TED 2016: Why Google Believes Success Starts With Failure

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It’s not often a major international company promotes the importance of failure, but that was the message from Google at this year’s Vancouver TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference.

A major event in the calendar, TED is as well known for the celebrities seen there as for the innovations proposed. This year’s attendees ranged from Al Gore to Stephen Spielberg, TV producer Shonda Rhimes to Tshering Tobgay, prime minister of Bhutan.

Google was represented by Astro Teller, so-called “Captain of Moonshots” for X, the company’s semi-secret research labs. X’s best-known project is the driverless car, which has sharply divided opinion but is forging ahead.

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Other ongoing projects include Glass, mobile technology in the form of glasses, and Project Loon, an ambitious programme using balloons to deliver the internet to locations currently without access. Teller’s theme, though, was about X’s many failed projects, which he appears equally proud of.

X’s brief is to think and dream big, and some of its failed ideas, such as teleportation and a space elevator, seem to belong more to Star Trek than to contemporary business. Others, though, were more plausible, though eventually rejected.

One idea was to develop large-scale hydroponic farms, a concept that could help solve global food shortages. Hydroponics involves growing crops indoors in boxes, with no soil and a fraction of the water required for traditional farming. The boxes used can be stacked vertically, meaning a large farm takes up relatively little space.

Google eventually rejected the idea, since many staple crops can’t be grown this way, as they also rejected the concept of vast lighter-then-air cargo airships because the prototype alone would have cost $200 million to build.

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Nevertheless, Teller insists that X’s failures are a key part of its operations. “We find a huge problem that affects millions of people,” he explained, “propose a radical solution and look for a breakthrough technology that can solve it. We spend most of our time breaking things and trying to prove we are wrong.”

After all, dreaming big has to include the risk of failure. Google appears to accept that.

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