Connecting Ideas & Sports


Today we post part three of TTLA's 2009 interview with Matt Harrison, founder and executive director of The Prometheus Institute, an upstart, Gen Y, L.A. think tank.

TTLA: The Prometheus website features catchy, pop-culture related essays. Like, "Patriot Games: Lessons on American foreign policy from the former NFL superpower." Or, "Being Big Vs Being Powerful: Foreign policy lessons from the gym." You probably won't find those same pieces at Foreign Affairs quarterly --

MH: You wouldn't.

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TTLA: How do you and your contributors come up with the content?

MH: It's a fundamental approach of Prometheus to try and relate political issues to things that matter to people in their daily lives. We think that's a big disconnect at other organizations "? even the best ones that do the best research. There's still an absence of that nexus between what they're talking about and your life. People would say, "Why do I care? Why does it matter?"

When you connect things to popular culture, like sports or music, people care more, people can identify with it. It's hard to find a connection and make it intelligent. "Competition in sports "? competition is good." It's easy to do stuff like that. But it's much more difficult to make a nuanced, somewhat intelligent argument comparing two phenomenon that that are really considered discontinuous.

Read part one and part two of the interview.

TTLA: Do you draw your writers and other contributors from people already in your USC circles? [Harrison went there for grad school.]

MH: We find them wherever we can. Most of them are not USC students. Most of them are people we find at networking think tank type events who are interested in new approaches. Usually you can find them "? they are the younger people, they are usually working for someone else who is not letting them express their opinions the way they want to. Those are the people we seek out, and they always seem to be attracted to our model.

TTLA: How will you know when it's time to stop, to shut PI down?

MH: Probably when we can't find any more money "? that'd be the best way of knowing.

We try to be able to have adaptability in all of our work. We've had funded projects that we dropped after a year because we didn't think they had potential, we didn't think they were the right fit for us. We did one project on climate change that did okay, but we realized it probably wasn't in our core competency to continue, we didn't think we had much of an interesting angle. You can determine that based on the reaction of the initiative. We're really lucky to have a board that respects that kind of experimentation, and values that we're willing to take risks, but also learn from mistakes. So that's what we try to do, differentiate all of our work in these initiatives so that we can find what's working and what's not. And we can always reinvent Prometheus "? in the sense we can always find that next thing that's going to work.

So in terms of the potential for that model, it would take a lot for me to think there doesn't need to be more done on engagement. There doesn't need to be more done on important issues facing America. And especially on engaging our generation.

The question is, are we able to do that? Are we able to fill that gap? That's where the empirical evidence comes in with our initiatives. What are they doing? What's their impact and their sustainability? We think what we have moving forward has great potential. And well see. If the book [more later this week] does nothing, if the book sells 2,00 copies in two years, then we might try to look for something else. So really that's what it is, trying to find the potential, experimenting, and modifying the approach after that.

COMING THURSDAY: Jay-Z & The Statue of Liberty

The Week

Monday: Meet Prometheus

Tuesday: No Litmus Test? And Clean-Up on Aisle Four

Wednesday: Sports, USC, and When To Stop

Thursday: Jay-Z & The Statue of Liberty

Friday: Snowboarding & Social Technology

Video and screen capture by Jeremy Rosenberg of 2009 Prometheus staff, including Matt Harrison (center). Left: Rand Gitlin. Right: Mike Kelliher.

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