Create space to learn from failure: Inventor

Students should be allowed to experiment and fail, says James Dyson

British entrepreneur and inventor James Dyson (on screen) speaking at the virtual Design Innovation Forum yesterday. Singapore University of Technology and Design president Chong Tow Chong (right) also spoke at the forum, which was moderated by Desig
British entrepreneur and inventor James Dyson (on screen) speaking at the virtual Design Innovation Forum yesterday. Singapore University of Technology and Design president Chong Tow Chong (right) also spoke at the forum, which was moderated by DesignSingapore executive director Mark Wee. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

It is important to experiment, fail along the way and learn from failures, and schools need to create an environment to foster this, said British entrepreneur and inventor James Dyson yesterday.

"Failure is the way to progress," said Mr Dyson, who added that if a person fails 95 per cent of the time, "you're doing very well".

"Success tells you nothing. Failure tells us that something is wrong... why it was wrong and how you might overcome it," said the chairman and founder of British technology company Dyson, known for its bagless vacuum cleaners.

Mr Dyson, addressing an audience of about 920 via live stream, was one of several speakers at the virtual Design Innovation Forum organised by the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) in partnership with The Straits Times.

He addressed issues with education now, noting that schools tend to teach students to give the right answer and encourage rote learning.

"You should get just as many marks for failing as you do for passing," he said. "Because if you fail, you have the experience of failure, and you have to work out how to get the right answer. Whereas if you always know the right answer, you haven't really gone through much thought."

So, to nurture creativity, a different atmosphere is needed at school, where people can experiment, fail and work out how to overcome their failures, he said.

Mr Dyson, 73, was named Britain's wealthiest person last year. He was born in Norfolk, and as a student, he spent a year at the Byam Shaw School of Art before reading furniture and interior design at the Royal College of Art. There, he made the switch to industrial design.

He said his own brushes with failure were instructive.

For example, he had a recent failure that cost him £500 million (S$930 million) - his electric car project, announced in 2017, was scrapped in 2019.

Though the project failed, "we've applied a lot of what we've learnt into what we're doing now", he said.

Last year, he said Dyson was focusing its efforts on developing the battery technology and other technologies from the car project, which the company hoped would take "exciting new directions".

Dyson relocated its global headquarters to Singapore from Britain in 2019.

The importance of failure also resonated with panellists at the SUTD forum when asked by moderator Mark Wee, executive director of DesignSingapore, what qualities good designers should have.

Harvard-trained Singapore-American architect Brian Yang of Danish firm Bjarke Ingels Group said that people need to be open to failing repeatedly and have the tenacity to bounce back from that.

Mr Yang said that failing is what his company does most of the time, every day. "Failure as a part of daily life... is equally, if not more important, for learning and creativity," he said.

Besides not being afraid to fail, it is important to try new things and not be satisfied with the status quo, said the president of SUTD, Professor Chong Tow Chong.

Mr Dyson also said young people are best placed to solve the problems of the world.

He said it is a generation of young people - uninhibited by the "experience" of how things used to be done - that will solve the world's problems "through your intelligence, through failure, and through research and design".

Mr Dyson said things are changing all the time with increasing speed, so experience is of little use, specifically in breakthroughs.

"If you're doing something new, it's often better to have very young people, uninhibited people who don't mind making mistakes; people who take a naive, curious approach to creating something new."

He added that to be successful, "we must not be afraid to pursue new ideas, to challenge orthodoxy and to follow our own beliefs, trying to avoid the negativity of the naysayers".

Good design to Mr Dyson is about not blindly following what came before, but forging one's own path. And to do this, first come up with the "wrong solution", which might have a solid element of truth, he advised.

People have always tried to come up with the right answers, he said, but starting with a solution that does not work or is "stupid" will set a person on a different path from others.

Citing his bagless vacuum cleaner invention, inspired by a sawmill, Mr Dyson explained that he had no experience with vacuum cleaners then. And experts thought his idea would never work.

"But I made it work," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2021, with the headline Create space to learn from failure: Inventor. Subscribe