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The Aspen Institute: Thinking of Think Tanks


Think tanks have a special place in Corporate America. They are an almost exact middle ground between the public and private sectors, with funding coming from usually a combination of government support and industry donors. The purpose of these organizations is typically to foster communications around a certain issue or theme of issues. By “communication”, that typically entails research and dialogue conducted through conferences produced by these think tanks, as well as advocacy in some cases by the consultancy services provided by these organizations. This type of organization exists literally just to serve the purpose implied in their name: to think.

But as it happens, in terms of the execution of such a purpose, the systematic thinking on an industrial level typically translate into series of strategic event productions. These events are typically meetings, symposiums, seminars, forums, and conferences on various other levels. An individual can think and make that thought purposeful. But as an organization and one whose aim is to influence the rest of society, the only meaningful way to think, is to bring people together to do so.

Consider for example, The Aspen Institute. This is a Washington DC based think tank designed to foster nonpartisan dialogues around public policies, in diverse subjects ranging from creating peace in the Middle East, to improving economic potential of rural America. From an operations standpoint, the annual operations of the Aspen Institute literally consists of just meeting after meeting, event after event. It actually looks not too different from that of a company like TED or the World Economic Forum.

An example of what the Aspen Institute does is the Washington Ideas Forum, which it produces in partnership with The Atlantic media company. This is an annual forum that brings together politicians and policymakers, scholars and nonprofit directors, and business leaders ranging from bankers to tech startup founders, to discuss the year’s critical issues relating to the country’s identity and core values.

The elusive nature of what constitutes an “event company” derives much from the fact that the product itself — events — is ephemeral in nature and deceivingly accessible. An event is, quite simply, a gathering of human beings. When there is an agenda to the gathering from a content perspective, that gathering is called a “conference”. When that content is conceptually narrow in its focus, that conference is called a “symposium”. When the symposium’s content is industrial in scale and designed to be delivered through corporate entities, that symposium is called an “exhibition”. When the delivery of that content is designed to be focused on interactive dialogue, that symposium is called a “forum”. When those dialogues are delivered by high level influencers within the fields of its contents, that forum can be called a “summit”. When the attendance for that dialogue is only of a few people, that summit can be called simply a “meeting”.

Meetings are things we have every single day. When you meet with a friend, that interaction constitutes fully as a meeting. When you meet and have no agenda to talk about in particular, that meeting can be called a “hangout”. When many people get together to hang out, that hangout can be called a “party”. It’s nearly impossible to always draw distinct lines between defining what constitutes an event and what doesn’t, and even when one can, it often becomes subsequently impossible to always categorize an event into a distinct style. But what is clear to me, is that the art of creating human gatherings will be one of the most timeless relevant skills to have as human civilization progresses into the future.

See you at the next exploration!



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