Failure Can Set You Free

By Paul Grimaldi
The Providence Journal, R.I.


For Swiss entrepreneur Alexander Osterwalder, fear is not only an option, it’s something to be embraced as an opportunity to discover.

That’s not always possible in the bottom-line world of business. But in one corner of Providence this week, failure, sometimes spectacular in scale, is viewed as a necessary step to growth.

“The more you fail, the less you fear it,” Osterwalder said.

Osterwalder was in the city Wednesday to speak during the annual two-day conference run by the Providence-based Business Innovation Factory.

The conference, in its 10th year, brings innovation junkies from around the country to Providence for two days of storytelling, casual “collisions” and energetic thinking about what it takes to reinvent yourself, reinvent your community, reinvent an industry or reinvent the world — or at least the World Wide Web.

It’s a place “where people can come and push the boundaries; to take risks,” Osterwalder said.

Another speaker, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty member, took a big risk Wednesday when he admitted to the tech-savvy audience sitting inside the Lederer Theater Center, on Washington Street, that the current state of the Internet is partly his fault.

“I’m not here to inspire you,” Ethan Zuckerman said. “I’m here to talk about catastrophic failure.”

Zuckerman’s failure will resonate with anyone who’s used the Internet. He helped invent the pop-up ad, that reviled commercial interruption of your Internet viewing.

“I really am very, very sorry,” he told the crowd, which responded with laughter.

Zuckerman, director for Civic Media at MIT’s Media Lab, used his public apology as a way to question the premises upon which all businesses and institutions are established.

In the case of the Internet, he said, the assumption was made years ago that it would have to be free to attract the public and, therefore, it would have to make money through advertising and gathering information on users.

But, he said, “I’m not actually talking about the Internet, I’m talking about civics.”

Similar assumptions are driving how our government operates, namely that money has a major role to play in who gets elected and how decisions are made, he said.

Our political “dysfunction” can be changed by reconsidering the practices and laws that have proven harmful, Zuckerman said.

“We need more people to stand up and say, ‘I screwed up badly. I’m sorry. I’m trying to do something about it,'” he said.

Apart from the mea culpas uttered Wednesday, presenters talked about, well, talking, and communicating through music and cartooning and inclusion.

“My life is a series of conversations,” said songwriter Darden Smith.

In a presentation that was part song, part spoken word, Smith described how he uses music as a conflict-resolution technique.

Smith described how a Bob Dylan song spoke to his 16-year-old self over the radio and launched him on a career as a musician.

He related how crooner Tony Bennett once advised him to resist pressure to remake his music to sell records.

“I never did disco,” Bennett told him.

Scientist Rupal Patel followed Smith to talk about her VocalID project, an effort to create the “periodic table of speech” as a way to help people with serious speech impediments around the globe.

The project will require thousands of people worldwide willing to help create a digital archive of sounds.

It’s that type of hard work that goes unseen, according to Osterwalder.

“We always see the shining faces of success,” Osterwalder said. “There’s lots of not shining stuff going on; lots of failure.”

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