It’s not easy for people to talk about failures, especially their own. At the Innovation Unit, we’ve started the conversation around failures by hosting the second FailFare – Fail to Scale – about a month ago. Following on that success, we determined to publicly document failures and facilitate learning from failures. Why not start with some of our own?
(We do not know if doing things differently would have changed the outcome of QOWA, but at least it’d be helpful to document failures and share our lessons learned publicly.)
In A Nutshell
The QOWA (meaning “strength” in Arabic) initiative was an ambitious innovation in 2007, aiming at providing access to quality education to children affected by the Iraqi conflicts and creating a community of learners and teachers by employing a combination of simple technology solutions. The initiative, planned to roll out in multiple countries in the region, did not fully materialize. Here’s an anatomy, based on interviews with insiders.
How It Came About
When the conflict in Iraq started to unfold about a decade ago, the education of over a million children was adversely affected by it… access to education sharply declined. There was a pressing need to find innovative ways, not only to improve the quality and access to education and information, but also to connect children to each other, creating a sense of community and resilience (from QOWA project plan).
By that time, the team had been looking at using emerging technologies to create cross-border and trans-cultural communities that loop in the most marginalized into a more equitable world. Because “the digital divide is not simply a gulf between those who have computers to access the Internet and those who do not. It is also a chasm between populations that are usually considered ideal candidates for information technology” (Using Mobile Technology to Unite (for) Children). Part of UNICEF’s work is to create equity for those population. Some early innovations include “Connecting Classrooms“ using UNIWIKI, a low-fi platform based on MEDIAWIKI for collaborative learning and intercultural exchange; and “Our Stories”, a project to collect, preserve and share stories from young people around the world (another big failure of ours, assessment coming up soon).
Our team went on a scoping mission to UNICEF’s Regional Office in Jordan to explore the transformative potentials of these innovations in and around Iraq.
The goal was set: “Pioneer innovative inter-active learning and social networking mechanisms to provide access to basic education and bring a sense of normalcy, stability and resilience to children and youth affected by conflict and displacement.”
It all sounded great. Everybody got excited.
Planning It Out
Our team was soon invited back on a second mission to the region to quickly build a project framework for the region. QOWA project plans were then built by Country Office Education experts together with the Innovation Unit. (Project plans to be shared soon in “Learn from Failure – Part 2”)
What Went Wrong So Far?
A rosy picture of identifying and utilizing emerging technologies to improve programmes that help children unfolds in front of us. Revisiting it from today’s standpoint and checking against our innovations principles, several innovation principles were violated (not that they knew any better, as the principles were built afterwards with accumulated experience/failures along the way):
The team of experts building the project plans commanded deep knowledge and rich experience in the field of education in the region. Unfortunately, that was not enough to build an innovation that works.
- Project plans have to be made with end users, in this case, out of school Iraqi children in each country involved. This would allow us to better understand the (lack of) resources, needs, challenges, preferences and habits of end users, and build the project around them.
- The research ought to include where people access information and how they use it. This is especially important for projects with a technology component like QOWA, where the human factors determine whether the technology would work.
- In order to obtain such knowledge, this would mean increased budget commitment and more complex logistical arrangement to include end users in the process. It could make the difference of success and failure. A success story is Project Mwana in which the team dedicated 8 weeks in the field examining community and context, and built the product with end users directly (with rounds of user testing).
Projects should also be built incrementally (in the form of rapid prototypes), which would allow iterative user testing and modifications. Any plan or contract with external vendors/partners should incorporate this requirement (which is not easy but definitely doable).
This principle makes large-scale regional project plans (or pilots) quite unappealing at early stages, as the process is generally lengthy and expensive; once it’s implemented, costs (time, money, organization) to adapt the pilot can be very high. Consequently, doing such pilots resembles gambling or an “all-or-nothing” deal – the pilot either succeeds or dies.
In QOWA’s defense, there was not much accumulated experience to reuse and improve. We did have education experience in providing classroom supplies and teaching in non-interconnected, non-conflict environments.
- However, the idea of building a massive, globally interconnected classroom and resource library for teachers and students using low-fi technology in the most resource-scarce and conflict-affected areas was ambitious and unprecedented six years ago (even today, no one has done it).
- It was ahead of its time in terms of hardware and software, logistics, connectivity, technical capacity, partnership, and most importantly, organizational experience that can only be learned by practice.
- This organizational experience is “in building projects which no one has ever done before, which is not experience that we had then but we do now”. It entails the ability to mobilize people, information and resources, as innovations are cross-sectoral in nature, and in this case, it demands coordination beyond the education team.
In “Learning from Failures Part 2”, expect to see a rich repository of QOWA project plans and an anatomy of what else went wrong.
Analyst, Innovation Unit, NYHQ