About the privilege of learning through mistakes

This blog post is about how I learn from making mistakes. We tell our first-year design students that it is essential not to dismay when they make mistakes. In fact, making a mistake and reflecting on why this mistake happened (and possibly how to avoid it next time) is the best that can happen to us. It means that we are learning.

The way we ask our students to learn is not different from how I, as academic, learn. It is not easy to pronounce publicly that you ‘got something wrong’. Publishing in academia is all about celebrating what you have achieved or ‘got right’, for example, a hypothesis that was confirmed by empirical evidence, or a theory that you constructed based on a thorough analysis of rich data that you have collected over years. But seldom, we report about the dead ends in research, an idea we pursued too long without a positive result or simply the things we ‘didn’t get right’.

Last week I attended an online un-conference with the theme of ‘Designing a world of many centres’. PIVOT 2020 was a packed one-day Zoom event. Do scroll through the short descriptions of the 42! talks here (https://taylor.tulane.edu/pivot/agenda/). One chat discussion suggested that we should write more about our mistakes, so others can learn from and with us, too. This prompted me to post this.

Usually, I would report how well a talk went and how positive others responded to my talk (and there was some of this too). But not this time. I was reading a lot of critique in the responses to my presentation on the “Inequalities in the participation in social learning and open innovation during crisis”. Here is the talk I pre-recorded.

In the talk, I posed two important questions:

How, in the current Pandemic, did public participation in community design and learning activities change as lockdown and social distancing measures took hold?

How could marginalised communities continue to participate in global social innovation if they cannot use a community-FabLab?

And to my utter surprise, I got no responses to these at all. Instead, the discussion focused on the systemic inequalities that FabLabs seems to reproduce.

It took me a while to understand where I went wrong with my presentation. How could I be so utterly misunderstood? I think I used some trigger words that suggested a technology-determinist stance, rather than a position of social learning and inclusion through dialogue. After the talk, I justified that the community FabLab I was talking about was co-designed with the community. It started with the wishes and dreams of the community and aimed at facilitating context-aware learning through making. I juxtaposed this to the commercial FabLabs that focus on renting out their tools and expertise for commercial gain. The conclusion of this discussion was that even though the community FabLab’s ‘structure’ strives to be accessible and equitable, it remains that the technology in itself is ‘white-colonial dominated’ (the critical words of commenters).

Especially over the last 3 weeks (May-June 2020), in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations, the systemic nature of perpetuating inequalities and oppression came to the fore. This relates to the technologies and tools, including the language, we use.

The mistake I have made was that I chose an inappropriate focus and language in my talk, I used trigger words that suggested a technology-deterministic stance (kind of ‘everything can be solved by technology’) and I didn’t acknowledge enough my role and intentions. I have experienced the opportunities social learning within communities of practice, learning with others and though hands-on making (including making mistakes), can offer, and I want others to benefit from the same opportunities. This starts with acknowledging my own mistakes. It is a privilege to have the confidence to admit mistakes, without fearing the belittlement or judgement of those I usually learn with and from (well some might). Very few are in such a favoured position, and it is important that more people, regardless of colour, background or ability, gain the privilege to make mistakes and learn from them.

And, no, I don’t have a satisfying answer to the critique about the ‘white-colonial dominated’ technologies of FabLabs yet (I might never have one).

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