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Written by Professor Michael Kenny

A New Public Policy Institute for the Age of Disruption

Professor Michael Kenny introduces the new Bennett Institute for Public Policy.

The collision between new technologies and the dynamics of contemporary politics are producing some of the most unpredictable political waves and major economic challenges today. These in turn are creating new patterns of inequality and anger across the globe. We live in an age of unprecedented disruption. And this shapes the major challenges that 21st century governments, policy makers and researchers need to face.

The newly launched Bennett Institute of Public Policy aspires to be both a stimulus and conduit for the various educational and world-leading research activities housed at Cambridge which have public policy as their focus. It will meld the world-class research emerging in the fields of technology, engineering and the medical sciences with a deep understanding of the social and political forces that are remaking democracy and governance across the world.  Both of these bodies of knowledge and understanding are richly represented in the wider University from which this initiative grows.

Academic staff involved in the Institute will engage and translate the most relevant parts of the research programmes housed within Cambridge, and they will bring these into concert with the considerable expertise stored here in the political and economic dimensions of policy-making, as well as deep analysis of the changing contours of democratic politics.

Our early research will focus upon: the promise of digital government; the growing imperative to bring a place-based perspective into the understanding and practice of policy-making; the imbalanced and unpredictable character of the emerging digital economy; and – in collaboration with our colleagues at the Centre for Science and Policy and Churchill College – the pressing need to interrogate and reconfigure the relationship between science and democracy. In each of these areas we will offer fundamental research and rigorous analysis, while also searching for new solutions and prompting various kinds of practical initiative.

All of our work will be global, as well as local, in focus and reach. We are interested in how the challenges of the digital divide, more equitable economic growth, and the ‘left behind’, play out in California and Calcutta, as well as in Cambridge. Our outputs will differ quite fundamentally from the overly technocratic debates prevalent in parts of the policy and academic worlds: we think it is time to set aside the ingrained assumption that there are technical fixes or ready-made solutions to intractable challenges arising from resource scarcity and the growing demand for a more equitable distribution of the world’s natural and social assets. This bedrock axiom is increasingly exposed as inadequate in the age of popular disenchantment, technological disruption and economic stagnation.

We will go further still and explore the limitations of the state’s understanding of its peoples – despite the stocks of knowledge it holds about them – and explore how policy-making might better engage and harness local, situated forms of knowledge and identity. One of the greatest challenges of our age is the belief of a growing number that the economic and political rules of the game are tilted in favour of the wealthy and the powerful. Policy-makers and academic analysts can no longer afford to set this uncomfortable truth to one side, clinging to the prevailing assumptions of an era now passed.

In our teaching we will continue to educate the policy-makers of tomorrow to the very highest standard. We will equip the policy professionals taking our world-leading M.Phil in Public Policy with the practical skills and forms of technical knowledge which their roles require, and bring them to a deeper understanding of the technological and political challenges of the age. We will also be developing new forms of part-time provision for those about to embark on a career in this area.

Both our research and training will be infused with a strong commitment to policy influence and wider public engagement. Our aim is to work towards a more porous boundary between academe and public policy, without sacrificing the value and integrity of the fundamental research and analytical insight which we am to develop. We will work with far-sighted and forward-looking policy professionals, NGOs and civic organisations, ready to help policy-makers examine if they are asking the right questions or are sufficiently mindful of the most pertinent forms of evidence and thinking in particular areas of policy.

As the inaugural Director of this major new venture, I am proud to be leading an initiative that combines high intellectual ambition and the ethos of practical engagement. I am delighted too that the Institute will also be led by Professor Diane Coyle who brings an unrivalled range of policy experience and insight, as well as a deep specialist knowledge of the economic dimensions of public policy-making. The intention here is not just to create a new policy institute but also a new kind of institute - with the ambition and capacity to rethink some of the underpinning axioms and overriding aims of the public policy enterprise.

  • About the author

    Professor Michael Kenny, Inaugural Director, the Bennett Institute for Public Policy

    Professor Kenny leads research in place and public policy, and re-making government in the 21st century.   Learn more

    Professor Michael Kenny