On building a think tank

Peter Apps and Sultan al Qassemi at a PS21 discussion last winter.
Peter Apps and Sultan al Qassemi at a PS21 discussion last February.

Peter Apps is Reuters global defence correspondent and currently on sabbatical as PS21 executive director. Below, he reflects on what he has learned in the organisation’s first few months.

It’s a strange sensation, lying awake in the small hours of the morning in London watching a live streamed PS21 event from Washington DC.

A year ago, the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21) barely existed. It amounted to little more than a short proposal in a Word document. At the end of August 2014, it became a legal entity — a UK registered company — but again, that meant little more than a handful of lines on an official document.

In the 12 months since we’ve registered it, PS21 and its team of volunteers and unpaid global fellows have achieved more than anyone thought possible. Since commencing operations in earnest in January, we have held several dozen discussions. Most have been in Washington DC and London, as well as one in New York where we will expand operations further in the next few months.

Most institutions fundraise and then begin activities. We wanted to prove what we could do first with as little as possible before reaching out to donors to take things to the next level.

Take a look at the website — even in a relatively quiet month like August — and it’s amazing how much activity there is; not just events and reports, but some really great original editorial content.

So, what have I learned over the last year?

Being interesting and different is key

From the start, we always wanted PS21 to be different — non-national, non-ideological, idiosyncratic, iconoclastic and sometimes ever so slightly feral.

Our discussions are more conversational and free-flowing. We’re aiming to get really great ideas probed truly and deeply — “the elephants in the room”, as one global fellow described it.

We are filling a gap and meeting a need (or several)

Particularly in the two cities where we’ve really expanded in earnest, I’ve been struck by how enthused people are by how we are different. People want to get involved, whether as global fellows, volunteers, attendees, writers or otherwise.

The fact we were able to go — in barely 6 months — from holding events in a residential apartment in London’s Canary Wharf (admittedly a very nice apartment) to the Cabinet Office in Whitehall has to say something good, I like to think.

There’s much more to do 

Next week, I’m sailing to New York on the liner Queen Mary 2 to set up a third major PS21 hub in Manhattan. That, however, will only begin to come close to meeting our ambitions.

In the coming months, we are hoping to commence our online publishing efforts in earnest with some really great short electronic and physical books on some fascinating topics. We’re aiming to move the think tank out beyond national security and international relations — we’ve already done some great stuff on social media and politics.

We are aggressively looking to build new partnerships. We could never got as far as we have without some hugely useful support. Thomson Reuters in particular has contributed not just my salary this year but also very valuable event space in Washington DC, although we are also building out new relationships and locations in both DC and London.

It’s not just about money, it’s about capital 

Our financial outgoings might have been limited to a few thousand pounds (primarily on insurance and consumables such as alcohol for events). But doing this much has involved using a huge amount of wider social, intellectual, moral and almost any other form of capital I or the others at the centre of the project would bring to bear.

What does that really mean? It means that we’ve essentially had to borrow just about everything — the expertise of our panellists, the time of our volunteers, meeting and event spaces.

A lot of that has meant trading off multiple relationships either quietly well over a decade of journalism. Not to mention any additional goodwill the disability and anything else I’ve ever done or acquired might bring with it.

Maintaining goodwill and finding mutual self-interest is vital 

At the end of the day, the PS21 model so far has been very dependent on making sure we serve the self-interest of those involved. That means different things for different people: some need promotions, some — particularly the interns and volunteer staff who have done so much of the heavy lifting — need useful experiences that will get them the jobs they want.

Crafting structures that serve that has taken time and is very much a work in progress. Part of that process is simply accepting that people will leave and finding ways of maintaining expertise and keeping a professional appearance.

It has been — and will continue to be — good fun

And it needs to stay that way, even as we build out, professionalise and perhaps slowly become ever so slightly less feral. The 21st century is throwing up some truly fascinating, sometimes terrifying questions. But it would be a shame to take it all too seriously.

Thanks to all for your involvement and support so far this year. I look forward to seeing what happens next.

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