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Published on: 14/02/2024

From redefining identities to fostering a 'nothing about me without me' paradigm shift, these insights offer food for thought for think tankers to thrive in an ever-evolving environment.

Every year, On Think Tanks (OTT) invites people across the globe to learn and reflect on the state of the think tanking art during the School for Thinktankers. The 2024 school – in partnership with Bruegel - brought think tank experts and practitioners from all corners of the world to Brussels: from experts working on informing EU policies (e.g. the forthcoming Artificial Intelligence Act), on safety and security on the African continent, on research-driven national policy in Nepal, to funders supporting think tanks in addressing global issues around climate change, migration, and social inequalities.

I joined on behalf of international water, sanitation and hygiene think and do tank, IRC, representing our Change Hub department. Various research, learning and knowledge development related activities are either driven from, supported by or quality assured via this department. My aim was to gather new insights that can support IRC's current rethinking of its think tank identity and bring in ideas for more decentralised ways of working.

On the 20-hour train journey back to Budapest, I found it a slightly daunting task to boil down my 40 pages of notes, taken throughout the seven days of intense learning, into an interesting read. Writing to the relaxing rumbling rhythm of the train helped me arrive at seven key insights that I am sharing with you here.

From redefining identities to fostering a 'nothing about me without me' paradigm shift, these insights offer food for thought for think tankers to thrive in an ever-evolving environment.

School for Thinktankers workshop. Photo credits: On Think Tanks

Participants of the School for Thinktankers in a branding workshop facilitated by Soapbox, a creative studio specialised in supporting think tanks. Photo credits: On Think Tanks

1. Evolving the think tank identity

Debates within the think tank community underscore the importance of clarifying 21st century-proof identity and mission. Should think tanks focus more on explaining their unique sector or emphasise their core mission and activities? Should they evolve into change hubs - less focused on policy research and more on public problem solving as Anne-Marie Slaughter argues? Finding a stance on identity is crucial for maintaining relevance in society as drivers behind evidence-based policy at all levels.

2. Promoting diversity in expertise

"Sometimes you understand better what's going on in a society by reading Gabriel García Marquez than through research papers"- paraphrasing Enrique Mendizabal, Founder and Executive Director of OTT

As think tanks create policies for people, it is important that think tankers understand the value of connecting their hard evidence with people's real needs and build trust that way. Encouraging diversity in staff composition beyond thematic expertise on the think tank's focus areas, including legal, political science, literature, arts and economic backgrounds, fosters richer perspectives and more comprehensive analyses of societal trends within think tanks. Knowing the context, the culture, and the society matter as much as having an academic credential.

3. Influencing beyond borders

Another step is taking this interdisciplinary expertise into policy influencing beyond geographical borders and questioning who should influence what policy and where. Imagine the potential of Global South think tanks focusing on European Union (EU) policy making. The case of the African Policy Research Institute (APRI) exemplifies the power of bringing African expertise and voice to European, and particularly German policy making. APRI understood the role of the EU in Africa related policymaking and noticed the gap of African voices in the discourse and processes. They showcase the power of influencing beyond borders and exemplify a 'nothing about me without me' paradigm shift.

School for Thinktankers participants at the European Parliament. Photo credits: On Think Tanks

Participants of the School for Thinktankers at the European Parliament, in Brussels. Photo credits: On Think Tanks

4. Artificial Intelligence (AI) - engaging beyond its use as a personal assistant

Integrating AI into think tank core activities offers opportunities for foresight, scenario building, efficient data analysis and communications. The process of AI evolving into a personal assistant is evident. Even this blog benefited from a ChatGPT prompt to help condense my 10 pager (developed from 40 pages of notes into key insights by yours truly) into a shorter note to start with. But think tanks need to be mindful of the bigger context of the AI (r)evolution. According to Andrea Renda, Director of Research at the Centre for European Policy Studies, the two most relevant questions for think tanks to explore right now are: 

  • How to ensure that AI gets used for good, how it limits or supports achieving the SDGs?
  • How to ensure that the Global South has proper access to and is properly represented by AI?

Ensuring inclusive AI development and access becomes imperative for addressing global challenges equitably.

5. Navigating disinformation challenges

Think tanks must confront the pervasive issue of misinformation and disinformation through proactive approaches to combating false narratives. Stuart Coles from Chatham House shared how understanding what's happening in the world (from anticipating key trends and events in a year to reacting to global news) at any given moment stands central to the issues that they focus on and share narrow specialist work about. Their communications choices and efforts to promote key resources are highly aligned with what is happening in the world at any given moment. With elections slated for 2024 in over 40% of the world, it's essential to streamline resources, anticipate disinformation, and bridge the gap between the realm of think tankers and the World.

6. A story first approach

A few years ago, Cast from Clay called for a shift towards a "story-first" approach, where storytelling becomes central to the think tank's communication strategy, fostering deeper connections and driving positive change. While think tanks still most often practice the 'research -> report -> dissemination through various formats and platforms' approach, exploring the power of storytelling in engaging audiences before or instead of producing lengthy reports arguably serve think tanks' missions better.

Old-fashioned policy communications model. Diagram credits: Cast from Clay

21st century policy communications model. Diagram credits: Cast from Clay

Storytelling in this aspect means distilling complex research into compelling narratives that resonate with policymakers and the public. By weaving together data, personal anecdotes, and vivid imagery, think tank research findings can end up driving more meaningful impact. A storytelling approach may not be justified in every case but starting with the notion that it could, will avoid spending many hours on developing lengthy reports that won't achieve the desired change. I vote for starting with exploring the audience once research findings are emerging and checking what story (or narrative) would appeal to those audiences. Sometimes that's hard evidence / facts and sometimes it's a story of someone's lived experience. Sometimes it's both. Thinking of communications strategies this way also aligns with the call for embedding communications staff in research teams to avoid subjecting think tanks to unintentionally applying a submarine strategy

7. Effective systems leadership

"We should not expect leaders to be ideal or perfect, they should be good enough."Sonja Stojanovic Gajic, PhD | LinkedIn

At IRC, we emphasise the power of thinking in systems, and using a systems perspective to foster intentional change. This worldview has major implications on the role of leadership. Implementing transparent governance structures, nurturing leadership qualities, connecting visionary leadership with a holistic view on the world and strong understanding of implementation, and fostering a culture of innovation and collaboration are essential for think tanks' resilience and growth. 

"When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower someone else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game." – Toni Morrison. This quote was mentioned by a participant in an exercise focused on summarising our key takeaway from the School through literature, music or other artform. It is a mission statement I'll gladly take on personally, starting with sharing and exercising the good insights learnt at the School. 

The following activities can support achieving more structural change and embedding of the behaviours that Toni Morrison advocated for:

  • mentorship and reverse mentorship models (i.e. younger employees mentoring senior staff). Think tanks have the potential to train researchers in quick analysis and effective idea dissemination. Experts, PhDs with deep knowledge can and arguably should become change agents and communicators that shape the future.
  • a larger focus on creating manuals and processes that can be easily handed over to other members of the organisation. This makes it easier for technical staff to step into management roles and makes organisations more agile.
  • and by supporting a culture of sharing failures, starting with senior members of the organisation opening up and using accountability to create an atmosphere of trust and openness.

Ingredients of a roadmap for think tankers

While these seven areas do not offer a complete roadmap, they certainly hold some key ingredients for empowering people to see themselves as change makers or – as IRC describes - as systems leaders in the world of water, sanitation and hygiene systems strengthening as well.

I'm typing the final words of this blog from my rural home in Hungary; in the distance I hear faraway sounds of trains leaving the station. The sounds remind me of a group of people at the School for Thinktankers united by the thought that in the age of unprecedented geopolitical challenges, climate change and disinformation, think tanks have the responsibility to evolve with time, proactively drive evidence-informed change and continue seizing opportunities to make meaningful contributions to society.

For more insights and updates from the forefront of think tank innovation check On Think Tanks | A global consultancy platform for change.

With many thanks to Stephanie Nicolle, Research and Learning Officer at OTT, John Butterworth, Co-Director of IRC's Change Hub, Angela Huston, IRC's Director of Strategy & Innovation, and Tettje van Daalen, IRC's Managing Editor for their review and adding their insights to this blog.

IRC is an international think tank actively building strong water, sanitation and hygiene systems – from the bottom up and the top down. We exist to support countries to build strong local and national services, underpinned by resilient systems, that transform lives and build equity, justice and opportunity for all. More here: IRC :: Change makers (


At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.

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