For more than a century, think tanks have played an important role in society, serving as sources of expertise for policymakers, places to explore new ideas, and critical catalysts for bringing creative solutions to action.
But as the coronavirus pandemic ripples through society, trust in institutions weakens, and the country’s demographics shift, the traditional think tank model is being stress-tested. “The COVID-19 crisis presents significant challenges to a sector already struggling with funding shortages, credibility, and relevance,” notes On Think Tanks.
Joe Waters thinks an alternative to these Washington, D.C.-based institutions can bring a fresh perspective and new voices to society’s critical issues locally and globally. In 2018, Waters co-founded the nonprofit ideas lab Capita to build a better think tank focused on the cultural and social transformations affecting young children, and to foster new ideas to ensure a future where children and their families flourish.
From his perch in a small town in the Blue Ridge mountains, Waters works from what Pope Francis calls “the peripheries.” By looking from the edge rather than from the center, “we bring a different perspective to the issues,” says Waters. It’s a perspective that enables Capita to combine unusual concepts and convene unlikely collaborators to generate new models, frameworks, and ideas.
Here are four ways Capita is building the think tank of the future for a post-pandemic world:
Think Outside the Beltway
Waters, based in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, is far enough from Washington, DC, to be independent of the “group think” that often permeates the nation’s capital. That’s a critical perspective to have as Waters and his team develop new ways to envision a better future for children and families.
“The Trump victory in 2016 surprised a lot of the political class, and that is because there is such a wide gulf between D.C. and the average American citizen,” says Waters. “It’s critical and positive to have think tanks outside of the bubble.”
The pandemic is forcing more organizations to decentralize operations, reduce face-to-face networking, and embrace technology. For Capita, being digitally native was a founding principle. Waters recognized that the form and function of the think tank work had to adapt to a new 21st Century landscape. The pandemic only reinforces this imperative.
“Digital first means using technology to make research and content accessible to all voices, crowdsourcing ideas and democratizing the intellectual property an organization generates, Waters says. “We don’t want policy papers to sit on the shelves. We want them out with our audiences to help us shape future research.”
A ‘Gig Economy’ Think Tank
What are the implications of rapid change for the future of children and young families in the U.S.? For Waters and his team, questions like this informed an approach that is nimble and fluid. Rather than staff up, Capita finds experts and contracts with them.
For example, Elliot Haspel, early childhood and K-12 education policy expert, frequently teams up with Capita on research and policy development. Capita also partners with larger institutions, including the Bank Street College of Education and Knowledgeworks, to provide insights into how today’s trends will impact young people and their families in the future and explores how emerging issues might alter childhood experience everywhere.
“Our approach applies the model of the sharing economy to think tanks,” says Waters. “It’s an efficient approach built around shared networks and resources that makes sense in a pandemic – and beyond.”
Intersectional Problem Solving
Waters believes that “intersectional innovation” – a concept explained in Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures – is critical to understanding how to innovate more powerfully to achieve better outcomes for young children and their families.
Johansson argues that transformative innovations emerge from the intersection of different disciplines and cultures. This intersection is what made the Renaissance in Florence – funded mainly by the Medici family – such a prolific period of innovation. Capita uses a similar model to create opportunities to combine unusual concepts and convene unlikely collaborators to generate new models, frameworks, and ideas.
Together, these four principles keep Capita tightly focused on its north star – the significant trends impacting young children. “We live in an age of acceleration, liquidity, and fragmentation,” Waters says. “Our interest is not simply how children and families can flourish today but figuring out ways to help the children who won’t be born for another decade and beyond flourish.”