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innovation

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Afri-chic

The NYT has an article today about "luxury that's by Africa and for Africa." It features a variety of entrepreneurs who have taken it upon themselves to establish Africa-based luxury brands, with goods created by local artisans. The author, Vanessa Friedman, acknowledges that "(t)he idea that luxury, which can be considered the ultimate in excessive self-indulgence, can be used to effect real economic change is a complicated proposition, and one that is often met with skepticism." But one of the business owners, Paul van Zyl, mounts a spirited defense:

"“It’s true, you get the raised eyebrow a lot,” Mr. van Zyl said of Maiyet. “But the real and robust response to that is: Ask any artisan of incredible skill if they would rather be paid $70 a running meter for their silk, which is what we pay at the luxury level, or $7 a running meter, and what the former can do in terms of transforming the lives of their workers, and the answer is pretty clear. Why should this be O.K. only when it comes to Italian and French artisans, and suspicious when it comes to African artisans? That’s the real issue.”

Yeah...that's not actually the real issue. The real issue might be the whiff of colonialism that exists around the whole thing.

Let me say this: I am very much in favor of local economic development. I am also very much in favor of innovations in local economic development, which is to say the encouragement of more businesses than the typical beaded-necklace-and-placemat projects. (Which is not to say that those necklaces aren't beautiful! But.) And I am definitely in favor of artisans getting paid according to the actual worth of the good they create, and if that's $70 and not $7, all the better. 

But what the article fails to discuss is the (white) elephant in the room - race and class. All of the entrepreneurs she features are white, which might not be an issue if this wasn't taking place on a continent where, historically, white people have come in and set up businesses based on the labor of the original residents. And while two of the people in the article are from Africa, they're not exactly poor Afrikaner farmers; one, Hanneli Rupert, is the daughter of a billionaire. Of course, one can hardly argue that a business that compensates its artisans that well is exploitative, but it still doesn't really feel like meaningful progress.

I think I would feel better about the whole thing if I knew that as part of the model, these business owners were also providing other Africans - white and black, but particularly the poorest - with the resources and knowledge necessary to develop their own luxury empires. Market barriers are a lot higher when you start off poor and distant from traditional centers of luxury spending, and it would be great if these business owners could not only continue what they're doing, but also contribute to a more sustainable model of economic growth that doesn't just rely on others coming in and dropping jobs from a plane. Again, I don't necessarily have anything against these companies themselves. I just hope that this is only the beginning of the story.

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integrating empathy into the Maker movement

At the 2014 DC Mini Maker Faire. 

At the 2014 DC Mini Maker Faire. 

I think I've finally figured out my problem with the mantra "Fail fast, fail often."

This week/end, I had the opportunity to attend two "Maker" related-events - the DC Mini Maker Faire on Sunday, and an AAAS/MakerEd-hosted conference, "Making Education Great: Expanding Support to Broaden Access and Participation in STEM Education Through Making," on Monday. Since, of course, I have an affinity for both nonformal ed and user-centered program design more generally, I jumped at the chance. Besides, they sounded like fun.

And they were fun - interesting, thought-provoking, engaging, with lots of Legos and wire for me to play with as I listened. If you're not familiar with the Maker movement, it refers broadly to "the umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkerers" - in other words, DIY, with a heavy focus on creation and/or technology. (This post is largely focused on the domestic community, but there is certainly a push to export these ideas to encourage entrepreneurship and the acceleration of tech innovation as well.) It's a movement that, in theory, has the potential to be radically inclusive; when you make stuff, after all, you're no longer bound in the same way by what you can buy. In theory, it should lead you to the idea that institutions and rules are mutable and breakable, that you have the power to invent things and to change them and to take them apart. In theory, "making" and "hustle" aren't so far apart in spirit. In theory.

But theory is one thing, and practice is another. In practice, inclusivity remains a huge issue, which is why everyone was gathered at that conference. (Tellingly, the vast majority of participants were highly educated, although there was a lot more racial and gender diversity than I was expecting, which was cool.) So-called "maker spaces," labs with materials where anyone can play and create, are one of the linchpins of this movement, but they're also far more common in well-off communities; low-income schools often struggle to support quality STEM education at all, much less innovation in science teaching. But I think one of the biggest reasons - certainly the biggest reason we're not talking about - is this: in America, when you're poor, and when you lack privilege, the consequences of failure are different. 

Think about it. When you give yourself permission to fail, the implicit assumption is that you have the resources - materials, time, reputation/social capital - to try again. That's a pretty damn privileged assumption to make. When you're poor, you don't have resources. That's what being poor means. Furthermore, mainstream American society is not exactly set up to reward experimentation among underserved groups; when you're on welfare, and being derided for your life choices by people who don't even know you, it doesn't exactly put you in a head space where you can be like, "You know what I want to do? Experiment!" It's more like, "You know what I want to do today? MAXIMIZE MY CHANCES OF SURVIVAL WITH EVERY CHOICE I MAKE." Risk aversion is often ultimately the more practical option.

Unfortunately, "fail fast, fail often" is a common mantra among Makers and the subcultures it overlaps - design thinkers, "innovators," etc. The idea is that you want to iterate, to improve, to fix things, that failure is how you learn. And it's not a bad idea, per se. But it's also not an idea that we can just assume is natural in every community. Because failure is for those who have resources and chances, who can make a mistake and not have to worry that it will reflect poorly on their entire race or ethnic group or neighborhood. And if we assume that an aversion to failure is some sort of flaw, rather than a natural reaction to circumstance, we're just flaunting our own privilege and the fact that we don't have to worry, at least not in the same way.

So what's the answer? I'm not totally sure. To its credit, the Maker movement - which is very new, at least in its current form - is grappling with these questions, using discussions like yesterday's to figure them out. But I think we might ultimately need to change the way we talk about these things a little bit. Rather than just talking about placing Maker Spaces into communities, we need to address the experience we hope to co-create, to actively work with the community to understand what they want and need (which is to say, ask them). We need to understand that these kinds of spaces might look different in different places, that they might involve car mechanics or Instagram apps instead of 3D printers (which are cool, but come on guys, we need something else). We need to understand that they have an intimidation factor, and that intimidation factor needs to be dealt with. (And, for the record, I think these are lessons that can be applied to ICT4D more broadly as well.)

Rather than saying "Fail fast, fail often," I think we might need to say, "I'm scared sometimes, but here is a place where it's safe for me to try things and fail. How can we make it a space where you feel the same way? How can we fail together?" We all want to pull back the curtain on Oz, to learn how to build our own worlds. But we have to understand that we haven't made it easy for people to get started on that journey, and to get anywhere, we're going to have to learn what failure means for each other.

(HUGE thanks to Danielle Martin, who told me about this event and encouraged me to come, and to the amazing Dorothy Jones-Davis and Kipp Bradford, who organized the event with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.)

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