The End of Think Tanks and the Beginning of Thinking

Jonathan Rowson
Oct 26th, 2020

In a busy world where people feel the need to place you before you have time to describe yourself, ‘define or be defined’ is a useful motto.

But it’s a tough challenge.

I am the Director of an organisation, Perspectiva, which is often described as ‘a think tank’; that’s not what I think and feel we are, and this post is about explaining why, and beginning to articulate an alternative.

Imagine a straightforward conversation:

Q: ‘What do you do?’

A: ‘I work in a think tank’.

Q: ‘What does that mean?’

A: ‘It means I go into a tank and think’.

It sounds ridiculous because it is ridiculous. I’ve never been in a tank (and I’m curious…) but I can’t imagine it’s conducive to good thinking. Even if think tanks are not about that kind of tank, but more like a receptacle or container of thought, the associations are not much better; it evokes supposedly brilliant minds huddling in a room together and going wild with flip charts, highlighter pens, and sticky notes, changing the world one reverberating insight at a time. And then there is the US verbal vernacular of ‘to tank’ as in to fail, which implies think tanks might be places where thinking actually tanks.

Whichever way you look at it, think tank seems an unhelpful notion today. Perhaps in the late twentieth century, the associations were better — the ideal of elite technocracy, the best and the brightest huddling to generate influential ideas and driving them through a protracted policy process with tank-like force, gave think tanks the vestige of influence, excitement, and even prestige.

Those outdated associations are still influential today, and many enter the ‘think tank’ world with high hopes of achieving a particular kind of career chic. The aim is to be a rising star of the intelligentsia, ideally with the ear of a powerful politician or five. The thing tank ecology is different in the US, and I can only speak to my experience in the UK, but here there is nothing better than to be heard on political prime time, for which, in the UK at least, The BBC Radio 4 Today Programme is totemic. And yet I’ve been on the Today program four times, and the world was never noticeably different afterward.

The underlying issue is that the funding and influence model of think tanks is otiose. People working in think tanks in the UK, even at quite senior levels, are invariably obliged to be lobbyists to a greater or lesser extent, however noble their intentions. Despite some awareness of systemic and paradigmatic influences, the impact model rarely reflects that awareness. Instead, the modus operandi entails having an idea that speaks to a specific problem within a limited frame of reference, raising funds to literally buy time to make sense of it, and then scrambling for attention and influence and hoping for the best. In the UK there is also no practice of merger and acquisition but lots of new entrants, which often leads to funders giving smaller grants for a wider set of smaller ideas, to the detriment of all. (And that’s leaving larger critiques of Philanthropy, such as those made by Anand Giridharadas, to one side).

In practice, the think tank experience, in the UK at least, typically means labouring for months to get seconds or minutes if you’re very lucky — on national news, hoping that politicians may then talk about the report recommendations, whether or not they actually read the report, and then, on very rare occasions, they may even help to implement some of them, but usually with amendments that you didn’t want. I exaggerate, but not much. Not just in the UK, but more generally, I believe most think tank effort is wasted not just because political events wash away imagined influence, but because the root causes of our problems are much deeper than policy.

There was a time when, for some at least, changing the world and changing policy felt like the same thing. But not anymore, and that’s partly because governments are not in control. We live in a time of surveillance capitalism, ambient plutocracy, and nuclear hurricanes. Ecology, technology, and finance are transnational actors. More to the point they are the active ingredients that indirectly but profoundly shape culture, which is the setting in which the plot of policy is politically constructed.

In Thought as a System (1992), David Bohm put the deeper challenge like this:

‘The general tacit assumption in thought is that it’s just telling you the way things are and that it is not doing anything — that ‘you’ are inside there, deciding what to do with the information. But I want to say that you don’t decide what to do with the information. The information takes over. It runs you. Thought runs you. Thought, however, gives the false information that you are running it, that you are the one who controls thought, whereas actually thought is the one which controls each one of us’.

What Bohm is alluding to is the need for a kind of applied epistemology to find (and keep finding) a vantage point outside our prevailing idea of thinking. We need to rethink the whole endeavour of thinking, but we won’t be able to do that with ‘think tanks’ where the implicit idea is that thinking is autonomous and insightful, but in fact, it is often highly determined by funding opportunism and prevailing political trends.

Policy still has its place as a pathway to law, and therefore to scale, but for my organisation, Perspectiva, it is neither the main means nor the main end of our activity. For all these reasons and more, when Perspectiva is described as ‘a think tank’ I wince. And yet you have to be something, and although I may yet reach a pithier version of who we are, here is what I currently say:

Perspectiva is an applied philosophy of education and an urgent one hundred year project.

The word education here could also be learning, or development, but of all these signifiers, education is the most grounded in the civic, the institutional and the political, and least likely to be co-opted by corporate training. Our real focus is Bildung, which translates roughly as ‘transformative civic education’, but education at its best is all of those things anyway, and the roots of the word are beautiful, so, for now, we’re sticking with education. But of course, we don’t mean schooling as such — we mean whichever cultural, technological and institutional means society has available to take responsibility for human development in a dynamic societal context.

The urgency is about our ecological emergency. ‘Emergency!’ risks sounding shrill, but it’s all too real, as people recovering from floods in the UK and fires in Australia know. Whatever our metric, risk appetite, or questionable deadline of choice, the climate conclusion is always the same: we have no time to lose.

Yet the very idea of emergency only gets us so far, so fast. Emissions continue to rise because we cannot disentangle climate collapse from the broader crisis of civilisation, including the fact that there’s no ‘we’ as such, and many of our problems arise through hysteresis — things already in motion that cannot easily be undone. In almost every part of the world, our scope for action on the emergency is constrained by our forms of governance, our political economy, our imperious technology, our institutional logics and our social norms.

Alas, all rallying cries for transformation arise in cultures and psyches riddled with immunities to change. That conundrum is the meta-crisis lying within, between and beyond the emergency and the crisis, and it’s educational, epistemic and spiritual in nature.

To put it simply:

Emergency says: Act!

Crisis says: Transform!

Meta-crisis says: How?

Responding to the meta-crisis is the figurative ‘one hundred-year project’ of cultural transformation, which entails better understanding who and what we are, individually and collectively, in order to be able to fundamentally alter what we are living for, why and how.

The challenge of our time is renaissance; an epistemic, cultural and spiritual renewal. That kind of renewal, however, feels both necessary and impossible in a context of economic, political and technological upheaval and cascading ecological collapse.

In his essay, Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty (2014), the German Philosopher Thomas Metzinger encapsulated the premise of our challenge:

‘Conceived of as an intellectual challenge for humankind, the increasing threat arising from self-induced global warming clearly seems to exceed the present cognitive and emotional abilities of our species. This is the first truly global crisis, experienced by all human beings at the same time and in a single media space, and as we watch it unfold, it will also gradually change our image of ourselves, the conception humankind has of itself as a whole. I predict that during the next decades, we will increasingly experience ourselves as failing beings’.

Failing beings? Maybe. But there is hope in Metzinger’s premise — ‘the present cognitive and emotional abilities of our species’. Those abilities of our species are not fixed. We know, as well as we know anything, that human beings can grow and change for the better. Education broadly conceived is how we do that, and the philosophy of education is about the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ of that ‘how’, which becomes applied when we decide to start making sense of it in relation to ‘who’ ‘where’ and ‘when’.

Social entrepreneur Paul Hawken’s framing of our predicament in Drawdown (2017) helps indicate why this kind of endeavour should be the curriculum of civilisation:

‘The build-up of greenhouse gases we experience today occurred in the absence of human understanding…That can tempt us to believe that global warming is something that is happening to us — that we are the victims of a fate that was determined by actions that preceded us. If we change the preposition, and consider that global warming is happening for us — an atmospheric transformation that inspires us to change and reimagine everything we make and do — we begin to live in a different world…We see global warming as…a pathway that awakens creativity, compassion and genius’.

We need to respond to the emergency, yes, but there is also a crisis with inner and outer dimensions, and layers of complexity that cannot be wished away. The challenge is less about maintenance and more about renewal. Fundamental questions about who we are, and what and how we need to know, have at be at the heart of the social enterprise of politics, economics and culture — which is why we need an applied philosophy of education.

Perspectiva’s Transformative Education Alliance (TEA) therefore aims to devise new methodologies and institutional niches that respond to a fundamental shift: The significance of the distinction between formal (eg schools and universities) informal (eg clubs and societies) and tacit (eg TV and social media) education has almost completely broken down. We are therefore asking what teaching and learning (not necessarily ‘schools’) should look like today in response to four of our most profound interlocking crises, which together encapsulate our meta crisis (thanks to Perspectiva Associate Zak Stein for an earlier version of this distillation):

Intelligibility — what is going on? (epistemic/cultural)

Legitimacy — who has the authority to lead and decide and why? (political/legal)

Capability — do we have what it takes? (educational/economic/anthropological)

Meaning — what ultimately matters? (spiritual/religious)

Perspectiva believes these questions, properly understood, invariably arise together, and we cannot answer them properly without creating new forms of life in the process. TEA is already underway with work on The Digital Ego (Tom Chatfield and Dan Nixon), Wise Activism (Anthea Lawson), Spiritual Formation (Mark Vernon), Experimental Facilitation (Pippa Evans) and The Politics of Waking Up (Indra Adnan), and we hope to build the alliance through external relationships in due course.

TEA is one of Perspectiva’s three main strands of work. We also have a publishing arm, Perspectiva Press, specialising in short books that provide ‘soul food for expert generalists’ and help social innovators advance their causes through their authorship. We have already published The World we Create, and four books are planned for publication later in 2020.

Perspectiva also has overall responsibility for Emerge, which is a web, podcast and events initiative; our ‘who’ and part of our target audience, a network of networks working on the meta-crisis, with centres of activity currently in Berlin, Stockholm, and London. Emerge hosted its first London evening event in collaboration with The Experimental Thought Company on February 18th, and we have two further events planned for 17th March and 21st April — look out for details on social media.

Perspectiva is a registered charity funded by grants from trusts and foundations. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my co-founder Tomas Bjorkman for providing the seed funding that made Perspectiva possible in 2016, which allowed us to attract the support of The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, The JJ Trust, Friends Provident Foundation, The Edith Ellis Trust and The Schöpflin Foundation. We are particularly grateful and excited about our Strategic Partnership with The Fetzer Institute and look forward to building other funding relationships over the next decade.

Watch this space! I hope you’ll help us develop our thinking over the next few decades. But please keep your tanks to yourself…

Jonathan Rowson is a writer, philosopher and chess Grandmaster who was British Chess Champion from 2004-2006. He holds degrees from Oxford, Bristol, and Harvard, was the former director of the Social Brain Center at the RSA, and an Open Society Fellow. He is co-founder and director of Perspectiva, a research institute that examines the relationships between complex global challenges and the inner lives of human beings. His latest book is The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life. Find out more here.

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Perspectiva is registered in England and Wales as: Perspectives on Systems, Souls and Society (1170492​​​​). Our charitable aims are: ‘To advance the education of the public in general, particularly amongst thought leaders in the public realm on the subject of the relationships between complex global challenges and the inner lives of human beings, and how these relationships play out in society; and to promote research, activities and discourse for the public benefit in these subjects and to publish useful results’. Aside from modest income from books and events, all our income comes from donations from philanthropic trusts and foundations and further donations are therefore welcome. Please consider donating via the button below, or via Patreon.