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FAILURE IN SOCIAL BUSINESS - Learning to observe.

Two recent TEDx speakers Richard Seymour and Brian Forde gave accounts of their attempts to wow the world with social entrepreneurial endeavors, they impressed the media, their colleagues meeting every aspect of perfection. When deployed, FAIL.

Photo of James McBennett
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Richard Seymour worked with 'Design for Need,' a shelter for UNESCO and worked on it to perfection, it was easily deployed, cheap and effective. When received by locals, they ripped it apart and built homes with their traditional method. The world is not a ‘one answer for all’ and failure to listen and watch those on the ground results in designs that do not work.

“If your job is to meddle in creating the future, step carefully, or do something less dangerous.” Richard Seymour

Another good example is Brian Forde’s bike with phone access in Guatemala powered by pedal power. It met several impressive keywords of social enterprise from mobility to reach gaining media attention throughout the western world. However the project failed enormously. Locals did not want to make phone calls to chat with their pals or ask who wanted to go see a film, they wanted to spread the news of death or spread money to family, relatives and friends whom had left the country. The bike for the public square did not address the required privacy, important criteria, The project failed.


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I have been thinking of an idea bank of things that have at least worked somewhere and been repeated successfully. One thing I have found is that people or organizations doing the same kinds of things in similar conditions often present similar problems and opportunities. Not to say that culture is not and issue - but often the vetted solutions can be adapted with tweaking. Repeatability is desirable - but only if the basic groundwork is laid for repetition.

Photo of James McBennett

DO IT! Concept stage!

Brian's talk above was at TEDxLBS and two weeks later Richard spoke at TEDxOxbridge. Brian is a young social entrepreneur, Richard, an experienced designer who made this error in his youth. I wish the two could have met as history repeated itself on this one.

Photo of Vincent Cheng

Nice examples of the importance of really understanding local conditions James. And Jonathan, that idea bank is a great idea, and thought it might be helpful for you to check out some related discussion here,: .

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Vincent, its a good point - I think Idea bank as well as some repository of best practice, which would include guidelines for adapting a given concept or concepts locally. I do something like this professionally in that I adapt consulting methodologies to different business problems, in different industries, and then help consulting teams to apply them with specific clients. What we find over time is that the approaches get more and more streamlined, and we get better at applying them to different nuanced situations on the ground. Maybe extrapolating from that experience would also to have a in addition to ideas and guidelines, to have connection to people who can be the Subject Matter Experts around specific kinds of Social Entrepreneurship Ventures who could act as life lines to others who want to repeat and adapt them.

Photo of Arjan Tupan

Jonathan, I think you should have a look at sites like those from Ashoka Change Makers and the Skoll Foundation. I believe there are many examples/cases to be found there.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

I love the Idea bank but I think that as some have suggested, explaining the context of the success or the failure is crucial. The idea is always situated, involved in the practices and needs of the users as suggested by the Brian Forde’s bike with phone access in Guatemala. Designing a "solution" implies understanding the needs of the users.

Linking it to my experience with OpenIDEO, I sometimes felt that some ideas (inspirations or concepts) were great but not necessarily adapted to the context of the challenge. I thought that maybe one way would be to provide more contextual (ethnographic type) of information... This was indeed the case with the latest challenge on social business in Caldas and I thought this information was really important.

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Some kinds of ideas require some set of Subject Matter Experts to help to adapt them to local conditions. This has been my professional experience. We create tools and methodologies for consulting in business. Some are conceived of for everyone to use... and sometimes we are just wrong, and a consulting team needs an SME as a method coach, and adviser to help them adapt and deliver. Maybe we need and idea bank and a network of SMEs?

Photo of Jason Morenikeji

The Richard Seymore example is so valid. I've heard of many expensive NGO/donor/private projects in poor communities where there was a lack of community ownership and engagement....followed by a quick and quiet flop.

On a side-line...James talks about the locals 're-appropriating' materials from Richard Seymore's shelter and customising...this is an excellent thread to explore for this challenge. I like the idea of giving the end-user room for....cultural adaptability.

Photo of Meena Kadri

Double applause on this one, James. Sing along with IDEO: "fail early, fail often!" And here's a wee post from the brilliant field team on our Sanitation Challenge which highlights this:

Photo of Arjan Tupan

Yes, I'm with Meena on this one: fail and learn. A lot!

Photo of Krassimira Iordanova

Talking about the Ghanasan project and the fact that 17,7% of people of Caldas are not satisfied with the basic needs- clean water and sanitation (the info is from the report in Spanish that you provided us with), would it make sense to add the Ghanasan poject as an inspiration?