Adelaide Thinkers in Residence

Established in 2003, the Adelaide Thinkers in Residence program was a global first. It is a tested social innovation, developed in South Australia, to address urgent challenges or to explore areas of opportunity, through new policy development and systems reform.

Between 2003 and 2013 the program resulted in more than $200 million of investment in new programs and infrastructure, both in South Australia and across the nation. The Australian Government provided around half of this investment.

The program brings new ideas into the state and translates them into practical solutions to improve the lives of the people who live in South Australia. The Thinkers methodology relies upon the relevance of the issue at hand, the calibre of the visiting expert (known as the Thinker), and the leadership of the public, community, university and private sector partners who invest in the residency and commit to supporting the implementation of the recommendations.

The Thinkers in Residence program helped guide the State’s response to some of the most important issues of the last decade including health, education, water, climate change, manufacturing, transport and road safety.

Other significant outcomes of the program include the establishment of the Australian Centre for Social Innovation (Geoff Mulgan), the Wellbeing and Resilience Centre (Martin Seligman), the state-wide measurement of progress in children’s development through the Australian Early Development Index (Fraser Mustard), and the construction of four Common Ground Adelaide sites to house the long-term homeless (Rosanne Haggerty).


In 2013 the Adelaide Thinkers in Residence Program stopped receiving ongoing State Government funding. That year the Don Dunstan Foundation hosted the first residency outside of government. ‘Reverb’ focused on the live music industry in South Australia and was incredibly successful leading to the establishment of the St Pauls Creative Centre, the Music Development Office and the listing of Adelaide as a UNESCO City of Live Music.

In 2016 the Thinkers in Residence Program formally transitioned to the Don Dunstan Foundation. Some of the changes we made to the program were:

  • Rather than having one Thinker and one issue, we decided to focus on one issue, and have multiple thinkers who could help with that issue.
  •  We sought to prototype or test what we were learning from the Thinkers straight away, in the form of partner initiatives (further information on these below).
  • To change the focus of the program from being largely about what governments can do to more about what government, community and industry could do together.
  • This meant that instead of putting a report out at the end of the process, we would release reports after every visit so the partners in the process could learn and drive the implementation of the recommendations as we went through the process.

We want the Thinkers in Residence program to be thought of as a community led commission of inquiry. Where the role of the residencies is to build consensus on what all parts of the South Australian community can do to achieve a shared vision.

In 2017 the first series of residencies was launched under this new model with a focus on growing the purpose economy – we called them the Social Capital Residencies. The aim was to build on South Australia’s founding purpose: to be a better society, while addressing our most contemporary need – job creation. The ultimate goal, and hence the name, was for South Australia to be as well known for Social Innovation as Geneva is for diplomacy or Tamworth is for country music – to be truly known as the Social Capital of Australia.

The Don Dunstan Foundation’s Thinkers in Residence

Each Thinker is a world leader and exemplar in their field. They come and live and work in Adelaide for a period of time. The Thinker focuses on contemporary, complex challenges, recognised as important to the future of the state.

Investors in the residencies come from stakeholders with an interest in the challenge, and have been from the public and private sector. These partners help lead the residency and support the recommendations of the Thinker into action.

After the completion of the residency the Thinker releases a report with recommendations based on what they have learned.