Last night's Think Tank Clash at the South Bank Centre, organised by New Deal of The Mind was hopefully the first of many such events. Around 300 people were hosted by comedian Rory Bremner and the atmosphere was as playful as it was political, with a pint or two enjoyed by many of the audience, and most of the participants. Reviews of the Think Tank Clash format so far have been good, though I am sure if the event is repeated it has scope to be even better.
There were eight think tanks involved: Progress, ResPublica, Fabian Society, Reform, Policy Exchange, IPPR, Demos, and of course, The RSA. You might not have thought of the RSA as a 'think tank' before, and indeed the organisation as a whole, with our fellowship, House, and Events programme, does not match that description very tightly. One way to square this circle is to think of the RSA Projects team as a think tank within the RSA, albeit one that places less emphasis on producing pamphlets and informing policy, and more on practical impact in the real world.
Each think tank had two representatives, the head honcho and their 'witness'. I was Mathew Tayor's witness, and I think the role of the witnesses more generally was to signal that the organisations involved are more than just their most public face and voice, an association perpetuated by the media reflex to seek comment from prominent and familiar faces.
We were pitched against Demos, represented by their Director Richard Reeves, and Stephen Scott, who looked a little bit like Kramer from Seinfeld. There was no Oxford Union style 'motion' to debate, but we were charged with convincing the audience that in the realm of big ideas, our work on social networks, particularly their role in community regeneration, was more important/pertinent/illuminating than Demos' work on Character .
Needless to say, the debate involves a bit of a false binary, and is more about means than ends, because it makes little sense to be against character or networks. Demos argue that good societies need good people, which is a powerful point, and their claim that character is largely shaped by good parenting is carefully argued and empirically grounded. More speculatively, they suggest that government should take a more proactive role in encouraging good parenting.
Our response is that networks are character forming, and that who your parents are and how they are is largely based on the nature of their social network. Moreover, character may be an important personal quality, but social networks can be thought of as a public good- a shared resource that nobody owns but that everybody can potentially benefit from. In short, our idea is more progressive.
The vote was close, but we won for two main reasons: 1) I emphasised that our research was grounded in fieldwork on the ground, and that we were literally 'knocking on doors' to make sense of the power of social networks in deprived communities, and 2) Mathew Taylor looked like "the sexy bad guy in a James Bond movie"