#FAIL – investigating failure at the ISDT summer school

I’m here in lovely Porto, Portugal, as faculty at the annual Gary Chapman International School on Digital Transformation, run by the University of Texas at Austin. The week’s summer school discusses the relationships between media technologies and social transformation. For my contribution this morning, I decided to focus on the concept of failure in community technology projects. There is a summary here, or read on below.

Community tech projects are often set up as alternatives to the increasingly corporatized and enclosed internet, either as modes of providing alternative access to the internet in areas where it is not available, or as alternative intranets to connect communities to themselves. They have a variety of different expectations that can be attached to them, including expected augmentations of:

Citizen Engagement
Alternative Technology
Policy Challenge/New modes of Governance
Enterprise and business

But most of these projects fail. So what can we learn from this?

First, that many of our existing frameworks for failure are pretty boring. For the most part, innovation literature considers failure in terms of how useful it can be for progress. Either something fails, and we can dismiss it, or it provides some new idea that allows for future innovation. There are several frameworks for this, including the idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ where something new disrupts the status quo, or the idea of paradigm shift, where a failure in one system introduces a new mode of thinking.

But this linear idea about failure doesn’t do much. In reality, things aren’t so transparent. Some things fail in ways that actually have more impact than if they had succeeded.  Case in point: community wireless networks often started out hoping to bridge the digital divide. But many of them contributed more by reforming radio spectrum laws.

I decided to come up with a new taxonomy for these kinds of opaque, rather than transparent, failures. I thought that it should include not just the stated goals of projects, but the unstated goals as well. In addition – I thought about short term and long term outcomes, policy implications (intended or not), structures of participation (elite, grassroots, techie, scale), technological imperative, civic/community/noncommercial implications. I asked the ISDT group to brainstorm a variety of failures to think about how they fit into that taxonomy. Some of the projects cited (and debated) were: Haystack, One Laptop Per Child, Red Hat, Mozilla, and community projects ranging from community food banks to global mobilization movements.

Failure needs to be redefined.  It’s not always a total #FAIL. We can learn from failure. A project that has “failed” many can lead to new design methods. We need to learn from designers and think about how to iterate projects, but also how to consider the effective (and affective) use of technology – and who gains power from technology projects.