In Part 1, we explored the development ethos behind the Titan submersible and how it spoke to ‘fail fast’ culture. Here in Part 2 we look at other examples of ‘fail fast, fail often’ innovation and how regulators are catching up.
1. SpaceX, fail fast and the attention economy
Images of Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starship exploding in April 2023 might have sent shudders down the spine of anyone who remembers NASA’s 1986 Challenger exploding shortly after launch, killing seven astronauts, including a high school teacher as her pupils looked on. It therefore came as quite a surprise to see footage of Musk’s SpaceX team cheering and whooping as they witnessed the destruction of their own craft.
SpaceX’s principal integration engineer, John Insprucker, commenting on the live webcast, said the test flight would provide a wealth of data to accelerate innovation. Musk stated that ‘simply’ getting the rocket off the launch pad this time would be a success in his eyes.
It’s true that Musk’s ‘fail fast, fail often’ approach has seen him build a rocket company from nothing in 21 years, disrupting old government-led space race models. It’s also true that we live in an ‘attention-economy’ where bad news and outrageous opinions tend to gain more traction than good. Celebration of failure, especially when it is spectacular and broadcast live on a planetary scale, wins this game. Musk described the launch outcome as “roughly what I expected.” Some might say that the Starship’s explosion was, in effect, an intentional display for investors.
It’s one thing however to watch an uncrewed spacecraft explode over water with little risk to people and infrastructure (though environmental agencies expressed concern at particulate pollution and debris that spread for kilometres). It’s quite another to wait and watch in real time for an innovation disaster that takes human lives, like the Titan tragedy.
As the world absorbs that shock, it’s pertinent to ask: are we reaching a tipping point, where humans tire of ‘disruptive’ innovation? Will catastrophe and failure ever be viewed once more as something to be avoided?
2. Regulators catch-up with scooters and others
Areas where fail fast fatigue appears to be setting in are micro and shared mobility markets and social media.
E-scooters for hire were touted a few years ago as a helpful addition to a greener mobility sector. In the knowledge that 46% of US car traffic is caused by car trips of less than three miles, cities became excited about how hop-on-hop-off scooters could alleviate congestion. Scooters appeared in cities all over the world, many of them as ‘trials’ to see what lessons could be learned.
In 2018 alone, Bird and Lime became the fastest ever US start-ups to reach so-called ‘unicorn status’ billion-dollar valuations, “each achieving this milestone within a year of inception” according to Forbes. Meanwhile in Europe, Tier Mobility, Wind Mobility, Voi Technology, Dott, and Flash “emerged and raised over $150 million of capital.”
A significant rise in hospital admissions related to scooters was then noted. Published in Sustainable Cities and Society, Vol 89, February 2023, Electric Scooter Safety: An Integrative Review led by Khashayar Kazemzadeh notes: “the e-scooter, a novel technology, is introduced without a profound theoretical consideration of safety consequences, and therefore, safety issues will emerge in practice. Then, traffic enforcement for e-scooters (e.g. wearing a helmet and prohibition of riding under the influence) is not fully considered, which leads to a pattern of accidents where users lack safety gears and may be intoxicated.” Analysis suggests a higher frequency of riding and so of accidents among young people and males. Iterative improvements seem to have been made in the realm of scooter sturdiness and battery technology, which could be argued to impact the bottom line as much as, if not more than, consumer safety.
3. Paying customers used as a test bed
Aside from ethical issues around charging customers a fee while they act as your company’s test bed, the sheer number of scooters led to these mobility ‘experiments’ quickly being perceived as out of control. Most scooters were ‘dockless’ meaning they were strewn in green spaces, waterways, and across pavements, actually impeding mobility and creating accessibility issues. Questions over the sustainability of battery production were raised. What’s more, studies began to show that the scooters were not replacing car journeys at all in many cases.
So, the ‘rapid innovation’ of e-scooters made entrepreneurs billions in profits, while so-called trials and ‘iterations’ have done so little to eliminate problems that many city regulators have now banned scooters altogether, or are working to reduce scooter numbers significantly.
4. Social media platforms
Social media platforms are another space where innovation is clashing with the public good. Social media emerged in 1997 as a disrupter, a forum for user-generated content, free from the constraints of old rules and laws governing the publishing industry.
Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg has made impassioned arguments about social media giving humans “significantly broader power to call out things we feel are unjust and share our own personal experiences. Movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo went viral on Facebook — the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was actually first used on Facebook — and this just wouldn’t have been possible in the same way before. 100 years back, many of the stories people have shared would have been against the law to even write down. And without the internet (. . .) they certainly wouldn’t have reached as many people.”
5. Under threat
But that very same reach is what has caused regulators to question how tech companies store and process user data, for what purpose, and whether online platforms should be subject to the same rules around political content and advertising as other outlets.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal in the 2010s involved up to 87 million Facebook users whose personal data was harvested without consent via an app called “This is Your Digital Life”. The information spawned psychological profiles of both the users and their friends, and was used by British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to provide assistance to the 2016 presidential campaigns of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.
Now regulators are bearing down. Paolo Cesarini, expert in digital media regulation and member of the management board of EMIF (European Media and Information Fund) told Travel Tomorrow: “the spread of State propaganda and disinformation through social media, often combined with a malicious use of AI, harnesses the lack of regulatory guardrails to pursue covert political goals. In such cases, it is not only the safety of users, but the very democratic fabric of our societies that is under threat.”
6. Europe leading the way but where are the ‘unicorns’?
With 2018’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), the European Union introduced the toughest privacy and security law in the world. Organizations anywhere worldwide are subject to it, if they target or collect data related to people in the EU. Harsh fines can be levied against violations, with penalties reaching into the 100s of millions of euros. Meta was fined €1.2 billion in May 2023 for illegally transferring European users’ data to the US.
This shows some real teeth against citizens’ privacy being abused in the name of unscrupulous innovation for financial or political gain. But as Europe seeks to enthral the world with its own ‘unicorn companies’, there is still a balance to be struck. Cesarini notes:
“Regulating the tech space is necessary to build citizens’ trust and investors’ confidence in the longer run. But designing future-proof regulations for fast-moving technological sectors is far from easy. And while necessary, regulation is not sufficient. Europe should now show its ability to gain a competitive edge in global markets through the effective development of safe and ethical technologies.”
So the unicorn hunt goes on. If one positive thing can be taken from the Titan tragedy, perhaps it’s this: it is a shocking illustration of what can happen when projects are developed, tested and exploited within a largely unregulated space. As we gaze through the dark side of the mirror at fail fast tech, we may only just be realising: the Titan disaster might be the latest example of disruptive rapid innovation over-riding user safety concerns for the pursuit of economic gain, but for now at least, it probably won’t be the last.