Last month I spent time in a tank thinking about think tanks. Admittedly it was a very architecturally interesting tank at The Graduate Institute Geneva, which this year hosted the Global Think Tank Summit with the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

It was a tank with some very big fish (Brookings, CSIS, Chatham House) as well as some that had hatched more recently. It contained varieties from each region: including the Russian Institute of World Economy and International Relations, the Fundacao Getulio Vargas, Japan Institute for International Studies and the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs.

The ecology of the think tank ecosystem came in for analysis; there was agreement on how think tanks occupy a place between government and academia and act as a bridge between research and policy. Their role is wide-ranging and diverse: to generate new thinking and policy options, convene experts, bring combatants together, offer advice, provide a platform to float ideas, offer training, build transnational policy networks and inform and engage the public.

Think tanks play an important part in articulating alternative frameworks and in identifying, and taking, the first steps to bring about change. This can include framing issues in a new way, informing the uninformed and helping to shape the debate.

Success is judged through the quality of the think tank's work, its independence and impact on policy. According to one participant: it's hard for a think tank to claim credit for a policy improvement, but you can 'see your fingerprints' on the result. 

One participant who questioned the legitimacy of think tanks and characterised them as 'self-appointed know-it-alls without a mandate' elicited a quick response from evolutionary biology: it's a competitive environment for ideas and influence and think tanks that do not add value will not survive. The importance of preserving independence and ensuring transparency of funding were emphasised as key in maintaining think tanks' legitimacy. 

Think tanks are faced with a changing climate to which they must adapt. Trends include greater time pressure and the trade-off between advocacy and analysis. It was noted that think tanks are often operating in an environment of crisis – or at least of manufactured crisis. Think tanks need to distinguish between crises which are essentially media crises, where they can use media interest as a window to promote work that they have been patiently and quietly doing all along, as opposed to actual crises which take the world in a new direction. Think tanks can also be prophetic: they can work on hidden emergencies and identify issues that are overlooked. 

While global problems are not necessarily getting worse, it is clear that the ability of multilateral system to deal with these problems is deteriorating. Gridlock in US politics and in the multilateral system represents a genuine failure of governance structures to deal with wicked problems; trying to use last century's solutions for this century's dilemmas has become a new form of paralysis. In an unstable world marked by changes in geopolitics, slow-to-adapt institutions and the fragmentation of state power, think tanks are crucial in improving the quality of debate and helping countries understand each other.

Individual governments struggle to find the time to deal with complex cross-border issues from climate change to Internet governance, and they cannot be left to deal with these problems alone. Think tanks can ensure that governments remain engaged in multi-stakeholder processes and are essential in coming up with ideas that governments can apply and other stakeholders can carry. As denizens of a neutral space, they can help propose what, when and by whom things should be done. 

While most would accept that they are not 'do tanks' (in the sense of providing direct programs such as development assistance), neither do they want to be just 'talk tanks'. This means collaboration is key. When dealing with global problems, it is unlikely that the skills, capacity and knowledge needed will reside within one organisation. 

At a time of divergence in the international system, any pockets of will to collaborate are valuable. Think tanks – especially when they work across countries – can be a great resource. If ideas matter, think tanks matter. Now more than ever we need think tanks to get out of the tank. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kenneth Lu.