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:
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.
Is it possible to define unstated goals? Unexpected innovations are usually discovered due to the lack of conscious meddling.
Great post, I look forward to hearing all about the summer school!
I just heard Mark Allen, founder of alternative art space/artist collective, talk about failure as a necessary part of their practice. Because of the kinds of collaborative, performative projects they create, and their willingness to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty as part of their process, the complete and public failure of a project is always a possibility. There’s obviously not the same weight to the failure of an art project as a very expensive technology project, but there is something useful in their recognition that the possibility of failure makes doing something more interesting and more valuable.
Oops, make that ” founder of alternative art space/artist collective, Machine Project,”
this seems like the old ‘process/product’ question within participation initiatives, and has a lot to do with structures of funding and how they privilege certain (quantifiable) outcomes on specific timeframes. I completely agree with your suggestion of the definition of failure being way too narrow to encompass the wide variety of experiences, side effects, ‘soft’ skills etc gained during the course of a lot of community technology projects, but think it may be less to do with how those projects defined success/failure themselves, and more to do with a wider political economy of funding.
(ps – just joining your department, will say hello soon!)