A Brief Overview of Failure from Pecha Kucha #19 (Part 1)

The Pecha Kucha Night last Friday was, for me, one of the most interesting editions of the event, primarily because the focus topic, Failure, brought together a great group of speakers talking about it from very different perspectives. Presentations were a real mix of very private and personal failures, professional failures and systemic, social failures that we experience everyday. Every speaker addressed it from different angles, using stories and examples to make their point. Interestingly, we had several failures of our own this time around, especially with the acoustics of the space. While that is something we will definitely learn from and fix for future events, I’m pleased that the presentations were regarded unanimously as a success. Here are brief overviews of the first few, in the order they were given. The rest will follow shortly.

Anvita Arora kick-started the evening with a presentation about the failures of urban design in Delhi, focusing especially on the transit system. Roads and transport systems are designed more for personal cars than they are for public transport. And this is in spite of the fact that only 9 percent of the people who live in Delhi drive cars, while more than 38 percent use buses, and many more are bicyclists or pedestrians. The failure to build footpaths, designated paths for cyclists, and to light up dark streets have all resulted in a lack of safety for the majority of people using these systems. How do we design our city so it can be more inclusive and cater to all the different people who are ‘disabled’ in some way or another? Reorganizing, redesigning and reallocating space intelligently is the need of the hour. User-centered design for our public spaces is needed, which has to take into consideration the needs of the majority of the people who use these spaces, rather than simply the elite minority who drive cars.

Nandini Hirianniah talked about failure from a very personal perspective, exploring how failure is actually determined, internally as well as externally. She touched upon one of the most common determinants of supposed failure – that of being different, of deviating from the norm. As a young girl, she was different because she preferred sports to playing with dolls, and preferred the company of boys more than of girls. People perceived this as a “failure to be a girl”, and considered her weird and deviant. Similarly, she had to overcome other socially perceived notions of failure, such as when she chose to take up the arts rather than the sciences. Ultimately, our own perceptions of failure is oftentimes based on other peoples’ impressions and expectations, rather than our own internal sense. There is an ‘external scorecard’ and an internal one, and they don’t always align – while people may perceive you as a failure, it’s ultimately up to you to take away lessons from the experience.

Jesse van de Zand told an amusing tale of failure from Enviu’s experience when they first arrived in India. Enviu’s CEO, Stephan, visited Delhi and Bangalore, and while here, observed that auto rickshaws were one of the most commonly used forms of transport. And so, they decided to create a cleaner, more efficient version of the vehicle. They went back to the Netherlands and held a design competition for a cleaner, fuel-efficient auto rickshaw, held a race between all the models, and finally chose a winner. When they came back to India, however, they realized that CNG-fueled auto rickshaws were already available and were cleaner and cheaper alternatives to the existing ones as well as to the Dutch-designed ones. However, what was obviously a failure on one level – that of not researching the local context sufficiently – served as a major learning for all their future work in India. Besides this, even though they didn’t end up launching a more fuel-efficient auto rickshaw, they did start a company called Three Wheels United that works with auto rickshaw drivers in Bangalore.

Jatin Modi’s was probably the most entertaining presentation of the evening. He spoke most hilariously about his failures as an entrepreneur as well as his health problems, and all they’ve taught him about the concept of failure. He founded his first startup at the age of 19, which was initially very successful despite the fact that they had no real idols or mentors in the startup world at that time. While it made them a lot of money, this was in itself a bit of problem since they were so young, and by the time he was 21, the startup failed and he was left broke. The next startup was, in his own words, a failure before it even started, and by 22, Jatin had two failed enterprises. He talked about how it is extremely difficult to get over the depression that comes when something you’ve begun from scratch goes on to fail. We tend to blame failure on one or more big things that went wrong, but Jatin talks about how, in his experience, failure is usually a result of a lot of small things that are done wrong everyday. But you do learn to get over failure, thankfully, and so did he as he went on to start up a health e-commerce which got acquired last year, and is now working on his latest enterprise, FrogIdeas. An amusing anecdote from his talk that must be shared is how Jatin was injured and got a slipped disc and was told he would always have problems with his back. In his desperation, he went to a place in Himachal Pradesh where he was told that being bitten by a snake would cure him. So he got himself bitten and subsequently fell ill – a major failure in judgement, one might say. But thankfully, he is healed and well now, and recovered from both, the snake bite and the back problems as well!

Isha Singh Sawhney, a journalist whose writings usually focus on her observations of the world around her, spoke about our society’s inability to talk about sex and sexuality, using memes that have been circulating in the social mediasphere recently. She began talking about her own personal experience of failure, when, at 13, she was sent to boarding school. There, she bunked classes, failed exams, jumped boundaries, sneaked illegal tuck into school, failed her finals and did many things rebellious teenagers often do. But that year, she also snuck in a book by American author Nancy Friday, into school. This was hungrily devoured by her classmates, who were curious about sex and wanted to know more, but no one was talking about it. Sex education was unappealing and clinical, limited to “those weird decontextualized torsos and squiggly drawings.” Where can a young girl or boy go to learn about “protection, pregnancy and masturbation, and all the risks and rewards that can come with an active sex life”? Nowhere, if you ask the police, the state, those who make our laws, and those who implement them. At every turn, society seems to be failing us in its denial of our sexuality, while at the same time we’re bombarded by highly sexualized imagery and content by the media. Even activists fail when they ask for more protection for women. As Isha said in conclusion, “Thank you very much, but we don’t need your muscle.”

As mentioned above, this is turning out to be an incredibly long post. In the interest of keeping it readable, I’m splitting it up and will post the overview of the latter half of the evening in a blogpost that will be published tomorrow. Stay tuned!

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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