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Self-actualization, Aid-flagellation & the Benefits of #FAIL

August 17, 2010

Image: edited by Haein Lim, Steve Jobs photo by Newscom via http://www.inc.com, background photo by Haein Lim

In his satirical lexicon, The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines an inventor as one who “makes an ingenious arrangement of wheels, levers and springs, and believes it civilization.” Substitute those three components for LEDs, LCDs and electricity, and voilà, the statement holds true in the era of transformative technology defined by clever acronyms like ICT4D and M4D.

Going against the current zeitgeist of the international development community, Dennis Whittle and FailFaire both debunk the myth that technology’s “all that.”

In January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pronounced that “there is no limit to the potential for technology to overcome obstacles to progress.” In June, President Obama established “game-changing” technological innovations as a pillar of his “New Approach to Advancing Global Development.”

The list of praiseworthy social enterprises built upon technological foundations is expansive, to say the least:

…just to mention a few.

Despite these triumphs in technological transformation, Stephanie Strom was spot on in observing that “technology’s potential to bring about social good is widely extolled, but its failures…have rarely been discussed by nonprofits who deploy it.” In an article in the New York Times, Strom profiles FailFaire, an informal event that highlights the failures of technological innovation in an effort to learn from mistakes and further improve ICT4D and M4D. For example, a typical outcome of a FailFaire is a compendium of top-ten worst practices in ICT for education.

The group behind the self-flagellating cocktail party (of sorts) that is FailFaire is MobileActive, a nonprofit dedicated to social change via the power of mobile technology. Its founder, Katrin Verclas, correctly observes that “we learn from failure,” (case in point: PlayPumps, an NGO lauded for accepting its failure) “but getting people to talk about it honestly is not so easy” (case in point: 1MillionShirts and the infamous “I Don’t Drink Hatorade” tirade).

As Aleem Walji, the World Bank’s practice manager for innovation and former Google employee, explains in a blog post about the importance of talking about the big bad #FAIL, especially vis à vis technology: “most [ICT4D] projects do not succeed but those that do have huge impact” and thus it is standard practice in the tech community to engage in “rapid prototyping,” i.e., try fast, fail fast, repeat.

He urges the development community to consider setting hubris aside and discussing, nay, celebrating failure as a teachable moment.

Saul Griffith at Pop!Tech (Photo: Kris Krug via Flickr)

Focusing on a specific aspect of ICT4D failure, CEO of GlobalGiving Dennis Whittle writes on the Huffington Post about supply and demand incongruities in innovation. Whittle relates an anecdote about a young and brilliant—like, MacArthur Genius Grant brilliant—M.I.T. grad who recently hosted a TED talk and was profiled by the New Yorker. (No, it’s not Esther Duflo.)

Meet Saul Griffith.

Griffith won the genius award for inventing a “lens printer” of sorts that “custom-manucfactured low-cost eyeglass lenses” for the far- and near-sighted of the developing world. Because it was cheap, required minimal training and printed the lens in a mere matter of minutes, it obviated the need for eyeglasses factories.

This genius device, however, failed to sell in the developing world; it never found a market.

As Whittle points out, when supply is at variance with demand, technologically sound devices are not able to reach its beneficiaries. He cites the Center for Global Development’s April Harding, who wrote about “product pile-up.” For example, significant time and money were spent developing malaria rapid diagnostics kits that could have saved lives and aid money, but they were unfortunately not adopted. Other examples abound, as discussed in Access, a book (available for free download as a .pdf) that examines “how good health technologies get to poor people in poor countries.”

But worry not; Whittle announces a new initiative designed to more efficiently allocate the scarce aid resources by ensuring that supply meets demand. Spearheaded by the Rockefeller Foundation, GlobalGiving and Innocentive, the project is simple: it asks communities in need—which they call Seekers—what, exactly, they need. Then, it presents those demands to scientists, inventors and other innovative thinkers—the Solvers.

Britt Lake details the success of the EDGE Project, which challenged Solvers to devise a way to make Lake Victoria’s water potable. The project received a total of 85 solutions from 476 active solvers. Other such Innocentive challenges include insights on cyber schooling ($10,000 award, 1,288 active Solvers), rainwater harvesting storage tank ($20,000 award, 747 active Solvers) and affordable fertilizer for small-scale farmers ($20,000 award, 129 active Solvers).

Despite the widespread criticism of One Laptop Per Child, using small and cheap electronic devices for education is an idea that is only gaining traction (e.g., the $35 Indian tablet, the One Kindle Per Child experiment by Worldreader). A little self-flagellation never hurt anyone (source: The DaVinci Code movie), so let’s urge these ICT4D project managers to put on their cocktail attire, nibble some mini quiches and get down and do a FailFaire. Everyone should try it; it’s quite the exercise in self-actualization.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2010 7:21 am

    Haein:

    Your post caught my eye as an interested party. I completely agree with your premise and challenge, but I would like to point out that your examples of social enterprises and NPOs built on technological foundations are as diverse in their aims and methods as the further ICT examples you cite later in your post.

    IDE (where I work) is focused specifically on low-cost, low-tech innovations guided by small farmers’ (our customers) desires rather than interventions brought in from developed world universities and inventors.

    I also think we’ve taken up the challenge of your self-flagellation exercise pretty well since our founding in 1982… or maybe since around ’86 in Bangladesh when we realized our first foray into manual pumps was not being taken up by farmers as predicted. In that instance, farmers told us what they really needed, and we figured out what worked using tweaks to an existing treadle pump design with local resources. The result… millions of treadle pumps sold in the Indo-Gangetic Basin.

    We haven’t forgotten that important “failfaire” either. We actively strive to incorporate user input and design tweaks wherever we work.

    Yes, we measure results, but most importantly we use those results to change situations “on the ground” where it’s most important.

  2. August 18, 2010 11:53 am

    A.G. Vermouth,

    I should have made it clearer that I wasn’t criticizing the social enterprises I mention in the bullet points (and I have emended the post accordingly).

    To the contrary, I think they’re all laudable initiatives, especially IDE, whose intentions are good and results better. Some initiatives such as PharmaJet are in their infancy, but as private for-profit companies, I believe they would regard failures as silver linings and would use them to improve their policies. Just yesterday I read that D.light Design is receiving significant investment from the Omidyar network, and equity ensures that D.light Design will innovate upon their failures, whatever they are. (http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2010/08/17/ebay-founder-steps-up-india-philanthropy/)

    The ICT4D and other “appropriate technology” initiatives that should self-flagellate are ones like the examples mentioned in the Strom article, such as World Bank-imposed aid initiatives that do not take local considerations into account.

    Thank you for your comment, and I hope you and your colleagues at IDE keep up the good work!

  3. August 18, 2010 12:03 pm

    oh, and another example of aid initiatives that try to hide (or black out) failure would be USAID ones mentioned in Bill Easterly’s WSJ op-ed:

    http://www.nyu.edu/fas/institute/dri/Easterly/File/WSJ_Hearts_and_Minds_8.16.2010.pdf

  4. August 19, 2010 3:18 pm

    We do have inexpensive prescription eyeglass lens companies in the western world. There’s a really good compnay out of Connecticut (www.replacementlensexpress.com). And they’re not just about spending money- they encourage people to donate their used or unwanted eyeglass frames to charity, and they give you a discout towards your new eyeglasses if you do it. It’s linked in with that charity that Jake Gyllenhal is involved with.

Trackbacks

  1. Mainstreaming ICTs in Development: The Case Against « ICTs for Development
  2. Mainstreaming ICTs in Development: The Case Against – Ethnos Project Crisis Zone

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