Even innovations take their time

Some good ideas never become reality. It takes patience, long-term thinking and the courage to learn from mistakes. 

Health Officer in Ethiopia conduct surveys on dietary behaviour in different regions. (c) Simon Riedel

Jan Rübel

Jan Rübel is author at Zeitenspiegel Reportagen, a columnist at Yahoo and writes for national newspapers and magazines. He studied History and Middle Eastern Studies.

This plan just sounded too good to fail. A simple and groundbreaking app to track down hidden hunger, to detect micronutrient deficiencies in people in order to counteract them – Simon Riedel saw the usefulness of the idea immediately. When the self-employed software developer responded to a call for applications from Hohenheim University in 2015, he was thinking of the relevance of the topic and the urgency of finding a practical solution. The hunger problem of micronutrient deficiency is not visible at first glance, but it can cause lifelong health problems. Attacking these deficiencies in poverty-stricken regions is one of the main goals of global programmes to combat hunger by 2030. The app developed by Riedel and his team was used in some initial test runs in Ethiopia. 

 

“We are proceeding with a clear target in mind,” Riedel explains the principle. “The ‘health officers’ who are already in the field are asking people a concrete question: ‘What did you eat yesterday?’” The app creates a profile within 15 minutes – without an internet connection. Later, when it is connected to the web, it compiles a large database in real-time, if you will, which gives insights into what exactly can be improved about nutrition in certain regions. All that sounds logical. Admittedly today, six years later, the app still has not been launched. However, “You need a lot of patience,” Riedel sums up the situation. “Innovations in development cooperation should ideally take the long view.” And “MicroGap Ethiopia” is a successful project that aims to have a widespread impact. 

 

Good ideas often meet an untimely demise. Sometimes because of a lack of scalability in practice, or because the context is not considered.

 

Sometimes, they simply fail to convince enough people. “Mentally slow, unsociable and forever immersed in his idiotic dreams,” a teacher once said – about his student Albert Einstein. “Not the least bit entertaining. Just another band, very common, with a singer who lacks personality,” BBC talent scouts said of the young David Bowie.

 

 In that sense, failure contributes to success. California’s start-ups realised decades ago that it is just part of the game to crash once or twice. They hold “failure conferences” to cheer each other on and celebrate the mistakes they have made, which taught them this and that, mainly how to live a failure culture that is now slowly but inexorably taking hold in Germany as well; every now and again there is a so-called “Fuck-up Night” happening somewhere between Flensburg and Munich. Riedel, aged 41 and holder of a postdoctoral degree in agricultural sciences, sees himself more as an architect, an intermediary between programmers and deployment managers. He criticises that the idea of failure still has too negative a connotation in Germany. So why is the practical implementation taking longer than planned?     

 

An Ethiopian farmer at work. (c) Simon Riedel

Actually, Riedel says, when it comes to projects he likes to “get in quick and get out quick”, he started a lot of things that went nowhere – for example a software he developed for state forestry administrations for compiling forest data. The potential of the software was never fully realised, failing due to misgivings the authorities had about one another. In development cooperation, on the other hand, he realised that there are a lot of factors to be considered – and that one must have the will to not give up right away. The nutrition app quickly drew international attention, there were numerous scientific publications, a prize and lots of readers downloaded the papers; several institutions showed interest.

 

When the project expired in late 2018, the team could not agree: push for implementation quickly or do more large-scale research? Riedel wanted to do the former and move on, the GIZ reacted positively. However, there were internal delays. “I suppose in day-to-day operations, other tasks had to be handled first,” Riedel assumes. Finally, in September 2020, he was commissioned to do a survey, a study in Ethiopia. But then unrest broke out in the country. The work on location could not be done. In January 2021, Riedel and his team travelled to Ethiopia, collected some data, and are now fine-tuning the project for the next level to be implemented in the summer of 2021. So, when will there finally be a breakthrough? “Perhaps in the summer of 2022.” He has learned, he says, that you cannot expect to make a plan in Germany and then simply take it to an African country and implement it. “I only take on projects that I feel have the potential to have a big impact. And many of them fail.” Although, in his opinion, “fail” is hardly the right term in this case, because:

 

„In ‘moonshot projects’, it is not an all-out failure if the rocket doesn’t quite land on the moon; that kind of thing is normal in highly innovative projects conducted in uncertain environments.”    

 

Based on the surveys, a real-time database will be created indicating how nutrition in the region can be improved. (c) Simon Riedel

Patience pays off. A man named Harvard Schultz, for example, received rejections from 244 banks he asked to help finance his idea – before one came through and Starbucks was created. Walt Disney had to endure 302 rejections for his Disneyland idea. Colonel Sanders sent out 1,009 unsuccessful applications for financing his plan: Kentucky Fried Chicken. And James Dyson says he built 5,216 prototypes until one worked: the cyclonic vacuum cleaner. The unpredictable is an inherent element of failure: innovations are called that because nobody has tried them before. So, failure is a learning experience, the result of experimentation. Still, Germany does not cope well with mistakes. Psychologist Michael Frese, one of the most renowned failure researchers worldwide, put Germany in second to last place in a global ranking. He thinks failure is not sufficiently regarded as part of any recipe for success. “People want to avoid mistakes at all costs and run the risk of not managing mistakes,” he says in an interview with the medical journal “zwei”. “When mistakes do happen, they throw in the towel – and this failure is what sticks in people’s minds, not the actual mistake. So, it is important to recognise mistakes quickly and draw the consequences right away, without thinking about what an idiot I was.”

 

An important insight that is not always easy to put into practice. Development cooperation, for example, is financed through taxes and has to justify its expenditure transparently to the public. Mistakes are quickly seen in an unfavourable light. However, for development cooperation, as for any other enterprise, it is important to show both stability and agility in times of rapidly changing environments. A culture that consists only of rules and standardised processes quickly reaches its limits. This is why more and more state institutions are becoming open to agile structures and flexible reactions.

 

But this journey takes a certain amount of time. For example, the better mistakes are communicated, the better they can be avoided in the future; to do that, hierarchies like those that exist in authorities or other state agencies need to develop a certain tolerance for mistakes. There is a saying that sums it up: “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.” Communicating mistakes means not dwelling on them, but not turning them into hype either. And the flatter the hierarchies in an organisation, the easier it is to point out mistakes and learn from them. However, taking action quickly and showing speed are not German traits, according to Frese. “Fear can hamper innovation. But fear itself is not the actual problem so much as the slowness that results when people really want to do everything just right.”

 

What is Riedel’s takeaway from failed innovations? “They have a learning effect,” he summarises. “An analysis quickly tells you what went wrong. I often find that it could never have worked with one mindset or the other, because 1,000 mistakes were already made before.” The “MicroGap Ethiopia”, he says, is one of his personal moonshot projects, his vision of permanently improving the living conditions of 100 million people in poor countries. “The chances of me getting close to that goal are, of course, rather minute. If it ends up being 100,000 people whose own lives and those of their children were permanently improved, does that mean I was successful?”

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