Learning from Mistakes

Samantha Anderson is a Senior Project Officer at Sustainable Cities

One of the recurring themes at the Sustainable Cities : PLUS Network 3rd biennial conference is how much one can learn from mistakes, and how much we want to hear from other people’s experiences with challenging situations. We used to talk constantly about learning from best practices, building on assets, accentuating the positive. Now, everyone talks about learning from mistakes- one’s own and others.

Is this a reaction to cities’ marketing and PR teams? Superficial speeches from politicians? Is learning from mistakes an attempt to balance this out, or is it really possible to learn more from mistakes than from best practices?


About sustainablecitiesnetwork

Sustainable Cities International is a registered not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Operating since 1993, the mission of Sustainable Cities is to catalyze action on urban sustainability with cities around the world. We work by connecting and mobilizing people through the process of co-creating. We facilitate a thriving, international network of cities that act as urban laboratories: adopting, testing and improving on innovations. Ideas are accelerated through sharing of experience and cities are making transformational change a reality
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3 Responses to Learning from Mistakes

  1. Key for me in answering this question of learning from ones mistakes is framing and timelines.

    If we frame our work in a never ending “s curve” of growth – an “s curve” being the traditional business model, seen on many growth project charts – then if we don’t grow we fail.

    If we frame our work in model that is more realistic and sustainable, say Holling’s panarchy model that is based on a natural eco-cycle (“Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems” by Lance Gunderson and C. S. Holling), then we see that ALL agencies, the good, bad and ugly, go through a series of different phases: exploitation, conservation, release (or “creative destruction”) and re-organization. This is represented not by an S curve, but by an infinity loop. (sorry, i can’t draw here, it explains it better.)

    (Some other great reads on this Vanessa Timmer’s “Agility and Resilience: The Adaptive Capacity of Friends of the Earth International and Greenpeace.”, or anything by Frances Westley or Brenda Zimmerman.)

    And lastly, timeframe is important. Too often we live in small disconnected bits of time. We need to see the patterns, no matter how hard our funders, electors, or bosses want us only to look at the next task.

    I did a blog post doing an analysis of a youth agency in Kibera — Map Kibera — within Holling’s framework -> http://wp.me/pSExV-6x -> It has some diagrams of s curves and infinite loops that would be helpful to explain what i am talking about.

    Anyways, great post! Sounds like the conference is going great!


    ps. I love this quote which I think encapsulates what i am talking about:

    We must set our course not by the lights of each passing ship,
    but by the fixed stars that we have always followed.
    Senator John F. Kennedy

  2. Brendan Baines says:

    Since success cannot always be translated in different cultural contexts, sometimes learning from mistakes – or more importantly, how challenges can be overcome – can be very beneficial in international development. By listening to the challenges we are exposed to the problem solving process, which provokes more thought than being handed a success story to replicate.

  3. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

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