Learning how to learn from Frontier Technologies

Reflections on our Frontier Technologies Livestreaming Programme from Nepal

It’s been just over a year since I got involved on Frontier Technology Livestreaming (FTL). At Field Ready in Nepal, I’m working with our DFID office to test whether (and how) humanitarian challenges can be addressed and resolved with 3D printing technology. You can read more about my work on FTL here and our most recent post here.

Symbolic dismantling — learn by taking apart the system to understand how the parts interact, what’s important and what areas need attention.

Learning not to plan

When you are supporting the development of a manufacturing sector from the ground up, as we are doing with 3D printing in Nepal, there are so many unknown unknowns. That too is amplified by the fact that we’re building a sector around such a new technology. This all makes long-term planning extremely difficult.

At Field Ready, we’ve been laying the foundations for 3D printing in Nepal: doing research and analysis, as well as the practical stuff around networking organisations, formalising the sector and actually designing and printing things. Switching to working on a more strategic, macro-level on this programme has been interesting; and through FTL we’ve had to learn to be comfortable doing this without grand plans.

Working in sprints which focus on learning means you slowly gather insight and (in)validate assumptions: so when the time comes to make a longer-term plan, you have eliminated the worst of the ambiguity and know the areas to focus-in on. It’s been refreshing to work without nailing your colours to the mast straight away, and accepting failure and dead-ends as part of the learning process.

3D printed water pipe fittings are a product with world-changing potential, significant learning about this nascent technology has been generated from the 3DP project in Nepal.

Combining iterative development with systems-level change

To build a sustainable industry in a frontier environment from the ground up, ‘bottom to top’ systemic initiatives are very important. To give an example: in our case to succeed you desperately need to go through the longer-term, complex process of building technical skills, like 3D design, within a population to develop designs and manufacture using 3D printing.

While our work on FTL can inform and catalyse this deeper change, I’ve learnt that incrementally shifting a system isn’t our goal on this programme. The relatively small size of the initial investment from DFID means that even if we identified massive potential and therefore wanted to nudge the whole of Nepal towards an all-encompassing 3D printing sector, we couldn’t. Our work here and the FTL methodology has helped us to pinpoint the bit of the system we think has the most potential, and work to learn quickly and cheaply. Our work has given us flashes of insight as to what systems-level change might look like in the future.

Over the course of the programme, I’ve learnt the value of gathering intel on all stakeholders operating locally, and working out who to engage profitably. Our initial scoping and design work on FTL helped us with this, and I’ve made sure we keep a powerful network of 3DP organisations and donors engaged on what we’re doing. Keeping this group interested really is the missing step between our work on FTL and systems-level change — I like to think that once these partners observe and internalise the insight we have helped to generate, they’ll work with us to help trigger a deeper, systemic shift.

We found exciting new market entrants to the 3DP sector through a mapping exercise that could have led nowhere. These guys are making 3DP scout woggles (see photo) for sale at jamborees around Nepal.

My three top tips for others on the programme

We were lucky enough to be one of the first pilots on FTL since early 2017, but we hope and expect plenty of other tech use cases to follow our path. For those that do, I have three top tips to help you get the most from your time and money:

  1. Be prepared to shed your preconceptions: For example, going into the pilot, we assumed that the most critical skills gap in 3D printing in Nepal would be in designing prototypes to print. What we learnt was that a lot of people simply couldn’t operate a 3D printer at all. The skills gap was much more fundamental than we first thought, and we course corrected by coming up with the idea of apprenticeships and delivering group trainings through industry representative bodies. These learnings are worth their weight in gold!
  2. Accept constructive challenge: I learnt a lot from being nudged into drilling down into justifications: why do x and not y? Why focus on a and not b? ‘Why’ questions, and those who ask them, really help in making explicit your own assumptions and should be sought out.
  3. Bite off what you can chew: During our initial scoping and design phase, it felt at times that we were firing a shotgun wildly into the haze. Being less ambitious and more targeted here towards where we would have the greatest impact would have helped us be more focused initially. You’ve probably got tons of ideas and assumptions you want to test but the value of FTL is the ability to focus-in and quickly invalidate dead-ends and highlight areas of promise. Remember, if you have too many things to test at once then pick one area of focus, learn, analyse and try to build that learning into your next sprint where maybe you’re testing something very different.

So… Why FTL?

FTL methods are a long way from traditional project planning practices and suit an innovative project that is testing new ideas. It’s refreshing not to have to pretend that you know exactly what will happen, how, when and with what impact throughout a 2 year project. Embrace failure, surprises and proving your pet theories wrong. Therein lies learning…