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Facepalm! But a facepalm can also be a learning experience.

2011-12-15

Co.Exist

How FAILFaire Turns Epic Fails Into Successes

Embracing failure is a common business mantra, but the participants in FAILFaire take it to the extreme, presenting their failures in public so other organizations won’t make the same mistake.

We’ve all had epic fails. However, for the tight-knit community of international aid workers and non-governmental organizations, those fails can have more serious consequences. But instead of just trying to forget about them, they have instead decided to turn their biggest missteps into educational events.

Mobile technology nonprofit MobileActive held the fourth annual FAILFaire event at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF this week. The goal of the fair (and yes, the Maker Faire reference is intentional) was for nonprofits to “openly, honestly and humorously, discuss [their] own failures.” At the well-attended events, staff from a who’s who of NGOs—including UNICEF, the National Democratic Institute, the World Lung Foundation, and Witness.org—presented some of their most embarrassing moments.

MobileActive’s Katrin Verclas, who organized the event, told Co.Exist that “we often focus on highlighting successes in our field—the use of technology in social change and international social development—but it’s no secret that many projects just don’t work. Some don’t address a problem individuals actually have, some will never scale, some aren’t sustainable, some can’t get around bureaucratic hoops, and many fail due to completely unanticipated barriers. At FAILFaire we want to recognize these failures. Instead of sweeping them under the rug as is so often done, [we want to] learn from them, and ultimately do better in the future by understanding not only what has worked but what has not. FAILFaires are events where practitioners in the 'tech for social change’ field discuss these busted projects. We try to do this with tongue firmly in cheek and some humor but honestly discuss as well why some of our projects failed.”

FAILFaire participants discussed a variety of humanitarian projects that failed. Some failed because of simple bureaucratic mistakes… while others involved “what were they thinking?” levels of facepalming.

One example of this was a 2009 anti-smoking campaign discussed by Stephen Hamill of the World Lung Foundation. The World Lung Federation aggressively promoted a Facebook-based cigarette warning generator called Pack Head. Pack Head users would be able to add throat tumors, rotting teeth, bleeding brains, and other sorts of visible smoking-related health damage to their Facebook profile pictures, and then share their deformed and bloody Facebook pictures with friends. Unsurprisingly, the off-putting pictures were not a big hit with Facebook users, who failed to trade and share pictures with their social network once the app was installed. It turns out that, despite the popularity of zombie photo generators, Facebook users are unlikely to use apps that can modify their pictures to depict health problems that are likely to show up in real life. More importantly, Facebook users interpreted use of the application as passing judgment on their smoking friends.

Another sort of fail took place at UNICEF. UNICEF’s Christopher Fabian discussed a project called the Water Canary—an inexpensive real-time water quality testing device—that failed to get distributed to disaster areas due to bureaucratic issues. The Water Canary was originally developed by New York University students attending NYU’s innovative Design for UNICEF Class. While the device allowed for maps of water quality to be quickly generated in disaster areas, key water and infrastructure officials were left out of the loop in product deployment and evaluation, meaning that the innovative low-cost device was not embraced by UNICEF in the field. Water Canary is now an independent project based out of the NYCAcre clean-tech business incubator.

Other participants talked of failing to take local sensibilities into account when conducting foreign aid work, and of tech projects gone wrong. As Verclas puts it, “as a field, we explore the use of technology in our work that ultimately has as a goal to increase the human and social capacity of people much less privileged than we are. Sharing success stories and case studies, while helpful, isn’t enough, in the end to truly move our field forward. Talking openly about where we have failed may help us learn, make better decisions, and avoid making the same mistakes again. We believe that only if we understand what doesn’t work in this field, that we can collectively learn and get better, more effective, and have greater impact to truly change some things for the better.”

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2 Comments

  • Christopher Fabian

    I just want to clarify that my presentation focused upon an *internal* failure (of mine) at UNICEF.  Water Canary is an amazing innovation that I wasn't initially able to translate into our organizational structure.  

    The company has been extremely successful, and received widespread acclaim this summer at TEDGlobal.  I remain excited about the project, am proud that UNICEF is still involved, and am looking forward to Water Canary's upcoming work with the UNICEF Innovation Lab in Uganda in the following months.

  • Peter

    Christopher, I believe that the article was clear in conveying that it was the fault of implementation rather than the product itself.  While Water Canary was not fully fleshed-out, it still sound very promising.  What I gathered is that even when you have something that is innovative, in-expensive, that can produce real-time results, it is still possible for it to experience failure.  In your case it was due to red tape and key persons not knowing how much the product could have helped.  I suspect that more focus will go towards educating those persons which will help them cut through the bureaucracy much easier the next time.  All the best with that. 

    The great thing is that this "Failure" has helped me look at one of my recent failures differently and I am using those lessons to help me avoid failure in a project that I just launched. So thanks!