TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 13

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Women can’t thrive in a society where anything other than “no” means “maybe.” Consent laws are an important step, but we need a change in culture.

By Amanda Taub in Vox

2. Jokes aside, the palace intrigue behind Kim Jong Un’s mysterious absence could contain valuable intelligence.

By Gordon G. Chang in the Daily Beast

3. As we fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, global donor organizations should build a recovery plan for the aftermath.

By the editorial board of the Christian Science Monitor

4. That self-parking feature on your new car might help military vehicles avoid enemy fire.

By Jack Stewart at the BBC

5. The next wave of satellite imaging will redefine public space.

By the editors of New Scientist

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 10

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. With U.S. support, El Salvador is using community policing to address skyrocketing gang crime.

By Jude Joffe-Block in Fronteras

2. A new tool designed to flag bogus stories online might help combat rampant misinformation.

By Alexis Sobel Fitts in the Columbia Journalism Review

3. A multimillion dollar new high rise in Los Angeles exclusively for the city’s sick and vulnerable homeless residents reflects a powerful truth: we can’t ignore poverty away.

By Gale Holland in the Los Angeles Times

4. The CDC is using mobile phone data to track and stop Ebola in West Africa.

By Aliya Sternstein in NextGov

5. “Education is the most important right. When we get education, then we can bring change in our society.”

By Malala Yousafzai addressing the Aspen Ideas Festival

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME

Think Tanks: What Are They Good For?

Hands on light bulb
Joos Mind—Getty Images

In a democracy desperate for new ideas and nonpartisanship, they might plan our future

In The Comedian, Jerry Seinfeld’s movie about his craft, Seinfeld reveals he always wanted to do a skit about think tanks. The comedian, always keen to deconstruct meaning, defines think tanks as: “It’s a tank… to think in…” And then he plots a skit where a think tank employee sitting in a bare room in a Rodin-like thoughtful pose is asked by colleagues if he is ready to go to lunch, only to respond that wait, wait, he isn’t done with his “work.” And then he suddenly is.

Seinfeld must have appreciated that Washington think tanks now find themselves in the spotlight, as the New York Times and other news outlets are taking a close look at the links between them and their funders, particularly foreign ones, raising the specter that they are just another form of influence-peddling organizations in disguise. I don’t think this is the case. I hope not, for my sake (I work at a think tank) and for the sake of our democracy. Most of the think tanks singled out have such diverse and competing funding bases that it’s hard to imagine them being overly swayed by any single donor. Still I confess that I’m glad that these reports have put the very important issue of institutional transparency back on our radars.

But the media attention also raised the larger Seinfeldian question of what exactly is a think tank and what is its role in our political system? It’s a question to which I have given a lot of thought, trying to come up with a better definition than Seinfeld’s crisp description. A few years ago, I was directing a growing program at a think tank—albeit one that is also a living presidential memorial and operates a bit differently than others—and I wanted to figure out how we could be more effective in our daily work. I called up colleagues at other organizations, including many I’d never met before, a few journalists, and a handful of policymakers to get a sense of when and how think tanks can impact policy issues. The results were enlightening, and I eventually wrote them down in a short book on think tank strategy.

In their most basic form, think tanks are part of the information flow in a democratic society, conducting research and analysis, and disseminating their findings and recommendations through publications and live gatherings that allow busy policymakers, advocates, journalists, and average citizens to hear diverse perspectives on important public issues. At their best they do even more, framing old issues in new ways and occasionally even coming up with actionable ideas to address some of the challenges and opportunities facing society. Harried policymakers—from cabinet secretaries to members of Congress and their staffs to civil servants implementing legislation—rarely have time to step back from the demands of the moment to conduct research and take a longer view on their portfolios. The best think tanks help break this inertia by injecting some long-term thinking and reassessments into Washington’s bloodstream.

The best think tanks also serve as hubs to bring together diverse groups that may not always speak with each other—politicians, civil servants, advocates, academics, journalists, and average citizens engaged with a particular subject. And some serve as conduits between universities, where a great deal of sophisticated but inaccessible research is done, and the larger public debate. Indeed, think tanks have proliferated in part because traditional academics often withdraw into abstract intramural scholarly debates divorced from day-to-day decision-making. The findings of scholarly research, too, are increasingly disseminated through niche publications that are hard for outsiders to use. Think tanks thus mind the gap between academia and Washington, providing a platform for researchers eager to see their work applied outside the ivory tower (which is looking more and more like an impregnable silo these days).

And much of the best work of think tanks involves building coalitions around new ideas. For instance, the Center for Global Development (one of the think tanks featured in the New York Times for accepting funding from the Norwegian government) was successful at creating a partnership among several institutions a few years ago to encourage research and production of vaccines for deadly diseases that mostly affect children in the developing world. Since drug companies had few market incentives to pursue these vaccines, the CGD worked with Harvard University, stakeholders from the governments of donor nations, and the World Bank to develop a blueprint for an Advanced Market Commitment, in which governments guaranteed that they would buy the vaccines if produced. Today this work has led to the production of millions of doses of vaccines to save the lives of children around the world.

Somewhat more modestly, I was involved in a very practical study a few years ago at the Wilson Center on how to leverage risk management tools to make the U.S.-Mexico border both more secure and more competitive. In the end, we involved two Mexican think tanks and the Los Angeles-based Pacific Council in producing two studies, which engaged key national, state, and local policymakers, business leaders, and civil society representatives on both sides of the border to come up with a blueprint for intelligent border management. Today, many of the ideas have become common practice, make the border more secure and improving the economy at the same time.

There are hundreds of other examples of think tank ideas that have effectively found their way into policy, largely because they have built coalitions of thinkers and doers, often drawing on the resources and knowledge in academia while engaging key stakeholders. The Brookings Institution, for example, has had a major impact in stimulating practical innovations to make U.S. cities better managed and more resilient; the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has helped extend the Earned Income Tax Credit to almost half of all U.S. states because of its work with state governments and local organizations; and the Heritage Foundation played a decisive role in laying the conceptual and organizational bases for the Department of Homeland Security after the 9/11 attacks. Similarly, the Rand Corporation, a venerable think tank that was first established as an outfit within the Air Force and later spun off, conducted the background study that convinced the Department of Defense to abandon its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and include gays and lesbians as full members of the U.S. armed forces.

And think tanks are probably even more effective in helping frame issues so that policymakers and the public think about them differently—or examine them for the first time. The work of both the Carnegie Endowment and the Kennan Institute on Russia-U.S. relations has been critical to help us better understand the Putin enigma; research on global attitudes at the Pew Center and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs helps us understand what people in the United States and around the world think about each other; the Baker Institute in Houston has produced some of the most insightful work on energy futures.

Some critics have decried the rise of partisan and ideological agendas in think tanks, but the concern seems overwrought. Decision-making in our country is based on a contest of competing interests and opinions in the marketplace of ideas. It is healthy for political parties and interest groups to have their own affiliated research groups that can flesh out proposed policy prescriptions, whatever their political orientation, with more care and consideration than frontline politicians could ever do. The more well thought-out, competing voices in the debates over our nation’s future course, the better. And, as with any marketplace, it is the responsibility of consumers—in this case, journalists and policymakers—to be informed shoppers, to know the leanings of the organizations that they use as sources of information, and to demand transparency regarding their sources of funding and purpose. And think tanks would be wise to err on the side of disclosure to help this marketplace function well.

At the same time, in today’s hyper-partisan environment, Washington is also in need of a set of think tanks not driven by strong partisan or ideological agendas that can convene diverse points of view in a neutral, trusted setting. There has never been a greater need for organizations that can inject a measure of reason and rationality into otherwise polarized debates, bridging and brokering partisan divides, marshaling facts and dispassionate analysis. Indeed, in Washington, as Seinfeld would put it, there has never been a greater need for “a tank… to think in.”

Andrew Selee wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square. He is executive vice president of the Woodrow Wilson Center and the author of What Should Think Tanks Do? A Strategic Guide to Policy Impact (Stanford, 2013). The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect an institutional position.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

This Woman Can Sing Two Notes at Once and It’s Eerily Beautiful

Watch German vocalist Anne-Maria Hefele demonstrate the technique

lost-at-e-minor_logo

This article originally appeared on Lost at E Minor.

In this video, German vocalist Anne-Maria Hefele demonstrates a technique called ‘Overtone singing’, wherein she simultaneously sings multiple notes at once. Having practiced this technique for more than 10 years now, Hefele manages to sing a low note and a high-pitched scale at the same time, even moving the notes in opposite directions.

The sound she makes is eerie – kinda like the music you hear in sci-fi movies – except this one has no special effects! Prepare to be blown away!

(via io9)

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 9

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Like Pakistan, Turkey nurtured a militant movement next door. Will ISIS enter Turkey as the Taliban made a new home in Pakistan?

By Michael M. Tanchum and Halil M. Karaveli in New York Times

2. Look homeward: America should form a new North American partnership with Canada and Mexico to tackle global challenges.

By Nicholas Burns in the Boston Globe

3. Protestors in Hong Kong and around the world can bypass government censorship with “mesh networks.”

By Gareth Tyson in the Conversation

4. Early childhood development can dramatically change a child’s life and future. Massively scaling up investment in youth could close the income and skills gaps, and accomplish much more.

By the Brookings Institution

5. Rural America has the nation’s fastest rising child poverty rate. To overcome it, we must confront the weaknesses in our economic recovery.

By the Rural Family Economic Success Action Network

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Watch a Swarm of Drone Boats Protect a Larger Vessel

The Navy tests a new way to protect ships

Here’s a unique solution to piracy… autonomous swarms of drone ships to “overwhelm” the enemy. According to the report from IEEE Spectrum, “The system not only steered the autonomous boats but also coordinated its actions with other vehicles—a larger group of manned and remotely-controlled vessels.” No humans were on the boats.

(via IEEE Spectrum)

 

 

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

A $300 Yoga Mat Wants to Teach You a Proper Warrior Pose

Yoga
Getty Images

SmartMat, a tech-infused yoga mat developed by three entrepreneurs, is raising thousands of dollars

Can a nearly $300 yoga mat help improve your downward dog? A tech startup is saying yes, it can.

SmartMat, a tech-infused yoga mat developed by three entrepreneurs, is raising thousands of dollars by claiming to be the world’s first mat that can help users achieve that perfect pose with audio and visual cues sent via a smartphone, or tablet.

Here’s how it works: The SmartMat has a layer of thin pressure sensors embedded within a traditional yoga mat — sensors that link with a smartphone or tablet to provide vocal feedback about your poses. The mat will work best if users input some basic details, such as gender, height and weight, as well as arm span measurements and other details that can help the mat get a better sense of the yogi’s body type. SmartMat’s founders claim the mat can be used effectively by both enthusiastic yogis and beginners.

“It isn’t just a matter of plotting points on the mat and saying ‘This is where your feet go for downward dog,’ we are actually in the process of creating a learning engine,” co-founder Neyma Jahan told Fortune. “It learns about the user and tailors its practice to the needs of that user.”

Jahan said the SmartMat won’t replace teachers, but it can help improve the yoga practice.

“Tracking your fitness is part of the equation, having intuitive coaches can never be replaced with the computer and a person’s own drive,” Jahan said. “SmartMat is adding a tool to the tool belt.”

The fancy yoga mat would cost a consumer $297 if they back the Indiegogo campaign today, a price that could increase to as high as $447 as more orders come in. Launched in late September, SmartMat has already raised over $187,000, more than the stated $110,000 goal. The campaign on the crowdfunding website, which has already courted over 700 funders, ends on Oct. 30. SmartMat is hoping to ship the mats in July 2015.

SmartMat’s price is far higher than that of a traditional yoga mat. Yoga mats generally retail for under $40, and even premium-priced mats sold by Lululemon retail for less than $100.

But the SmartMat is a bet that tech-loving athletes are willing to open their wallets for the latest athletic-focused gadget. More than 20 million Americans practice yoga, with millions more involved in the practice internationally, so there are already a lot of consumers that participate in the activity. And athletes are known to embrace fancy and often pricey tech gadgets to enhance their technique and improve their performance — devices such as GPS-enabled watches, and mobile apps such as Nike+ to track their progress and keep tabs on how well they are performing.

The SmartMat isn’t just generating interest in the media, retailers are also hoping to get on board.

“Everybody you can think of has already contacted us,” Jahan said. “Everyone except Apple.”

Jahan founded SmartMat with Sam Marks, who previously worked at an e-cigarette company that was acquired by Lorillard, and former Yahoo executive Maziar Sadri. The entrepreneurs are hopeful the mat is the first of many fitness-focused advancements they hope to bring to market.

“The ultimate goal for our company is to go and create a personalized fitness experience,” Jahan said. “We are measuring output and helping [people] make incremental improvements in their performance.”

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 8

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Quotas can cause lasting change. Rwanda’s new parliament is more than 60% female.

By Eleanor Whitehead in This Is Africa

2. With open communication and smart procedures, we can contain Ebola.

By Atul Gawande in The New Yorker

3. A simple plan to begin saving for college at kindergarten helps families thrive.

By Andrea Levere in the New York Times

4. Teach For America is sewing seeds for education reform in unlikely places – by design.

By Jackie Mader in Next City

5. How Bitcoin could save journalism and the arts.

By Walter Isaacson in Time

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

This is How Much Desks Have Changed in 30 Years

Technology has helped un-clutter the desks of today

lost-at-e-minor_logo

This article originally appeared on Lost at E Minor.

30 years ago, work desks around the world were cluttered with calculators, encyclopedias, calendars, fax machines, corded phones, corkboards, and other vintage items. Fast-forward to 2014, you’ll see all of those things as apps on a smartphone. In the video below, a team at the Harvard Innovation Lab visualizes each item’s eventual transformation into an app and how technology has helped un-clutter our desks of today.

“We wondered what it would be like to recreate the desktop from the 1980′s and then emulate its transformation through the computer age,” the team from Harvard Innovation Lab explains. “We wanted to illustrate how technology has changed our world, un-cluttering our desks and simplifying our lives. While gradual change from year to year is often hard to perceive, a longer snapshot gives us a much more dramatic view of the technological progression we have experienced.”

(via Design Boom)

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