Fail forward is necessary in our response to climate change

Karen E McNamara (The University of Queensland), Rachel Clissold (The University of Queensland) & Ross Westoby (Griffith University)

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Adaptation is big business. In recent years, there has been significant investment into climate change adaptation around the globe and a myriad of different organisations involved in the delivery of on-the-ground adaptation projects. Yet as funding increases, the adaptation community is also finding itself in a worrying predicament: organisations implementing these adaptation projects risk losing ongoing funding if they report on or share poor performance.

In the adaptation field, success stories are often championed and promoted to then be scaled up and out in future programs, but failures are rarely reported on and are hidden from view. So why are we so scared of failure?

In general, it is already really difficult to admit when something is not working well, let alone if something has failed. And yet what makes this even harder is that funding is assured and secured largely through highlighting success, rather than reflecting on and sharing where things could have been improved or where lessons could be drawn.

The competitiveness of funding means that there is genuine fear that donors will use failure to justify funding one implementer over another or to remove funding completely. Fear can be a debilitating emotion. It can stymie creativity, innovation and forward thinking. This is worrying and needs to be rectified as a matter of urgency.

As researchers working in the adaptation fields, we are always seeking out opportunities to evaluate adaptation projects, but in doing so, we’ve often encountered difficulties in garnering support from organisations to allow us to look deeply at their adaptation projects. Such territorialism stems from a lack of control over the process and fear about what might be uncovered, as this could have detrimental implications on funding. This makes sense.  These implementers are a business competing for a slice of funding from an ever-finite bucket.

The development field prides itself on reflexivity in practice. Yet, when the donor system rewards avoiding admitting failure in this way, how are we to proceed?

We feel like so many opportunities are being missed because of this mindset and culture. The lessons and learnings generated from failure are as salient as the success stories for ensuring future interventions are appropriate, equitable, effective and sustainable. The same mistakes should not be made over and over again.

If adaptation is to provide better, longer lasting outcomes for the people it’s purported to benefit, then reflexivity needs to be embraced across the whole continuum from funding bodies through to the local, grassroots scale. The concept of ‘fail forward’ is critical here. This is when we can openly and intelligently turn these failures into learnings, inspiration, improvements and better outcomes.

We hope that the adaptation field, in the spirit of collegiality, can find the courage to shift towards an openness of not only what is working but also what is failing. We must challenge the ‘name, blame and shame’ culture, encourage failure reporting and reward proactive learning. Given what is at stake with accelerating climate change, hiding failures is no longer an option.

To read about our paper that explores these ideas and maps a way forward, please see: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2590332220304322

Or, please get in touch via email: karen.mcnamara@uq.edu.au

Karen E McNamara

Associate Professor, The University of Queensland

Karen is a human geographer that is interested in how people are impacted by environmental stressors and how they can respond in ways that are effective, equitable and sustainable. Karen is an ARC Future Fellow (2020-2024) and Associate Professor in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at The University of Queensland (UQ). Karen has been undertaking policy-relevant and applied research in climate change adaptation, social vulnerability, gender, local knowledge and environmental mobility for over fifteen years, partnering with governments, and inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

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