The problem with think-tanks: Introduction

I wrote recently in The Guardian about what I perceive to be a crisis in the political think-tanks. This crisis is ostensibly brought on by two factors, the first is the inevitable (but slow) tidal drift of ideology and the second is economic (bluntly, funding).

In a series of upcoming blogs I want to explore the effects of this crisis a little more deeply and in a way that, I hope, points to what I believe is the real crisis with think-tanks in the UK. They are going in individual focus on quality, independence, transparency and then summarise some ideas for what might be done to solve the problem.

It is worth prefixing this commentary by saying clearly that it is not based on a principle objection to the concept of the think-tank (which would be rather hypocritical), rather, the exact opposite. I believe that an effectively functioning independent think-tank space is a vital pre-requisite to any strong democracy.

But first, I’m going to spend a moment contemplating a criticism of think-tanks made by some commenters on my Guardian article; that they are homes for ‘failed academics’. Clearly such a comment is inane but it’s worthy of clarification because it points to a general failure in this country to properly grasp the range of research that we both need and do. Think-tank research must not replicate academic research, it is quite different. In my view it is actually a lot more valuable in the policy area. But that does not mean it can lack standards, rigour and transparency. Far too much academic research acts as an analysis of record. It more often than not fails to give us any pointers as to what we should do next other than to discuss what happened before. This is useful but we need good quality applied research focussed on developing strong recommendations for evidence-based action. One is not better (or worse) than the other.

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Gaming – in the last chance saloon in the UK?

I’m told that a few of the people who attended the Political Innovation event in Edinburgh last November were in contact with Paul Evans to say that they’d like a meetup like the Politicos meet Gamers event held in London last week.

A lot of the kind of issues that the get-together was intended to start a conversation on are being addressed at the Edinburgh Interactive conference taking place on the 11th-12th August. Politicos could certainly learn a good deal from the sessions on Gamification and how games are built and incentivised. Continue reading

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Politicos – meet gamers

I’d like to invite you to an event I’m helping to organise along with a few friends, in which politicos and gamers will be expected to mingle and swap ideas. Get a ticket here (it’s next Thursday in central London)

 

Studying politics often involves a detailed immersion in the sociology of the various institutions – parties, the cabinet, pressure groups, Whitehall, the core executive, and so on. We look at the Machiavellian intrigues, the mechanisms, the workflows and the underlying structures that always emerge to confound those who don’t understand them.

To an innovation-minded politico, it’s fairly obvious that social media concepts such as collaborative filtering, collaborative authoring, social networking, conversational structures, distributed wisdom and crowdsourcing are of interest.

In the political blogosphere, we take ideological sides and engage in inconclusive online flame-wars with libertarians, nationalists, conservatives and the wrong sorts of socialists (99% of them give the rest of us a bad name, y’know?)

It’s a game of sorts. A joust. And you can’t understand why political parties all seem to be very similar until you know Anthony Downs’ adaption of Hotelling’s game theory either.

So these kinds of games are important. They’re a way of rationalising the comfort-zone that political animals sit in. They’re another way of exploring the philosophical, moral and practical dimensions that public debate occupies and the power-structures that create the boundaries in which it operates.

Politicos understand narratives. We’re a well-read bunch. A lot of us studied literature and have classier-than-thou DVD collection. We read long articles in The New Statesman in which competing narratives are weighed and measured. The Big Society, Red Tory, Blue Labour, The Third Way, and so on.

We need narratives to keep us sane. During elections, we have to make promises we know we won’t be able to keep, and we justify them with plans that we know (deep down) won’t survive the first engagement with reality. As Woody Allen said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

But surely political innovation is about finding ways of game-changing politics? Aren’t all of these options listed above simply falling into the trap of using new media tools to do the job of old politics?

The interactive world of gaming offers a different way of dealing with situations. Where politicos traditionally have retreated to moral and philosophical abstrations, the designers of games know how to appeal to many of the reflexes that politicos have long forgotten.

They draw players into ambitious problem-solving situations.  If we could bring comparable quantities of human ingenuity to bear on many real-life problems, perhaps we could sort out the voting system and work out what to do with the House of Lords, and be finished doing it all before teatime?

Increasingly, for younger voters, gaming is often a way of life. What does this mean for narrative-led politics?

I think that politicos need to develop their contacts in the gaming community. I suspect gamers would welcome hearing seasoned political operators describing the problems that need to be overcome.

For this reason, along with a few friends, the Political Innovation project is organising a few meetups. Sign up for the first one here  – and join our Facebook or Google Group to get notified of subsequent events. If you’re coming, sign up to the Lanyard page to get the conversation going beforehand.

Postscript: A few links I didn’t work into this post, but worth reading anyway:

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FED – Ideas to Sustain

Realpolitik and Bella Caledonia present ‘FED – Ideas Worth Sustaining’, a one-day program of talks, discussions, and, most importantly, ideas. FED takes its cue from July’s TEDGlobal Edinburgh conference – but while TED costs an eye-watering £3,700 to attend, FED costs a more modest fiver.

That’s an austerity-busting saving of £3,695 (!) Go here to book your place. Full programme here… Continue reading

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No 8: The broadening inkblot: Self-improvement for people who read newspapers (and blogs…)

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a regular lurker around the blogosphere and the longer, cleverer articles on media websites. You may even go further than that and comment occasionally, “Digg”, share or “like” postings on Facebook. And if you’re very clever with your RSS reader, you may have found a way of getting some of the better quality content to come to you – almost unbidden – by some smart “collaborative filtering” technology.

Google Reader users, for instance, know when other people who share their interests have chosen to share something worthwhile.

Blogging can, in itself, be an improving experience. But is it as improving as it could be? Is there anything we could learn from the way that the Internet pushes other media at users based upon their known preferences?

I’d suggest that Last.fm is a good place to start. If you’re not already familiar with it, it’s a music website where the music is not only legal and entertaining but also, if you want it to be, mind-stretching and educational.

Scrobbling is at the heart of Last.fm.  Because Last.fm can see what music you’re listening to on your iPod or PC (perhaps also on Spotify), it gradually builds up a profile of what you like. It then builds a profile page for you that others can look at.

Some of the most fascinating and educational features of Last.fm are the different radio stations, especially the “neighbourhood” and “recommendation” radio stations. The “Dashboard” shows you music that it thinks that you haven’t heard but that you may like. It allows you to find people who have similar tastes to yourself and use their playlists to fill gaps in your own. It uses a system based upon a collaborative filtering algorithm so users can browse and hear previews of a list of artists not listed on their own profile but which appear on those of others with similar musical tastes.

Last.fm allows us to passively recommend music to people we have never met, and the site also calculates what suggestions will be met favourably. But the interesting possibility Last.fm offers to consumers of written content is that it moves listeners, little by little, from the known to the moderately unknown, using a series of automatic and manual tools – thus expanding the users’ knowledge of their chosen area of content.  Imagine if every newspaper article or blog-post that we read contributed to a similar system that sought to find new interesting material that was able to fill our knowledge gaps?

Last.fm creates a kind of musical inkblot which broadens in an entertaining and educational way and creates objectively better and more intelligent listeners.  What’s more, by being able to “ban” or “love” content that users listen to, interactivity with future recommendations is maximum – as is the ability to influence and mould such recommendations.

Let us now apply the above to political blogging and commenting.  If we could do for articles what we Last.FM does for tunes, we could potentially have a tool that promoted self-learning. We’d be creating a self-educating website of political DNA, the like of which we have never experienced before. Except, that is, to date, in the field of music.

The ability to trawl a substantial database of all kinds of political thought, in order to support, substantiate and argue different points of view and positions, would help bloggers and commenters of all shades of opinion generate more effective, accurate and constructive levels of communication in the field of political endeavour and exchange.

In addition, the social media features of sites like Last.fm, where people build sustained relationships on a one-to-one and group basis, could contribute usefully to generating that sense of engagement and empathy that much of Internet discourse seems to have lost, as it continues to take place in the distancing ether and on either side of defensive computer screens.

As it happens, such a database exists in prototype – thanks to a previous “Political Innovation” essayist.

I have sketched this idea out as one that can be applied to politics/policy-related content – mainly because it is my personal enthusiasm. But there’s no reason to suppose it couldn’t be applied effectively to any area of human knowledge in which a large proportion of the content is available on the open web.

There is no question that it will be a significant challenge to work out how such a database can develop the critical mass of users and reactions to such content. This is where the next level of investment is needed. But it doesn’t seem to me to be showstopper, especially as the rewards – in terms of human understanding – are potentially huge.

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Sometimes a quote is so good it deserves a posting of its own…

“An administrator in a bureaucratic world is a man who can feel big by merging his non-entity in an abstraction. A real person in touch with real things inspires terror in him.”

Marshall McLuhan

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City Forward – using public data

I met IBM’s John Tolva at the Personal Democracy Forum in Barcelona recently – here’s a short vid about his ‘City Forward’ project:

I’m putting it here mainly to bookmark it because I think it’s the sort of thing that’s useful to show to politicians – to show what’s possible.

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Edinburgh & Belfast events – a round up

There’s not too much to add to the comprehensive write-ups of the Edinburgh and Belfast events that Mick has posted on Slugger O’Toole apart from a remark about how good it was to meet so many new people that share the mild sense of desperation about the hole that traditional politics has allowed itself to slip into – along with the willingness to look at gamechanging new ideas to break this stalemate.

Edinburgh event slideshow from Snook

Because the events were organised by Slugger O’Toole – a site with a heavy footprint in Northern Ireland, predictably, the Belfast event got down to the conversations around sectarianism, dealing with the past, and the institutional questions that dog he unorthadox array of political parties that exist in the sixlet.

The Edinburgh event, by contrast, had more sessions that raised concerns that would come up almost anywhere in the UK – with the possible exception of a good session on the problems that Scottish Nationalism has with the mainstream media.

So what’s next? Well, we’re keen to do a few more events if we can rustle up a few invitations to do them. We’re also going to be resuming the essays shortly – we aim to have at least ten of them on the site at the end of the year. And then there’s going to be an ‘incubator’ event in the new year where we bring the essayists together with movers and shakers of the governmental, political and entrepreneurial varieties. Watch this space for more detail!

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What’s happening on Saturday in Belfast

We had over eighty people along for the Political Innovation event in Edinburgh on Saturday. Slugger O’Toole has a write up here, and Bruno Panara has pulled together a good timeline using Storify here. Continue reading

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Who’s coming to Political Innovation in Edinburgh on Saturday?

We asked people registering to tick a few boxes.

Those questions aren’t that easy to read and some are cut off on Eventbrite’s reporting display, so here are the questions in full from the registration system:

It’s about as good a mix as we could have hoped for. See you there!

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