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  • Dr. Karen MacClune

Why Celebrate Failure? Lessons from Implementing Water Resilience

To be resilient requires the flexibility to elegantly and successfully plan for the unknown and respond to the unexpected. But bravely going where no man has gone before is … fraught with challenge. Not everything we try is successful. Which means that, as the resilience community experiments with building resilience, some of our educated guesses about promising avenues won’t pan out. If we want to move the study and practice of resilience forward quickly, we need to share, learn from, and modify our practice on the basis of these lessons.

The second round of Global Resilience Partnership (GRP) Water Windows projects closed at the end of June 2018. This past week, the 12 grantees — supported and accompanied by the Z Zurich Foundation, as the funder of the Water Windows call, and the Global Resilience Partnership staff — met in Kathmandu to share successes and lessons from their projects.

The Water Windows projects are an inspiring and diverse collection of activities across a broad range of contexts and disciplines. However, though there was much to learn from the project successes, the lessons from what didn’t work were far richer.

FAILure – First Attempt In Learning

The most interesting FAILures to come out of the Water Windows work can be grouped into three areas:

1. Expert engagement

Bringing in experts is integral to almost all resilience work – we’re pushing the boundaries of both what we know and of previous engagement. But if you don’t have the expertise, how do you assess someone else’s? Two of the projects – both delivered by organizations with years of experience, long-standing relationships in the countries where they were working, and strong track records of excellent work – highlight the subtle challenges experts pose.

One project brought in flood modelers to conduct an analysis. The results were used to determine where in the communities to place flood markers, though the community suggested different locations. Subsequent flooding validated the community; the flood markers were in the wrong place. In the second project, a component of the work focused on engaging the private sector in flood resilience efforts. In retrospect, the project staff believe they would have seen better results if they’d brought in private sector experts to support that engagement.

In hind sight, it easy to say “we should have trusted the community over the experts” or “we should have brought in people with the expertise we didn’t have”, but if you look for a bit at those two statements you realize they contradict one another. Clearly, in bringing in experts, we need to be solidly grounded in both what we know and hold expertise around, and what we don’t know and need help with. At the same time, we need, somehow, to assess the ‘expertise’ of people in fields we don’t hold expertise in, or at least be willing to critically assess and reject that expertise if we don’t think it’s going to move things forward effectively.

2. Technology

Technology is another trap we fall into in our resilience work. ISET, in our work (see project blog), supported our project participants to develop a strategic assessment model to explore trade-offs in river basin water operations. What we failed to recognize was that none of our stakeholders had a mandate to do strategic planning. Consequently, they were disappointed when the model couldn’t support operations and the resulting engagement and use of the model was poor. Another project introduced an app to provide flood warning information. They had similar challenges with uptake – their stakeholders were more interested in using the app to support day-to-day community activities.

Yet in both cases, the technology did find users — not the ones we’d hoped, and the usage wasn’t what we’d anticipated, but perhaps that’s ok. We aimed a little too high, but we’ve planted seeds. Next time, we know to spend more time understanding the demand for our technology before we create it, or in building capacity around using it the way we think it can be most beneficial.

3. Using project results

The third set of FAILures focus on how we assess resilience and what we do with that information. One project brought in researchers to conduct extensive resilience measurement work. However, though the researchers tried to produce something that could be used by the implementors, it was still too theoretical to be actionable. Another project created policy reports for use in advocacy and influence. Lack of participatory consultation with the target governments led to ineffective reports. A third project created an elegant documentary based on their work, but failed to really consider the needs of their target audience. The result was a pretty, shiny output that the stakeholders didn’t use.

If we want to move resilience thinking and implementation forward at all, let alone if we want to do that quickly, we need to get much better about how we learn from and share the learning from our work. Project design needs to include strategic consideration of how we will use the project results… or failures. Whatever results we get, we need to identify an audience for those results and use the right language and communications approaches to get them into the right hands.

Celebrating Failure

The Global Resilience Partnership and Zurich made a point of pushing us, their grantees, to share with them and with one another not just our successes — which are always easy to talk about — but also our failures. All of the grantees at the meeting did so – openly, transparently — and it moved all of us forward, donors and grantees alike.

But it requires trust, humility, and good faith on the part of the grantees, which in turn requires openness and transparency on the part of donors. It also requires donors who create a safe space, who provide repeated encouragement, and who have a true interest in hearing about and celebrating the failures. By doing this, GRP and Zurich have created a truly innovative program – one that has more than doubled its learning with one small shift.

For more information on the Global Resilience Partnership, the Z Zurich Foundation, and Water Window grantees, check out their websites:

Project on Creating a Participatory Platform for Flood Risk Management Across Two Provinces in Central Vietnam, ISET-International:

Project on Development of Amphibious Homes for Marginalized and Vulnerable Populations in Vietnam, from the University of Waterloo:

Project on Ecology and Gender Based Flood Resilience Building in Thua Thien Hue,Central Vietnam (ResilNam), from the University of Potsdam:

Project on Ecology and Gender Based Flood Resilience Building in Thua Thien Hue,Central Vietnam (ResilNam), University of Potsdam:

Project on Building the resilience of vulnerable coastal communities against floods in Sri Lanka, by Seacology:

Project on Agricultural and Water Resilience in Coastal Areas of Bangladesh, by Practical Action:

Project on combating flood risk in the Philippines, by One Architecture:

Project on Roads to the Rescue in Bangladesh, by MetaMeta:

Project on Trans-boundary Flood Risk Mitigation through Governance and Innovative Information Technology, by Mercy Corps:

Project on Nepal-India Trans-Boundary Resilience, by Lutheran World Relief:

Project on Community Flood Resilience in north-western Kenya, by Danish Refugee Council:

Project on Community-led holistic innovations for flood resilience in Bangladesh, by The Centre for Climate Change and Environmental Research (C3ER) and BRAC University:

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