Crowdsourcing the next think tank

The way we’re currently thinking about our new project is as a crowdsourced approach to policy and research. So what does this mean?

Crowdsourcing takes an open, collaborative approach to solving problems and producing new things. Just as businesses increasingly recognise that the  expertise and intelligence they need to develop better products and services exists way beyond their employees (including but not limited to their customers), so we’re considering how think tanks could be far more effective and efficient by crowdsourcing their work.

In the way people use the term, ‘crowdsourcing’ actually covers a variety of different, distinct activities – from ‘crowd creation’ (as in Wikipedia), ‘crowd voting’ (which is surely something of a pleonasm), and ‘crowd wisdom‘ to ‘crowd funding‘. Our focus at the moment is on the first and last of these activities:

  • crowd creation – because the sum of the expertise we need to develop better social policy isn’t limited (as in the traditional think tank model) to 20 or so people sitting in a pokey office near Westminster;
  • crowd funding – because moving away from a reliance of wealthy donors to a greater diversity of funders could also mean a greater diversity of issues and perspectives policy work, which is both necessary and a good thing.

Further, the two could reinforce each other nicely, because what we’re learning about crowdsourcing/crowd funding is that when people support a project they often also like to be involved in it in some way, and vice versa.

For the moment, let’s focus on crowd creation and consider more specifically how it could be applied to the work of think tanks. From our experience in discussing the idea with potential partners, it seems relatively easy for them to see how a crowdsourced approach could help with generating lots of new ideas and canvassing the opinions of their customers and stakeholders (see our previous post), and also with dissemination and campaigning. But what’s less immediately obvious is how we could take a distributed but collaborative approach to many if not all aspects of the research work conducted by think tanks. So here’s our initial thoughts:

  • developing (or at the very least validating) research approaches – including research/evaluation questions, methodologies, data capture frameworks and other tools, and reviewing research ethics (for example where researchers are working with vulnerable groups);
  • conducting primary research – and there’s a tradition of peer-led and ‘action research’ in some fields such as education and medicine;
  • data analysis – e.g. dividing up the task of analysing a large data set (an example of ‘microtasking’);
  • shared problem analysis – e.g. of a large or complex issue according to participants’ varied expertise (an example of ‘macrotasking’);
  • developing, evaluating and modelling policy options – as per shared problem analysis;
  • drafting reports – similar to how Wikipedia’s pages are written;
  • fact-checking and quality assurance – also as in the Wikipedia model.

It’s important to note that what we’re suggesting here is not the same as the InnoCentive approach of having one ‘winner’ of a challenge (which rather replicates the weaknesses with the current traditional think tank approach); in our model the point is that no single person or group has the ‘solution’ and that it’s only through an approach that harnesses distributed expertise that complex issues in social policy can be approached sensibly.

In definitional terms, ‘crowdsourcing’ denotes when one organisation puts a question or challenge out to many other people or organisations. Taking this one step further, if we can also find a way open-up the commissioning of research and policy analysis to the community (for example via crowd funding) then we’re getting into open source territory – but that’s something for a subsequent post.

Whatever we call it, to some commentators the business implication of mass collaboration (or ‘wikinomics’) is clear: firms that fail to change their current structures will perish, and companies who utilize mass collaboration will dominate their respective markets. Could this apply to think tanks as well?

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