Futurelab’s Lizbeth Goodman: ‘fail better… and better’

Futurelab’s Lizbeth Goodman: ‘fail better… and better’

The Innovators 9 – Lizbeth Goodman
TUESDAY, 05 JANUARY 2010 07:00

Futurelab’s Lizbeth Goodman: ‘fail better… and better’

By John Galloway

Innovation is the constant in Professor Lizbeth Goodman‘s career, whether in the arts, academia, the media or new technologies where she has always been driving in new directions. Having founded SMARTlab Digital Media Institute (now at the University of East London), and then MAGIC (Multimedia and Games Innovation Centre) she has now turned her attention to the world renowned, blue-skies research establishment, Futurelab, where she is research director.

Along the way her diverse activities have ranged from creating collaborative multimedia tools for students and artists to systems for women with disabilities to use mobile phones and GPS to report problems with getting around Newham, the London borough hosting the Olympics.

Whatever the challenge, Lizbeth’s fresh thinking and shared approach to problem-solving sees her finding original approaches and pragmatic applications. How does she sustain this creativity?

“It is the most exciting job to have,” she says. “To invent. To wake every morning and think to yourself, ‘What can I do today to make the world a little bit better for somebody?'” She elaborates by quoting her father’s war diary from July 1942, after he had been shot down and stranded for months on the island of Okinawa, “Will I remember this day?” he wrote. It is a question she poses for herself, “every day as I leave home, in the sense of what could be done today to change something for somebody for the better”. And her response is simple: “In a nutshell, innovation.”

However, innovation is not something that is best done alone. Those involved need to be “building on what we already know in order to learn and build new ideas that can be shared”. Lizbeth acknowledges that: “Real innovation is almost always iterative.” And unless we do the research, and recognise what has gone before, there is a danger that ideas “will all feel original to you”.

Along with recognising who has done the previous work, feedback is also necessary because, “without feedback there is no way of placing your work in a context”. She is a strong believer in models of sharing and working together, what she calls “co-opetition”, meaning co-operation for group gain. “Co-opetition leads to group success – groups of kids. Nations. Economies. It is better than collaboration because that is part of the competition model. Collaboration doesn’t always lead to group gain.”

One clear example of this approach is the open-source movement. In software development, for instance, codes are made freely available for anyone to take up and develop further. She explains, with passion, “Everything put out there is just an invitation to let someone else stand on the shoulders of that, until there’s a new tool, or a new idea, that someone else will stand on the shoulder of. That’s the model that really does implement education and social change.”

If it is an on-going process, is there ever any failure? “I would say absolutely not. There is no way to fail in innovation. One of the measures of success is the willingness to keep starting again. Fail better, and fail better, and fail better again until the thing that matters is made. Then never consider it finished.”

Innovation, she believes, also requires a number of other factors: “I think flexibility is one. Utter transparency, total honesty, about what your project is about. A real sense of clarity about the purpose of any project. Stubborn optimism is key to innovation. A willingness to keep trying and keep iterating an idea even when there is no immediate sense of a gain or likely success in the short term. The ability to really look at the far horizon and keep focused on it while making things that matter each and every day. Risk taking is a very obvious one. Nothing innovative happens without taking risks.” Beyond these, she might also include the unspoken elements that she embodies, of enthusiasm, passion, and enjoyment.

‘Her innovations are people-focused, with a strong sense of social justice’

Vivacious, and with the movements of a dancer, which she is, Lizbeth cuts a striking figure in a group of academics. Her conversation is punctuated by frequent bursts of laughter, and she does not present the image you might usually associate with someone from the field of new technologies and academia, but then the innovations she is personally proudest of are not typical either. They are people-focused, with a strong sense of social justice, and little mention of technology. Creations such as SafetyNET a charity that provides support, discretely and free of charge, to survivors of domestic violence across the globe. Then there is the Spiritlevel Consortium, a worldwide, not-for-profit group, which aims to “level the playing field for all people by creating new tools for creative expression accessible to all”.

One of the biggest threats to innovation is the tendency to continue to work as we always have “because we’ve always done it that way”. It is, Lizbeth feels, her job, along with her colleagues, to support those in education who want to challenge that view, and “try to remove some of the walls” that are preventing change. Or: “If the walls can’t be removed, provide a nice big picture window that looks out on to the far horizon.”

What is needed, she says, are “anti-systems”, ways of creating leeway within the tight structures of the education system. Although some shifts are inevitable because of developments in technologies, these need to be embraced and worked with, to make them positive. “If we can provide support structures for sustainable, well thought through avenues to address the technological change, and enable kids to use it creatively, and innovatively, and intelligently, and with empathy, and sympathy, rather than randomly, then we will be on to a winner in terms of a systemic change to be built upon.”

Conditions for innovation

  • A spirit of co-opetition – co-operation for group gain (a model that can be applied worldwide)
  • An iterative process that builds on what has gone before, and that welcomes and implements feedback.
  • Flexibility
  • Utter transparency, total honesty, about what your project is about and why some projects matter beyond any categorisation in financial or political terms.
  • A real sense of clarity about the purpose of any project, from all the varied perspectives of all the various participants.
  • Stubborn optimism.
  • Looking at the far horizon and keeping focused on it, while making things that matter each and every day.
  • Risk taking, within reason and without apology. Nothing innovative happens and can be sustained without taking risks.
  • Trust: working with teams who share out of a deep sense of caring and who put achievements for the world of learners above any personal gains.

Sources of inspiration

Through her work Lizbeth has developed an appreciation of “intergenerational wisdom,” and it is not surprising that the people who have influenced her most come from an older generation. She cites the dancer Isadora Duncan, and Professor Graham Martin, who mentored her when she arrived at the Open University. Then there are those from the arts, such as David Puttnam, or Clive Barker, the author of Theatre Games, who showed her “how to channel my knowledge and love of performance and play” into strategies for connected learning and game playing in life. But the person who stands as her greatest role model is her father who, despite illness and disability, “remained positive, open, honest and full of humour; with his sights always fixed on the far horizon.”

John Galloway works as advisory teacher for ICT/SEN and inclusion in Tower Hamlets, London, and as a freelance writer and consultant. He is the author of Harnessing Technology for Every Child Matters and Personalised Learning.

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