The End of the Think Tank and the Beginning of Thinking

Jonathan Rowson

Although I’ve never been in a tank (and I’m curious!) I can’t imagine it’s conducive to good thinking.

Even if it’s not supposed to be that kind of tank, the other image it evokes of supposedly brilliant minds in a room together, finding the wit to shut the door, and then going wild with flip charts, highlighter pens and sticky notes, is not much better.

Perhaps people working in think tanks are slaves to the idea of the tank to a greater extent than they realise; in both its military conquest and intense brainstorming senses. Our underlying drives today should presumably be about peace and openness rather than war or sequestration?

I know many young think tankers from my experience working for The RSA and with a wide range of third sector organisations. Many enter the ‘think tank’ world with the high hopes of achieving a particular kind of career chic. I don’t mean to sound cynical, but I have observed it often enough to feel it is valid. The aim is often to be thought of as a rising star of the intelligentsia with the ear of a powerful minister. To that end, nothing better than to be heard on political prime time: “Oh to be on The BBC Today Programme!” I’ve been on the Today programme four times, and trust me, nothing happens. The world is not noticeably different afterwards.

Alas, people working in think tanks, even at quite senior levels, are invariably obliged to be lobbyists to a greater or lesser extent, however noble their intentions. The impact model 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 practice that 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. 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 the level of policy.

One way to understand this is the Geels model of socio-technical transitions, (which I use here not to import or appropriate all its details, but merely as a prominent example highlighting three main levels of activity in any given attempt at societal transition).

Some in Perspectiva’s network are working at the ‘Niche’ level (practice/activist/NGO) attempting to solve particular problems in particular places where need is acute and potential impact is relatively tangible, but where it’s harder to influence systemic political, economic and technological causes. Success here would mean, for instance, getting someone their home back when they’ve been wrongly evicted.

Many others are working at the ‘Regime’ (policy/advocacy/think tank) level, where policymakers and public opinion are key targets, but the underlying meaning of objectives and measurements that shape policy debates (eg ‘growth’, ‘democracy’) is rarely questioned or challenged. When liberal democratic systems appeared hegemonic and political economies seemed relatively stable, think tanks thrived in the UK and US at least. Success here might mean changing a national housing policy such that more affordable homes become available and homeless is reduced.

There was a time when, for some at least, changing the world and changing policy felt like the same thing. But not anymore. Ecology, technology and finance are transnational actors, and more to the point they are the main active ingredients at that higher level of analysis that is not supposed to shift much, or be susceptible to shifting, but is. The landscape level now feels particularly fertile in this time between worlds, where it feels like civilisation is dying, and its far from clear that another can be born without real thinking at this level of overarching complexity.

Perspectiva seeks to support and learn from those working at the niche and regime levels, but we work mostly at the ‘landscape’ (paradigmatic/cultural/philosophical) level of longer term change in ‘the social imaginary’, where the active ingredients in play are cultural norms and practices. Success in influencing change at the landscape level would mean enriching the very idea of home, such that we collectively factor in, at least, bioregional, ecological and planetary considerations to help make decisions about how to protect and improve ‘our home’.

Policy has its place as a pathway to law and therefore to scale, but for Perspectiva, it is neither the main means nor the main end of our activity. When Perspectiva is described as ‘a think tank’ I inwardly forgive the person making that association and do my best to give an alternative description. In this world of ‘define or be defined’, you have to try, so here goes:

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

The word education here could also be learning, or development, and whichever we choose we might also insert ‘transformative’ behind it, but that risks looking like gratuitous spiritual atmosphere; so let’s stick with education for now. Of all these signifiers, education is the most grounded in the civic, the institutional and the political, and least likely to be coopted 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 societal 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 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 Emergewhich 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 our thinking develop over the next few decades. But keep your tanks to yourself…

@Jonathan_Rowson

Images: Thinker at the Gates of Hell, Musée Rodi, Wikimedia Commons, and from https://www.norrag.org/thinking-about-the-education-think-tank-phenomenon/

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