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From Failure to Resolution – Introduction To The Series

January 5, 2016


The new year is a time for resolutions. We boldly make promises to ourselves and to others that we will be better, thinner, kinder, or more (or less) than we were last year. We resolve to push ourselves and our world just a little bit closer to the ideal. In this sense, resolutions are about the future and hope, some might even say hubris. But a resolution can also be an admission of failure, of something that we haven’t been able to resist or overcome — that something is lacking or wrong. A resolution, in this way, can be a type of confession— an acknowledgement that all is not well, and that something must change.

The idea that things need to change, and that people empowered through the tools of creative problem solving can achieve that change, is perhaps the core tenet of “impact design” — a field and a philosophy that is decidedly about hope, and yet, like any profession or community of practice, is also overshadowed by the fear of failure. We may base our work on the idea that existing systems and solutions have failed us, but an impact designer is as terrified of their own failure as any architect or engineer who worries that their building or bridge might fall down.

This fear is entirely rational, healthy even, because so much is at stake in the work we seek to do regarding environmental justice, democracy, equity, race, and class. Even when we might seem to get it “right,” there is so much that can go wrong — from an ingenious and whimsical project that ends up doing more harm than good to the risk of designing “for,” and so stripping away the agency of those most in need of empowerment.

Add to this the problem of the bottom line and the vagueries of quantifying it. In impact design, success is often defined by and delivered in the form of a story, making it very difficult to tell the story of failure. In other sectors, success is measured in dollars and failure is all the rage — not feared, but embraced almost as a rite of passage. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are encouraged to “fail fast” so that they can “pivot” to riches; app developers measure their redemptive stories in soaring valuations — “unicorns” as they are known in the industry, hyper-coveted start-ups worth billions. Impact designers, on the other hand, must produce perfect stories of transformation to justify their efforts, their funding, even their existence. They must always be the unicorn — something flawless and miraculous.

And yet this is exactly why failure is so crucial to the process of real impact. We must push past these stories with their glossy narratives of making “a difference” and the world “a better place.” Make no mistake — these are noble goals and ultimately what we are striving for. But being honest about failure strips away false success; it allows us to emerge with deeper wisdom and stronger powers of empathy, and humility. Failure means we not only learn from our mistakes but learn not to mistake the wrong approach for the right path. New and challenging work will always involve missteps. The faster we learn from these experiences, the sooner we can make greater impact, but only if we share them. 

And so here we’ve set out to tell the stories that seldom get told — the dream community development project that descended into nightmare, the social impact start-up that barely got going before disaster struck, design communities that fail to recognize the true value of black designers even as they tweet out #blacklivesmatter. There is failure here, but also resolution, both in the resolve to do more and the will to resolve the most important challenges. Impact design is a pursuit that has little time or budget for anything but courage. In order to do our best, we must overcome our fear of such stories and the harsh light they shed on how we all fail.

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