maintain the links and create the chain reaction. But for many think tanks in a resource-shy context, the think net is the very system through which they want to access those competencies and skills.

What is more, for the chain reaction to take place, each member of the network needs to innovate and add value at every step. This will ensure the message remains relevant and appealing as it passes from one member – and context – to another. To be an engine of innovation and value creation, a think net needs to foster creativity. A healthy degree of competition between partners, as in airlines code sharing alliances, would encourage new ideas, while strategically identified challenges would give them focus.

However, uncontrolled competition is not desirable. The roles of the various members of the new partnership need to be clearly defined. In a global think net, some partners may focus on producing locally relevant knowledge and others on aggregating it at the global level. Some may influence local policy processes and others, global ones.

Over the last three years ODI has been working with partners around the world on a number of policy challenges through action research projects. One of these challenges was aid architecture reform. A number of partners in the Evidence-based Policy in Development Network (ebpdn) set out to find new ways to join the debate and influence it from a southern perspective. A result was the Forum on the Future of Aid (FFA), an online community that has developed as an independent global initiative. Here, each member can potentially contribute a local idea and give it global relevance through the network, and vice versa. In both cases, the added relevance reflects the value-add.

As in the case of the FFA, challenges in a policy think net must be policy relevant. The choice of internal and external links for the think net is also important. These links should involve research institutions as well as policy-making institutions. Strategically, a think tank could position itself to be different and necessary to both, maximising its opportunities of engagement with these various research and policy actors.

This maximum engagement space is found where the think net stretches across a wide range of marketplaces of ideas (between producers and users) – beyond the reach of individual think tank members. Each marketplace could focus on a theme (e.g. humanitarian policy, public finances or rural development) or a space (e.g. a geographic region, a policy or a methodology or discipline). The think net allows its members to exchange ideas across these markets. ODI’s Lessons from Latin America meeting series, for example, does this by identifying lessons from the region that are relevant for others; cross-cutting issues such as gender, human rights or climate change contribute to this exchange of ideas between often unrelated sectors.

Because the think net can stretch beyond the boundaries of a traditional think tank, it has potential access to more of these marketplaces.

The marketplace of ideas concept has been pioneered and developed by the multi-sector Innocentive initiative partnership. The initiative features a series of marketplaces arranged by disciplines and pavilions, that aim to bring seekers (of solutions) and solvers together.

One of these is the Rockefeller Foundation’s Accelerating Innovation for Development initiative where those seeking solutions to global development challenges find those with the answers. For instance: a milling machine was redesigned so that it could finely grind materials with a higher moisture and oil content and grind dry grains as needed.

Other areas where the role of international development think tanks is clearly relevant could include policy-making bottlenecks, global logistical nightmares, research communications, and monitoring and evaluating the impact of research on policy etc.

A think net can bring these marketplaces together to provide multi-layered solutions for global and local policy actors.

Let me stress some of the key points I have tried to make in these posts, and incorporate some of the points made by the contributors to the discussion:

  • New ICTs have facilitated the appearance of an increasing number of knowledge producers;
  • Not all of this readily available knowledge is evidence-based or useful;
  • It has become increasingly difficult for the users of knowledge to find what is most relevant to them;
  • Think tanks and other knowledge brokers play an important filtering role, but their capacity to bridge knowledge and practice is threatened by these new knowledge producers, especially as it will be harder to navigate a growing number of knowledge outputs and policy challenges;
  • To be relevant, relationships between knowledge actors (producers, brokers and users) need to add value;
  • They must find ways to foster creativity and innovation, finding solutions to increasingly complex problems.

The think net model is a possible solution: a network of think tanks with value-adding links to key knowledge producers and users, leading their marketplaces of ideas, and able to bridge between knowledge and policy.

Still to think about:

  • Is this just a-n-o-t-h-e-r way of calling research policy institutes networks?
  • Are the members of the think net individuals or organisations? Or both?
  • Who is in and who is out of the think net? And why?
  • Is a secretariat or leading member necessary?
  • Can we possibly (given developments in ICT) assign clear roles to think net members, with clear boundaries between them?