The next generation needs to be able to innovate by embracing failure and learning from its mistakes


EDUCATION:CREATIVE PROBLEM solving is one of those things that you can learn – but the ability to be practical is critical to any such exercise. If Ireland is to foster innovation and to help the economy, it needs to teach the skills of creative problem solving using design and also to encourage learning by doing. This means taking risks, learning from mistakes and being willing to fail again and again.

Taking this approach to solving a problem allows you to learn from your mistakes and your failures. By improving them, you can create the best possible solution. This applies to any problem you want to solve and this process of learning from your mistakes is very powerful.

Take my case, for example. When I came up with the idea for the world’s first non-drip spout, I was doing an MSc and it was my final year project. I had a good educational basis of a BEng honours degree in mechanical engineering, which you would think would be enough. But I knew that if I was to solve the ubiquitous problem of the dripping spout, I would have to be practical, understand the needs of the users, learn from my mistakes, and create prototypes continually.

I scoured London in search of a potter and found a maker of ceramic clocks who said I could use his expertise in pottery for the next few weeks. I began collaborating with him, making a series of prototype teapots all with different weird and wonderful-shaped spouts, which I would later back up with scientific theories.

After testing the prototypes and seeing how the spout shape affected dripping, I started to learn from the failures and created the opportunity to solve the problem and invent the non-drip spout. It was only after making lots of prototypes that I had my eureka moment and I came up with a simple solution to an age-old problem that could be applied to any spout, whether on a bottle, jug or petrol pump.

Design is an iterative process. You must be able to learn from your mistakes and continually improve on your previous idea.

This is a very hard concept for people to grasp, especially in the West, as it is instilled from an early age that failure is unacceptable and it can be better to go ahead with something that doesn’t work well than to start again.

Actually it is the design process, or design thinking, that leads to innovation and value as designers seek to understand the needs, emotions, aspirations and abilities of users. Risk taking is part of the process and a mindset shift needs to occur in order for people to be able to take that risk.

Our education system, however, encourages rote learning rather than fostering creative problem solving. The next generation needs to be able to innovate using the iterative design process during which they learn continually from their mistakes and by being practical.

Schools and universities need to be reinvented in partnership with teachers and students so that education prepares people for the learning society. Barriers should be broken down between the arts and sciences so that graduates have practical problem-solving skills in whatever environment they find themselves. Postgraduate students in Ireland who conduct very deep research in one topic should instead be applying research to existing problems and collaborating with industry.

All students should learn how to mix theory with practice so they develop the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes for intercultural dialogue, critical thinking and problem-solving. If they do, they will be able to help the country to prosper in the future.

People who take initiatives in business, the public sector and civic society should be rewarded. With very limited funding available, social policies should contribute to innovation by sharing risks with citizens who engage in change. There is always an opportunity to take a risk and create a better user experience and meet users’ needs – even the ones they do not know they have.

During the heady boom years, most businesses made money as consumerism took hold. These current times offer an opportunity to create a solid platform for learning from our previous mistakes and improving things for the future.

Some of the key ways this can be done is by sharing design and creativity skills; encouraging “learning by doing”, risk taking and collaboration; and changing the education and cultural mindset of everybody so we all understand that failure can be a tremendous learning tool. This will lead to more innovation and allow Ireland to prosper. It is an opportunity we can neither let pass nor ignore.

Damini Kumar is the European ambassador for creativity and innovation and director of design and creativity at NUI Maynooth