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The themes and ideas discussed here are based on speeches, sessions and discussions that took place at the "Think Tanks and Their Communities" conference co-hosted by On Think Tanks (OTT) and Fundació Bofill in Barcelona, Spain (May 21-23, 2024). The conference addressed the evolving role of think tanks in a complex and dynamic global landscape, emphasizing the importance of adaptation and community engagement for effective policy impact.

A Brief Introduction to the OTT Conference

On Think Tanks is a global consultancy and platform for change that aims to advance evidence-based change through empowering research organizations, foundations, governments, and other entities to make better-informed decisions. OTT stands as a leading global hub for information, support, and community engagement for professionals involved in think tanks.


This year’s focus on the theme of community was particularly timely. While establishing a think tank often involves internal reflection, goal setting, and strategic planning based on available resources, the conference served as a powerful reminder to zoom out and consider the bigger picture. By focusing on the communities they serve, new think tanks can open their eyes to a wider range of possibilities and potential resources. This broader perspective doesn’t replace internal planning, but rather strengthens it. By aligning their goals and objectives with the trends and needs of the community, new think tanks can ensure their research and work remains relevant and impactful.


Building Strong Foundations


While the rapidly changing landscape of policy and public discourse comes with new obstacles, it also presents a unique opportunity for new think tanks. Unlike established institutions, they have the chance to build themselves from the ground up with this new reality in mind. Climate change, pandemics, geopolitical tensions, economic inequality, misinformation and technological disruptions are all increasingly complex and interconnected global challenges that demand more collaborative and innovative approaches to problem-solving. There is a rising recognition that no single entity can tackle these problems alone; instead, a multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder approach is required. In this context, new think tanks can position themselves as agile, innovative, and collaborative entities.


One of the most important elements of a resilient organization is a flexible organizational structure that allows for quick adaptation in response to emerging issues and opportunity. Cultivating a culture of continuous learning and development is key to maintaining this flexibility. It also creates opportunities for building partnerships. By nurturing this, new think tanks can stay ahead of the curve, ensuring their research and recommendations remain relevant and impactful. Strong foundations are also built through clearly defined objectives. These can and should be adapted over time but they should be there from the start. For both new and established think tanks, there is a consensus that specific and targeted goals have the most potential for impact. Small-scale interventions, tailored to address particular needs or problems, can often yield significant results. Modest, well-targeted efforts can have a profound impact on policy outcomes.


It is also crucial to remain curious about the work of others in the community, in order to effectively identify gaps where your work is most needed. Think tanks do not operate in silos, so, keeping up and engaging with trends of the sector is equally as important as staying up to date with global trends and issues.


Partnering with Your Community


More than gaining traction and building credibility, community partnerships are the bloodline of evidence-based policy. One notable insight here concerns the way in which collaboration occurs. The perception that dialogue and collaboration are objectively positive and desired objectives often overshadows the reality that the process can often be difficult to initiate. It is not a given that partners who want to collaborate will automatically generate organic momentum. The conditions for momentum must be artificially created. By designing and testing this process, think tanks can initiate collaborations from a more driven and focused standing point.


Building Trust and Maintaining Integrity


In an era of misinformation and polarized public discourse, the impartiality and reliability of think tanks are more crucial than ever. To build trust, think tanks must prioritize transparency, ethical research practices, and active community engagement. Maintaining open communication channels with stakeholders is essential for this trust-building process. By being receptive to feedback and addressing concerns promptly, new think tanks can demonstrate their commitment to serving the public interest.


Additionally, ensuring that global ideas and projects resonate within local communities requires a bidirectional exchange. This means not only disseminating research and recommendations but also actively listening to and incorporating local perspectives and needs. By fostering this two-way dialogue, think tanks can better align their work with the communities they serve, enhancing both relevance and trust. In doing so, they establish themselves as credible and indispensable contributors to informed public policy and debate.


Communication, Technology & the Future


Advances in technology have transformed how information is accessed and consumed, presenting new opportunities and challenges for think tanks. While comprehensive research reports and policy briefs remain vital for providing in-depth analysis and evidence-based insights, there is a growing appetite among policymakers, media, and the public for concise, accessible information that can be quickly understood and shared. This creates a common dilemma for both new and established think tanks. However, the digital era is already here and it is only going to become more embedded within our systems so being open to explore new ways of leveraging it will go a long way.  Adapting content formats to meet the preferences of different stakeholders can enhance accessibility and relevance, thereby maximizing influence in shaping public discourse and policy agendas.


From Insights to Action


  • Embrace flexibility by adapting quickly to changing landscapes by fostering a culture of agility and responsiveness within your organization.


  • Strengthen community engagement by building trust and relevance by actively listening to and engaging with local communities, ensuring research addresses real-world needs.


  • Innovate in communication by utilizing digital platforms and innovative technologies to effectively communicate research findings in accessible and engaging formats.


  • Ensure transparency and integrity by prioritizing ethical research practices and maintain transparency in funding sources and methodologies to enhance credibility.
  • Leverage advancements in AI and data analytics to derive deeper insights and enhance the impact of research outputs.


  • Collaborate with diverse stakeholders, including policymakers, academia, and civil society, to amplify influence and drive evidence-based policymaking.


  • Be consistent in monitoring sectoral and global trends to anticipate future challenges and opportunities, staying proactive in research agendas.


  • Position your organization as a thought leader through thought-provoking content, thoughtfully curated discussions, and contributions to public discourse.


  • Commit to continuous learning by fostering a culture of learning and development to equip your team with skills needed to navigate evolving complexities in policy research.


Looking Ahead


Thriving in today’s dynamic landscape requires think tanks to embrace key principles: flexibility, innovation, and a strong focus on community engagement. These elements are not just buzzwords but essential strategies that drive impactful change and relevance in policy research. These principles are essential for adapting swiftly to emerging challenges and opportunities, ensuring research remains timely and effective while amplifying reach through innovative use of technologies. Engaging with local communities fosters trust and relevance, ensuring that research outputs address real-world needs and concerns and promoting inclusive policymaking that reflects diverse perspectives. By committing to these principles, think tanks not only navigate challenges but also lead in shaping informed policymaking and driving positive societal change globally. As the landscape evolves, these strategies will remain foundational in ensuring think tanks’ continued impact and relevance in policy research and development.


In light of these insights, Al Habtoor Research Centre invites fellow think tanks in our region to collaborate with us in addressing pressing policy challenges through shared expertise, innovative solutions, and collective action.

To learn more about On Think Tanks, head to their website: www.onthinktanks.org 


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