At our branding workshop a couple of weeks’ ago one of the participants suggested that if we wanted to be accessible to a much broader audience than think tanks traditionally are then we should be much more visual. This struck me as a really interesting idea, and it’s worth considering more as we develop this project.
After all, the web is increasingly visual rather than textual. Think about the sites that are building massive communities – Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr. But most think tanks, most of the time, are fairly conventional in how they communicate their ideas and arguments. Words – presented in the traditional ways (reports, pamphlets) – still dominate as the ‘respectable’ means of communication, perhaps with the occasional map or graph thrown in when required.
This neglects that pictures, though they can be more time-consuming to create and produce, often present information and data much more powerfully. Of course there are some really good exceptions to the generalisation that think tanks neglect thinking visually – for example the work Danny Dorling has done with IPPR, how the new economics foundation has increasingly been using video (see the vampire squid), and the short film Number Games commissioned by Runnymede and produced by Feedback Films. Special mention also has to go to the RSA, with its RSA Animate series created by Cognitive Media.
Pictures would also be more accessible to a much wider audience than think tanks traditionally talk to, and could invite more people to participate in what think tanks do (for example, by posting pictures to illustrate their experience of public services) – something which is crucial to this project of course. It’s something we’ll think more about and we’d welcome your thoughts, for example links to great examples you’ve come cross of visual ways of presenting information and arguments. In the meantime, here’s a few well-known advocates and experts of visual thinking and presentation that spark our imagination about what might be possible:
- Information is Beautiful – by David McCandless
- Edward Tufte – described as the “Galileo of graphics” by Businessweek
- Dan Roam – and his Napkin Academy
- As noted, Danny Dorling – professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield
- And the showcase at visual.ly.
For our own part, Stephen Lee Hodgkins has been kind enough to create a visual record of the discussions at our branding workshop, posted below. Stephen calls what he does – a colourful method for capturing ideas and information visually in real time, for example at a meeting or event – ‘graphicking‘. Check out his site by clicking on the link.
Remember that still we’d love to hear your suggestions for our name as well – we hope that Stephen’s graphic inspires you (you can click on the picture to expand it for a better view).
We’re developing an online platform – and hopefully from that a community – to research and develop better social policy. Should we use an approach based on competition or collaboration? Both can be used to source new ideas, but our view is that collaboration is more appropriate than competition for social policy.
Competition is most obviously represented by innovation prize competitions or ‘challenges’. These offer a reward to whoever can meet a defined challenge first or best. The Obama Administration has shown a particular interest in what it has called ’21st Century Grand Challenges’, for example to develop renewable energy, electric cars, and for international development issues such as improving literacy and access to healthcare. As Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted in a speech yesterday (12th April):
“Incentive prizes work as one tool to address Grand Challenges because they shine a spotlight on an ambitious goal without having to predict which team or approach is most likely to succeed. Incentive prizes help us reach beyond the “usual suspects” to increase the number of minds tackling a problem, bringing out-of-discipline perspectives to bear and inspiring risk-taking by offering a level playing field.”
Despite their current fashionability, competitions have a long history – from the longitude prize to Charles Lindbergh winning $25,000 for making the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris. More recently, the X PRIZE rekindled interest in competitions, starting with the Ansari X PRIZE to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the earth’s surface, twice within two weeks. InnoCentive has turned hosting competitions into a business, and the UK Government also announced last year that it is supporting a fund to run prizes that spur new innovations.
Collaboration is different. Although prizes can encourage some collaboration – for example team-ups between different groups in order to try to win the competition – by their nature they are essentially uncollaborative. We’ve described what we’re doing here as developing a ‘crowdsourced think tank’. Commonly understood, crowdsourcing takes an open and more 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 beyond their employees, so we’re exploring here how think tanks could be far more effective and efficient by crowdsourcing what they do, including through much more collaboration in policy development.
One of the questions we’ve been asked by potential customers and partners is how we hope to engage and motivate public and voluntary service providers and service users to be part of our community. Since it seems to work well for other challenges, why not use a competition-based approach for this? There are three main reasons why we think, at least for our project, that collaboration beats competition.
Firstly, many of the social problems we face are complex and multifaceted. Innovation prizes were originally focused on technology, where there might be one best solution. But we’ve suggested here before what the problem is with the search for ‘magic bullets‘ when it comes to social policy. Because social problems typically derive from a range of sources, there’s no single way to reduce poverty, improve health, cut crime or improve public services. If we say there aren’t any ‘one-size-fits-all solutions’ (as we often do in social policy), then challenge prizes that are designed to find such ‘solutions’ then start to seem like a rather inappropriate mechanism. Moving away from a focus on ‘big fixes’ in social policy could open up many more possibilities, at both the level of ideas and action. It could also free us from the unrealistic expectation that ideas come fully formed, and instead support a more iterative approach to developing interesting ideas into effective (and proven) policy and practice.
Secondly, since there might be many answers, it follows that we need to include many more people in the answering. ‘Grand challenges’ and big thinking tend to exclude people. Again, as we’ve suggested here before, most of us aren’t ‘moonshot’-style big thinkers. Rather, we have lots of ‘little’ ideas, based on our own necessarily partial but nonetheless important bits of expertise and experience, that collectively might add up to something big.
Thirdly, while competition can motivate participation, we think that an ethos of collaboration and mutuality is likely to be more important in the long run to help build sustained engagement in our community. Some people in thinktankland seem to relish the battle of ideas, but we need to move beyond their often off-putting ‘winner takes all‘ approach to policymaking if we want a greater diversity of voices and perspectives to inform better policy. Further, as pointed out in Miia’s comment on a previous post, this would also better reflect the kinds of public and voluntary services that many of us say we want: “The competition paradigm in organisations and government should be replaced by the collaboration paradigm if we are to achieve services and public investment that fully delivers for the benefit of the end user and citizen.”
What’s interesting is that technology challenges may also be turning more towards collaboration, for example DARPA’s vehicleforge.mil programme to develop a ‘next gen tank’ via crowdsourced ‘evolutionary design’. From think tanks to real tanks, the future feels more collaborative than competitive. Let us know whether you agree.