Failure as a common resource: how and why we are coming together in 2016

Picture an anthill.

Under normal conditions, it would be humming along, growing, deploying soldiers to nurture its queen. But this particular anthill is under attack. Something is disrupting it – maybe a predator, or a stream fed by a recent rain. It has taken damage, but is far from dead.

In the center, close to the queen’s chambers, activity goes on as normal. You might not notice the threat at all. Out in the war zone, it’s chaos. Soldiers wander around in headless chicken mode. Many are dead. Many more will soon be.

In a way, we are like that anthill. We have built a complex, successful  civilization. We have welfare systems and Bretton Woods institutions. We have advanced democracy and free, compulsory education. We have market regulators and central banks and human rights and knowledge economies. These are no illusion. Stand in the London Stock Exchange, or under the Eurotower in Frankfurt, and revel in the might of the West.

Yet we are struggling, and we might be failing. A many-sided crisis  – financial, environmental, ideological, societal – eats away at our system. We all feel something’s not right, and the feeling is strongest in the European Union. Look at the graduates without a future, leaving en masse Italy and Portugal and Romania. Look at the many Greeks who have lost their right to health care along with their jobs. Look at the many migrants and refugees seeking to make a new home in Europe, and at Europe being unable to cope. Look at the malcontent, the tensions, the loss of hope.

Now take another look at our anthill. See? There is no sharp line dividing the two zones. The behaviour of individual ants in the center is different from that of their sisters in the war zone: that’s obvious. Yet, it is not clear just where war zone behaviour kicks in. There is a transition zone, where ants are neither at peace nor in chaos. They see the threat, but they are far enough from immediate danger for panic not to be the only option. They can, and do, try to respond, warn their sisters, coordinate.

Welcome to the edge.

Transition zones is where most edgeryders live. It is there, we believe, you will find the key to successful societal adaptation. Why? Simple: because only there do you find both the incentives and the capacity to drive change. In the center, the élites have little incentive to adapt – they are not on the firing line. In the periphery, the dispossessed have little capacity – staying afloat is a full time job. But on the edge it makes complete sense to try long-range, radical stuff out. And we do: we try co-living, sharing economy, crypto currencies, open source everything and stuff that does not even have a name yet. Some of this stuff will succeed and go mainstream, shaping the world to come.

But most, of course, will fail and go extinct. The edge generates a lot of failure: it’s just how things work. What if we could turn all that failure into information? What if we made that information into a common resource we all can learn from? There’s an opportunity here.

That same sensed opportunity drives Antiheroes, aka Irene and Kira. They organize Fuckup Nights Bruxelles, where people gather to hear stories of failure by the people who did the failing. I attended some of them, and left quite impressed. Stories of failure are rich, and drive storyteller and listeners to build alternative worlds. What was the cause of X? What could you have done (but did not do) to fix Y? How could you not see Z coming?  And there is an added bonus: you can’t talk about failure without being candid. You have to stop pretending you are brilliant and successful and on top of things all the time. This creates an environment low on hustling and high on truth. Learning ensues. So does human compassion and fraternity, because – guess what – everybody fails.

So, Edgeryders teamed up with Antiheroes to produce our next community event: Living On The Edge 5 – fail/unFail. It will be community-driven and no-spectators, like earlier LOTEs. It will focus on failure, like Fuckup Nights. As always, it will welcome everyone, especially the Edgeryders and Antiheroes communities.

LOTE5’s program is still in development, but it already lists cutting-edge activities and participants.

  • Ezio Manzini, one of the world's most famous service designers, leads a workshop on how to make our own care services
  • U. N. innovation specialist Milica Begovic discusses how new financing models are breaking the development sector.
  • Security expert (and science fiction writer!) Meredith Patterson lets us in on the arcana of debt interoperability
  • Data scientist Guy Melançon sets up Masters of Networks, a hackathon-like event where we hack networks. 
  • Bob Palmer, Europe's top cultural policy expert, reveals how and why most cultural policies fail. Expect gory details. To top it all up, Ida Leone, Ilaria D'Auria and Roxana Bedrule will explain how you can still fail even by succeeding. Exhibit A: Matera, Italy, crowned European Capital of Culture 2019.  Exhibit B: Bucharest, Romania, shortlisted for European Capital of Culture 2021.
  • Our own Nadia El-Imam shows us abject failure – and a path to unfailure – in responding to the refugee crisis.
  • Mohamed Hegazy builds on top of Cairo's failure to plan its public transport network.
  • John Coate, the legendary WELL community manager, teaches us how to cope with meltdowns in communities
  • Vinay Gupta, Ethereum release coordinator, lists failures in finance and contracts. His path to unFailing: the much rumoured blockchain technology.

See? We’ll be failing – and learning – in style.

More is coming. Much more, because we all build LOTE5 together, and, as always, no one gets away with being a spectator. New people will show up, and they will bring their wisdom to the search, and their energy to the party. Everyone is welcome, and we have work to do for everyone. Give a talk or lead a workshop, help run the kitchen or be our Tweetstar, everyone is important.

What will you do? We hope you will join us. Click here to find out how to.

Update January 21st 2016. The LOTE5 program is still evolving, but has already exceeded all expectations. Deep talks, design workshops with Syrian refugee designers, networks hackathons, a guided visit to Europe’s alleged jihadi central, a communal kitchen and even a bonfire! Welcome to the edge, indeed.

Photo: jbdodane on CC-BY-NC