Failing to innovate

This morning on the Today programme Evan Davis (is it just me or has he made the programme a little more high brow over the last few months?) interviewed their science correspondent Pallab Gosh about the breakdown of the Large Hadron Collider after its big Media launch earlier this year. The ending comment from Evan was soemthing like  'after all that fuss, next time they should keep quiet until they know the thing has worked'

This made me think about failure in science and innovation. Failure is an inevitable part of both the research  and innovation processes – but like the Today programme, the received wisdom seems to be that its not soemthing we should talk about.There is still hope for the Large Hadron Collider when it starts up
again next June so its not a total failure, but I think its a good thing that we've seen how prone to
problems any new innovation will inevitably be.

In some areas of science and innvoation this leads to significant issues. When only positive medical trials are recorded there is a gap in our knowledge of what doesnt work, which can lead to repetition of work and a waste of efforts. It also leads to a very skewed understanding and unrealistic expectations of the innovation process by those maanging and funding.

So how do we deal with failure? How can we publically acknowledge that its part of the innovation proces?


  1. How about turning this around Rachel and asking ‘how do we deal with (value) success?’ I agree that we have too great a tendency to focus on the failure (as your Today story illustrates) and often have a confused idea of the value of innovations that are a success, as I have no doubt the LHC will be. If the UK is to become ‘innovation nation’ then we need to help change this deeply seated cultural tick. Maybe one of the best ways is to ‘celebrate success’ and spend more time clarifying and communicating the benefits of innovation to a wider audience – not something scientists, investors or government has done effectively to-date.

  2. Central Government rightly urges us to innovate and as a designer I, of course, wholeheartedly agree. However please tell the Banks and, in my experience, Local Government.
    When I approached them for planning permission to build a prototype low cost, low energy home (insulated with strawbales) which I hope will help first time buyers into home ownership, I was told “Cumbria is not the place for innovation”! and it was no place for “alien” materials. Now I have won the planning appeal local building control are so obstuctive that I have no choice but to employ an independent inspector from eighty miles away. The practicalities of such an arrangement I have yet to discover. Such attitudes in such places what hope for zero carbon homes by 2016? So much for the Kyoto Protocol.

  3. I think there is a lot more to be done both with success and failure when it comes to “lessons learnt”. Somehow this important part gets forgotten to be meticulously documented and then talked about and passed on as part of the knowledge gained in the process

  4. This editorial comments was taken from a recent WBCSD newsletter concerning a recent visit to one of the few a UK biomass power generation plant’s and nicely illustrates the bureaucratic challenges government presents to innovators :
    “The plant also suffers from some policy decisions: The environment agency has stopped them from using a local source of oversize compost as a fuel as they define it as “WASTE”. Use of this locally sourced fuel was part of the operational budget for the plant. The response seemed to be that the problem was site-specific although there are still no clear guidelines as to what clean wood chip is defined as-a ‘fuel’ or ‘waste’. As the biomass sector develops this will become more of an issue. The plant was partially funded by capital grants from Dti Bioenergy Capital Grants Scheme and Advantage West Midlands. Unless these grants are repaid the plant is unable to benefit from ROC’s on the energy it delivers which again substantially upsets the operating budget. These crazy decisions could only arise in the UK where we purport to support renewable energy initiatives but stick lots of red tape all over them. No wonder we lag well behind the rest of Europe!!”
    What can we do to remove these barriers and create a more hospitable environment for much needed innovations such as these? Is ‘joined-up’ government still a vision rather than a reality? Government is keen to promote innovation but what part is it playing in innovation ‘failure’?

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