The Museum of Failed Innovation: Celebrating the disasters that drive success

Thomas Macaulay
Thomas Macaulay

Thomas Macaulay

Tom is online editor. He studied English Literature and History at Sussex University before gaining a Masters in Newspaper Journalism from City University. He's particularly interested in the public sector and the ethical implications of emerging technologies.

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Rarely does a successful entrepreneur triumph with their first idea, as the setbacks endured by such tech luminaries as Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs prove. Events such as FailCon are helping to destigmatise disaster and embrace mistakes as an inevitable risk on the road to innovation.

Creative researcher Dr Samuel West is taking the celebration of failure a step further. The CEO and cofounder of Superlab will open the Museum of Failed Innovation in his native Sweden in June 2017. He offered a pop-up preview of the permanent exhibition at the Mirum Opus Demystifying Innovation conference on Tuesday.

West developed the idea while studying a PhD in Organisational Psychology at Lund University.

"My research focused on how a playful work environment promotes creativity and part of playfulness - an important part - is experimentation and being allowed to fail," he explains, as trains rumble above the Victorian railway arches at the Behind the Bike Shed venue in Old Street, London.

"There are so many examples of failure everywhere but they're always swept under the carpet. And there's so much to learn, it's fascinating."

Read next: Why startups fail: one founder's story on why his venture failed and lessons for others

Within the walls of a temporary white igloo sit a curated collection of creative blunders. They include a handheld Apple computer, a Kodak camera, a Betamax recorder and a forgotten flavour of Coca-Cola. Each item is ranked in four separate categories: innovation, design, implementation and disruption.

The exhibition itself was inspired by a Croatian homage to the physical memories of lost love, the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb.

"I love that museum and thought I could do something [similar]," says West. "An abstract concept in concrete form."

Changing cultures

Inspirational quotes stamped across placard stands beside the detritus of abandoned ideas. West is particularly partial to one reminiscent phrase: "All successful innovations are alike," it reads. "Each failure fails in its own way."

"I love the Tolstoy quote," says West. "He says: 'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' I love it! I stole it!"

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He draws a direct correlation between embracing failure and driving innovation, and wants more companies to follow the approach of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

"They're two sides of the same coin. You can't have innovation and those positive barometers without having the negative, which is spending money on products that nobody buys or that fail.

"[Bezos] says 'Amazon is the best place in the world to fail'. So in every letter to the shareholders he always emphasises how important failure is, and he's one of the few CEOs that actually says the word failure. Everybody else uses different language to sugarcoat it.

“Everybody knows you need to fail to innovate. It's not a secret. That's why I admire Amazon, for being so candid about it.”

The daredevil approach of American companies isn’t always welcome in other cultures. The reserved British character, for example, is traditionally more renowned for caution.

"Where there's more hierarchy, sometimes there's more risk in failure," says West. "So if you fail, you're going to take more consequences. In Asian cultures where hierarchy and saving face is more important, you're not as honest about your failures.

"In one of the analyses of Nokia’s failure, a general explanation of why they failed was that the management system was based on reporting good news.

"If you weren't positive and didn’t gave good things to say you didn't say them, so the higher level management had no idea how f*cked up everything was because they only got the positive rosy reports.

"There's a reason why the companies you see that are extremely successful are American, because they have so many experiments going at the same time that something is going to pop up that works."

Failure stories

There are lighter subplots in some tales of decline, such as the infamous collapse of the Betamax video format.

The pornography industry has a long history of innovation, and some suggest that it played a decisive role in the downfall of Betamax. While VHS producer JVC welcomed the backing of pornographic distributors, Sony maintained a policy against such material.

"We didn't write it because it wasn't appropriate, but they didn't license their technology like VHS did,” says West.

"Sony wanted to sort of maintain control, so JVC f*cked them over by licensing it to everybody and anybody. And then to the porn industry, they're like no, we want to keep it clean. JVC is like: Here you go!

"A couple of years later, who's the biggest one? JVC. Some people say that porn had a bigger role than the serious analysts would like to say."

Sony may have lost this video tape format war, but wouldn't repeat the mistake when launching its latest innovation in video in 2006.

"Someone came in before saying that with the Blu-Ray versus the [HD DVD], a similar thing happened, except that Sony had learned their lesson: Hey porn!"

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