Learning from failure | David Damberger | TEDxYYC

Learning from failure | David Damberger | TEDxYYC

November 18, 2019 71 By Stanley Isaacs


Translator: Camille Martínez
Reviewer: Brian Greene Meet Inook. He’s a pretty happy guy. And I’d be pretty happy, too, if this was the first time my community
had just gained access to fresh water. Inook is from the country of Malawi, the small sliver of a country
in Southern Africa, known as “The Warm Heart of Africa.” Over the past 10 years, five million
more people like Inook in Malawi have gained access to fresh water. But what’s unfortunate
is that this picture is a lie. I’ll come back to that in a second. Ten years ago, two Waterloo engineers
sparked a movement across Canada, “Engineers Without Borders.” This movement was based on the concept
that it was completely unacceptable that 5 million people in Malawi
did not have access to fresh water, when us engineers back in Canada
were working on problems such as making a photocopier
increase its speed from 149 pages a minute
to 151 pages per minute. We needed to work
on problems that mattered. I was fortunate, I founded
the Calgary chapter here. I got to be the first director
of overseas programs for Engineers Without Borders in Africa, where I worked for four years. And I got to work
with hundreds of businesses, non-government organizations, governments, all working in this field of development. It was really fantastic working
for Engineers Without Borders because even though we worked
on hundred-million-dollar projects, we had this philosophy that if we were really going to understand
the problems in local Africa, we needed to live like local Africans. So, as a lot of ex-patriots
would spend most of the time in the capital cities and boardrooms, we’d spend our time in villages
learning local languages, traveling on public transports. And what this allowed us to do
was to get a really deep understanding of what was going on at the field level. Combined with this experience and hundreds of other Engineers
Without Borders experiences, we got a really interesting perspective
of what’s going on in this aid industry. The aid industry has gotten
a lot of attention lately. A lot of economists have become authors
and have written about it. There’s a lot of controversy
about its effectiveness, some even asking
the question, “Has aid failed?” It’s a very interesting question. Now, I can confidently say on behalf of Engineers
Without Borders staff members that, failed or not, we definitely feel
that the aid system is broken. And when I say broken, I’m not talking about
what the media usually talks about. It’s not about corrupt dictators
or about corruption. Those issues still happen in Africa, but they’re much more the minority
than they are the mainstream today. I’m talking about aid being broken in democratically elected,
stable governments with no civil unrest, countries like Ghana, Malawi and Zambia. So, I talked about Malawi. The World Bank has stated
that 80% of the people in Malawi have access to fresh water sources. So one of our staff members
in Malawi, this is Owen, was visiting one of those water points. It was a gravity-fed system that was commissioned
by the Canadian government and finished about a year and a half ago. A gravity-fed system
basically is a bunch of pipes that pipe water down
from an elevated region down into a number of communities
where there are taps, and people can access that water. And he was going around
turning on some of those taps, and some weren’t working. So he asked the community, “How many of these aren’t working?” And they said, “Well, out of 113, 81.” 81? What’s the problem? What’s going on? He found out that a lot of the pipes
had sprung leaks and broken down. All right, not a big deal,
pipes break down everywhere. But the problem
with this project was that, even though the infrastructure was built, there was no thinking about
who was going to maintain the system. Some people really took initiative
and tried to fix the pipes themselves, but there was a lack
of affordable spare parts available. This situation is typical. This is a graphic showing one area
of Malawi, I think it’s an urban area, where the green dots
are functional water points, yellow, are ones that are working
but breaking down, and red are not functional. Hardly eighty percent. Actually, Engineers Without Borders
has done some work and found out that even though there’s 80%
coverage of water points, 40% are not working. See, this issue is … A lot of donors and projects
end up focusing on the hardware side of the issue and not really realizing the importance
of the software side of things. At first it’s like, software —
of course you have to do maintenance. But when you think about it
as people donating to charities, it makes you feel a lot better if you know that your money went
to something tangible, something like a well,
something like a school, something like giving a family a goat. It’s not as sexy and easy
to tell your friends about how you helped fund a water committee
or paid for teacher salaries. So when I say that
this picture of Inook is a lie, it’s not a lie when the picture is taken. It only becomes a lie
a year or two afterwards. When looking at these pictures,
one of my great colleagues said, “Everything people see
from Africa doesn’t matter. And everything that matters
from Africa, people don’t get to see.” And this problem goes a lot further
that just broken down water points. Owen, after seeing this water point,
discovered not more than 30 feet away: “Hey there’s another set of taps
that look really broken down, too, but they’re not attached to the system.” And he asked the community, “What’s that?” They said: “Oh, that’s the American
government gravity-fed water system.” It was built over ten years ago. He said, “What happened to that?” They said, “Oh, it also broke down
about a year and a half later.” How is it that a project
that failed ten years ago was rebuilt with almost
the same technology, same process, and had exactly the same failure
ten years later? I’ve recently joined a start-up company
that sells goods online, a lot of them from Africa,
fair-trade goods — it’s sort of like the ethical
eBay or Amazon. And what we’ve learned
being a private sector start-up is, if we don’t serve our customers and we don’t provide them
the product they need, they won’t buy it. And then if we don’t innovate, change
and adapt to their needs, we go out of business. They have a power to hold us accountable. If we look to the public sector, it doesn’t adapt and change
quite as fast as the private sector, but at the end of the day, if the elected government doesn’t meet
the needs of its constituents, they have a chance
to vote them out of power, therefore holding them accountable. But in the development sector, if they don’t serve the needs
of their beneficiaries — and they’re not just NGOs, but governments
and businesses as well — the beneficiaries have no power
to vote them out or to fire them. The people who have that power
are the donors. And when you look at the system,
you can see some of the challenges. Development is the sector
that focuses more on pleasing the donors and making them happy
and communicating to them, as opposed to understanding
the needs of the beneficiaries. Because of that, systematic challenge
is very slow to innovate, there’s very little change, and you get exactly the same project
built ten years later that fails in exactly the same way. So what we do about this? First answer is easy: we invest in the private
and public sectors in the developing world. They’re inherently structurally built
to be more sustainable and to allow beneficiaries
to hold them accountable. However, 70% of people
in sub-Saharan Africa still make less than two dollars
a day and are still in poverty. And a lot of that reason is because
the private and the public sector are not serving them appropriately. So we do need to invest in businesses
and governments in Africa, but it’s still going to take a long time
for the problems to be fixed. Therefore, that leaves us with one option and we need to work with this system. Therefore, we have to fix it. We need to make it more accountable,
more creative and more transparent. We need to start innovating,
coming up with really neat ideas — ideas like giving beneficiaries
a chance to rate their projects using their mobile phones — that donors and NGOs can understand. Or moving our donors
closer to our beneficiaries. Currently, only 20% of the Canadian International
Development Agency’s African staff are based in Africa. Ideas like funding development sectors
like VCs fund businesses: What would it be like if a donor
funded ten projects and expected four of them to do OK, one of them to do fantastic and five of them to fail? And not all of the solutions
need to be that complex. Engineers Without Borders is working on
one that’s actually quite simple; it’s admitting failure. My first project with Engineers
Without Borders was in India. I worked with a bunch of schools, the poorest schools in India,
the untouchable caste. This is Bani, she was a girl
who was in one of those schools and she and her classmates had to spend
two to three hours a day walking to collect water
to bring it back to the school so they could have fresh water
to drink and for cooking and for going to the bathroom. My job in Engineers Without Borders
was to help solve the problem. I worked with the communities; we came up with rainwater
harvesting solutions to collect water from the rooftops
during the monsoons, bring it through gutters, filter
and store it for the dry season. I worked there for a number
of months, and by the time I left, we had the project funded
and being implemented. I returned back home
to Canada almost a hero. My friends and family
were like, “Wow, that’s fantastic! You gave up your job in the oil
and gas sector to go volunteer in India. That’s really inspiring.” A year later, I contacted my NGO
to see how everything was going with the rainwater harvesting systems. And they told me that not a single one
was still operating. The reason was because a lot
of them had been built, but some of them had broken down because there was no maintenance
schedule put in place. I had made the exact same mistake
that I criticized earlier. When I thought of my friends
and family back home who thought I was such a hero, I felt like an impostor. I thought of Bani,
I didn’t help her at all. Admitting failure is actually quite hard, and I didn’t tell many people about this. And one of the only things
that helped me feel better about this — and it’s a bit of a shame to say this — was that I started to learn that other people in Engineers
Without Borders had failed, too. But Engineers Without Borders has
this culture of embracing failure openly and letting us talk about it. And it was only through a bunch
of us talking about failure that we really got to see
we’re making a lot of mistakes, and we’re making the same mistakes
and can learn from them. And we started to innovate and change. Engineers Without Borders
is drastically different now, 10 years later than what we thought
Engineers should be doing in development. We don’t build water points anymore;
in fact, we don’t build anything other than spreadsheets. We now have this innovative
marketing campaign, “Sponsor an African spreadsheet,” because we understand that
the problems are not hardware problems; it’s all about
that software side of things. But it’s a hard concept
to get across to people; they want to fund wells and schools. But it’s really about
the software side of things, and it’s a lot longer a process
to fund those things. And it’s not sexy, but it works. Our staff members were really exited
to share this failure internally, but we still were not doing a good job
of letting other people know. And some very courageous field staff
were getting upset at the management because other projects were
going to make the same failures; they weren’t learning. So they pushed our management staff. And we were nervous
publishing our failures, but for the last three years, Engineers Without Borders has published
an annual failure report citing our biggest failures. At first, I was asked,
“What do your donors think?” and I think, “How would my donors feel if they knew the money they had spent
and saved up and generously donated had had no impact?” And you know, that’s tough. And our donors felt that, too. But once they started
reading the failures, they understood the power
of those lessons learned and realized it’s an injustice
not to be sharing these. Then we realized that not
everyone reads reports, so we built a website,
admittingfailure.com. This is for all organizations to come
and start admitting their failures, and to start having
a discussion about failure. The concept is catching on. The Harvard Business Review, just last
month, published their first review focused on failure. Two big companies lately
have also dealt with failure. I talk to my friends
in other sectors and they’re like, “It’s not just the development sector
that has this challenge, it crosses into a lot of other sectors.” Two companies had big failures lately. What’s interesting about them is,
one of them publicly admitted the failure and talked about what they learned
from it and what they’ll do next time. The other one kind of tried
to not talk about it at all. It will be interesting looking forward
to see which of those strategies works. I’d like to ask people to, first of all, think about: How does your organization
think about and share failure? Maybe ask the person next to you, because I think it can generate
some really interesting conversations. And lastly, I’d like to turn back
to this question, “Has aid failed?” I think I’ll say that, for me,
the answer is “Yes,” but only because it hasn’t failed enough. Thank you. (Applause)