Independent analysts disrupting legacy think tanks — learning from startups?

Political risk analysis, country risk assessment and business intelligence are increasingly developed via individuals’ and small networks’ efforts. The number and range of commentators has developed in line with the democratisation of access to information online and advance of techniques in Open Source Intelligence. Where once government institutions and think tanks were the mediums via which foreign and security policy, geopolitics and economics were developed and assessed, today there are a plethora of online journals and co-operative groups which in some respects can respond faster and more dynamically to events. Perhaps most significantly this democratisation of access has allowed for a broader array of foreign policy, political risk and intelligence narratives to emerge than those of legacy and established institutions which often have close ties with governments.

By way of comparison, as legacy financial institutions are facing challenges to their market share and methods of operation from various fintech startups are there lessons to be learned for analysts and researchers and can they monetize their content production more effectively than at present? A stumbling block for freelancers and even collaborative networks is the lack of ubiquitous nature of their work as compared with banking — everyone requires access to bank account, not everyone requires access to foreign policy analysis! On a small scale fundraising and regular financial support can be advanced through systems such as Patreon but this may be insufficient to work independently on a full-time basis.

Often networks can be primarily volunteer efforts and reliant on donations to function— one example is South Front Analysis and Intelligence, a self-described ‘public analytical project’. This online journal of volunteer contributors appears to have emerged in the aftermath of Maidan and the deterioration of the situation in Ukraine from 2014. South Front offers written and video analysis broadly supportive of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation. Regardless of whether one agrees with its perspective new material is consistently produced in an aesthetically striking and creative manner which some legacy organisations might look to with interest.

Nonetheless, the dominance of larger institutions is likely to remain for the time being given their often close relationship with governments and large corporations. However, as a wider variety of perspectives are offered outside of the mainstream a tipping point in interest in new political risk analysis may emerge. The tipping point could be at the time when larger organisations or companies typically reliant on established institutions for country risk advice or business intelligence utilise more regularly and comprehensively independents’ advice.

Fintech startups are notable for their “disruptive” patterns of development and entrance to the market and it would be useful to chart the progress of wider independent analysis as a broad trend and whether it can have similar impact. If independents and smaller networks can do a qualitatively better practice of analysis the influence of established think tanks may change. Further, such a change of circumstances might see a re-commitment to really thinking about contemporary issues and questioning the essence of established foreign policy narratives.

It may be somewhat naive to suggest a man in his favourite spot in a coffee shop tapping away on his laptop can produce reports rivaling those seen from legacy institutions. However, as with new fintech companies finding new ways to deal with existing issues and being innovative has to start somewhere even if on a low level basis. These new networks of analysis are not a guarantor of quality but are at least a guarantor of offering alternative views and means of analysis which ought to encourage wider improvement through competition for market share and suggest better ways to “do” foreign policy.