Celebrating Failure with a FailFaire at ICTD2012

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I am Mustafa Naseem and I am attending ICTD 2012, the premier conference for the field of Information and Communication Technology for Development. ICTD opened to a great start at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta yesterday.
This is the fifth such event that brings together academicians and practitioners, technologists and social scientists together at a forum where they can interact over plenary paper presentations and open sessions. Fail [email protected] 2012 was one such session that was held yesterday to a packed room, with a lot of people only managing to find standing room in the back.
Fail [email protected] 2012 was organized by Melissa Densmore, P Clint Rogers, Katrin Verclas and Wayan Vota. The session was based on the format of the Fail Fairs previously held in New York and Washington DC, and the idea behind such Fail Faire’s is to learn from our failures in the field of ICTD rather than pushing them under the rug. I think it is fair to say it was the most interactive (and fun!) session of the conference thus far, with participants being rewarded with candy every time they engaged in the discussion!
The organizers of the Faire kicked it off by a statement ‘if you have not succeeded, destroy all evidence that you have tried.’ The moderator Clint Rogers gave an example of falling off his bike from a ramp where he was trying to do a fancy maneuver and the first thing he did afterword was to check whether someone had caught a glimpse of his moment of humiliation rather than checking whether he was hurt or not.
The point that Rogers was trying to get across was that we see failure as a negative result and try to hide it, whereas failure can be a lot more than that. Following a group discussion, it was established that failure can a good thing if you manage to learn from it, and it can be the fastest way to progress. Darwin’s quote “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change" was cited as a supporting argument to this newly established ground rule.
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The panelists for this Faire were: Linda Raftree (Plan International), Kentaro Toyama (University of California, Berkeley), Anahi Ayala Iacucci (Internews), Revi Sterling (ATLAS Institute, University of Colorado Boulder) and Richard Anderson (University of Washington, Seattle).
To keep the Fail Faire more entertaining, the panelists were asked to deliver ignite-style presentations where the slides would advance automatically after a certain time limit. It was funny to see the panelists struggle with the timing constraint as some went too fast for their slide and left awkward silences (till the slide advanced) where the audience had a chance to boo them (Yes, the audience was allowed to boo and cheer for the panelists that they liked!).
In all fairness, the panelists did a great job at keeping the audience engaged in what was clearly the most actively attended open session at the ICTD 2012 conference thus far. The idea of the faire was to provide the panelists with a safe space where they could openly talk about their failures, and thus this blog does not discuss the details of the presentations as some of the panelists were presenting off the record.
However, I will take the liberty to say that this was no academic session; rather it looked more like an academician anonymous (AA) meeting! Toyama used algebra to demonstrate the effects of his theory on technology being an amplifier of human intent, and discussed how the theory could fail from a couple of different angles.
He performed a dot product between brawn and brain comparing The Hulk to Steve Jobs, and I was kind of disappointed on why he gave The Hulk one point (on a ten point scale) on brawn even though good ol’ Steve got two points on brawn! On the other hand, Revi Sterling probably delivered the most fast paced talk at a conference ever. While she hardly ever stopped to catch her breath, her talk on the three rails of ICTD: racism, religion and resilience was so entertaining that it gave the audience a feeling of being on a roller coaster ride!
Some of the failures discussed in the talks were obvious design flaws that could/should have been fixed when the project was being conceptualized. While a few in the audience boo’ed these failures, I felt some a certain degree of empathy towards the presenters. Having worked in the field, I realize how hard it can be to do things right.
We talk about not submitting grant proposals with clearly marked down budgets, or submitting project reports that make our projects sound good even though they were abject failures, but the reality is that is how the world works. The lowest proposed budget for a project would probably win the grant while there are no rewards for failure. Acknowledging that following good developmental practice is easier said than done, and being brave enough to discuss obvious failures is a step in the right direction.
I cringed when a few members boo’ed obvious failures, as I feel that this is exactly the kind of mentality the fail faire is trying to eliminate, and it was heartening to see that the presenters were brave enough to continue talking about their failures. Hopefully, as more people/organizations integrate fail faire’s into their work, this mentality will slowly fade away (and so will poorly designed ICTD projects! J ).
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The audience got a chance to break out into groups to discuss their failures and come up with action items that they could take from the faire itself. The key take away from the session was that a negative result is a result and it is part of the scientific process that can help advance research (as is the case in other fields like medicine with drug testing etc).
One of the action items was from an editor of the ITID journal who promised to publish a special edition on ICTD failures if ICTD practitioners and academicians submitted good entries about their failures and the lessons they learned from them.
The participants and the panelists created a youtube video towards the end of the session to share their enthusiasm about celebrating failure with the rest of the world. The link to the video and other details about the fail faire will be posted on this twitter account.
If you were at the session, please let us know what you thought at http://t.co/DIxhJZk6

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