The failure of Britain’s first space launch is coming in for a lot of Schadenfreude. (Given how much we Brits revel in other’s misfortune, it is surprising we have to borrow a German word for it.) While an inquest into what went wrong is clearly warranted, it would be a mistake if we gave up on a technology after a single failure as some are suggesting. I hold no brief for the UK space programme but I do know the importance of failure along the road to success.
Thomas Savery’s first steam engine was a failure. Richard Trevithick’s first locomotive engine was a flop. Jean Lenoir’s first internal combustion engine was no good. Before committing suicide Rudolf Diesel poured out his disillusionment because nobody wanted his engine: “The introduction [of an invention] is a time fraught with combating stupidity and jealousy, inertia and venom, furtive resistance and an open conflict of interests, an appalling time spent battling with people, a martyrdom to be overcome, even if the invention is a success.”
On 17 September 1908 Orville Wright, brother of Wilbur, was demonstrating his “flyer” to the US Army for the tenth and final time, ten trials being required in the contract. His passenger, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, was the heaviest yet. After three laps of the field, the propeller broke and the plane nose-dived, killing Selfridge and severely injuring Wright. The Wright brothers did not give up; they returned a year later with an improved machine and took another passenger aloft for an hour and twelve minutes without mishap. The Army bought the planes.
Thomas Edison once said: “I have not failed; I’ve just found ten thousand ways that don’t work.” If you study any great innovator you find a long history of cock-ups on the road to the eventual triumph. Take Amazon, the pioneer of e-commerce. Around 2001, Jeff Bezos’s creation was in deep trouble. After buying up a lot of useless dot-com start-ups and losing money in failed forays into toy retailing and online auctions, Amazon was running out of cash. The stock price had collapsed and a stock market analyst at Lehman Brothers (!) accused the firm of an “exceedingly high degree of ineptitude”. Amazon looked ripe for a takeover by eBay.
The rest is history. Bezos is a believer in trial and (crucially) error. “We need big failures in order to move the needle,” he once said. “If we don’t, we’re not swinging enough [it’s a baseball metaphor]. You really should be swinging hard, and you will fail, but that’s okay.”
This tolerance of failure is a key ingredient of Silicon Valley’s philosophy. Indeed the venture capitalists of Sandhill Road quite like an entrepreneur who’s fallen flat on his or her face once, as long as it’s not through fraud. They have learned something.
Cautious corporate fear of failure can ruin successful firms. That is why companies like Lockheed and Google set up “skunk works” outside corporate hierarchies to try out mad ideas that just might work. These sometimes fail a lot more than they succeed. Google Glass was one result, in which the internet was projected on to the inside of a pair of spectacles. It was a commercial flop. Project Loon, to put wi-fi on high-altitude balloons fared no better. Project Foghorn, to make fuel from seawater, likewise (not even Google can repeal the laws of thermodynamics). But Astro Teller, the head of Google’s X program, is unapologetic, telling TED in 2016 of the “unexpected benefit of celebrating failure”.
In the world of science and technology, being afraid of failure condemns you to boring results. In setting up ARIA, the Advanced Research and Innovation Agency, Dominic Cummings rightly insisted that it be allowed to make mistakes and not be hounded by a Commons committee every time. He added: “Almost all science funders globally operate in the same way, they use pretty much the same metrics, like papers, they have pretty much the same kind of horrific bureaucracy.” Whether he succeeded in that aim we have yet to see but since his departure, the blob has tried hard to pull his creature back into its clammy grasp where failure is avoided by making sure success is too.
Far more dangerous to innovation than failing is being slow. Britain’s bureaucrats take so long to make up their minds about everything from new airport runways to gene editing rules that we miss out on massive opportunities for growth and never even know we have done so. Bezos again: “Being wrong might hurt you a bit, but being slow will kill you.”