Virtual Reality to Help Us Make Mistakes: Smart Failure and How it Relates to Permaculture

Many people have spoken or written about the importance of thinking that reflects the changing world around us;

“Everything you’ve learned in school as “obvious” becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe,” (1) as R. Buckminster Fuller put it. The universe is constantly changing, so it doesn’t make sense for us to learn “obvious” answers because every situation we find is uniquely different.

Permaculture as a holistic design system recognises this most clearly with the ‘Creatively Use and Respond to Change’ principle, and ‘Observe and Interact’ also seems to reflect a need to be present in the moment and learn from it (see for example 2). But can these ideas apply to the world of business? Eddie Obeng, teacher of “Business Leaders, Executives and Managers” and self-described “thought leader” (3), thinks so. In this TED talk, he looks at how

“The real 21st century around us isn’t so obvious” so “we spend our time responding rationally to a world which we understand and recognize, but which no longer exists”. (4)

School test, which line is longer?
School test, which line is longer?

Coming as he does from a business perspective he has many examples from the world of business where “we solve last year’s problems without thinking about the future” and explores the way a request from a superior to use “innovation” and “creativity” often gets translated into “do crazy things and then I’ll fire you”; because even if businesses claim to want new ideas, they only really want them if they work (4). However, as Fuller pointed out,

“Humans beings always do the most intelligent thing…after they’ve tried every stupid alternative and none of them have worked” (5).

Obeng’s solution – the act of trying out and rewarding the “stupid alternatives”– is “smart failure”. He believes mistakes should be seen as smart: regardless of whether or not they work they are at least trying out a new way. On a practical level Obeng and his company, World After Midnight, have developed an online virtual platform for businesses to try out new things in virtual reality called ‘QUBE’ (6). The QUBE seems to accelerate the process of learning from mistakes, by enabling participants to try out new projects and see how they work in virtual reality so that they are more likely to create a successful one in the real world.

Not the same, just a ten percent difference.
Not the same, just a ten percent difference.

As it is virtual, the platform also allows for things to take much less time than they might have done in the real world and has the potential to dissolve “cultural, social and hierarchical barriers” (6) and also probably bureaucratic ones which may be associated with trying out new ideas within existing structures.

Having not personally tried out ‘QUBE’ I cannot comment on its success but Obeng certainly appears passionate about his solutions. The idea of “smart failure” may not be a new one in the world of permaculture and there are also many educational approaches which encourage this kind of explorative thinking, such as Reggio Emilia (see for example 7), but as a showcase of how we can use virtual reality to put this into practice Obeng’s talk is inspiring. Many readers may question his description of economists as “some of the smartest people on the planet” (4) but this video can be seen as an important link between holistic systems such as permaculture, and the “conventional” world of business, which arguably needs to be become more flexible to our changing world. Obeng’s work seems to be helping this process and accelerating the succession of adaptable, holistic learning.


1. Fuller, B.R, 1970. I Seem to Be a Verb: Environment and Man’s Future. Bantam: New York City.

2. Permaculture Principles, 2017. ‘Permaculture Principles.’ https://permacultureprinciples.com/principles/

3. World After Midnight, 2017. ‘About’. https://www.worldaftermidnight.com/

4. Obeng, E, 2012. ‘Smart-Failure for a Fast-Changing World’. TED Global, Edinburgh, Scotland, 6/ 2012. Available on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjSuaeVfE9I and on TED here: https://www.ted.com/talks/eddie_obeng_smart_failure_for_a_fast_changing_world?utm_source%3Dnewsletter_weekly_2017-01-02%26utm_campaign%3Dnewsletter_weekly%26utm_medium%3Demail%26utm_content%3Dtop_right_image%23t-723293&source=gmail&ust=1484031113175000&usg=AFQjCNEpG0FaUssWqQheRd9NUbcQvnZt_Q

5. Fuller, R.B. as quoted by Hanley, P, 2014, Eleven. p341. Friesen Press: Victoria, Canada.

6. QUBE Pentacle, 2017. ‘Try Qube’. https://qube.cc/try-qube/

7. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘Mental Farming: Ideas for Improving Educational Approaches’. Permaculture News, 26/11/15. https://www.permaculturenews.org/2015/11/26/mental-farming-ideas-for-improving-educational-approaches/

Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.

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