Fail to succeed

Google's ambitious R&D lab embraces failure to develop projects that can change the world

Project teams working in Google's “moonshot factory” know how to kill a project. The company's R&D lab—simply called “X”—located in Mountain View, California, USA strives to invent and launch radical, world-changing technologies. That's a tall order—but failure isn't frowned upon: It's encouraged. The X methodology is simple: identify a problem, propose a solution and then find how to kill it. More than 100 moonshot projects were killed in 2015.

“We spend most of our time breaking things and working to discover that we're wrong,” said Astro Teller, head of X, during a 2016 TED Talk.

This brutal process helps project teams identify fatal risks early. An automated vertical farming experiment sought to tackle world hunger but couldn't grow fundamental crops like rice and grain. Another moonshot, buoyant cargo airships that don't need a runway to land, was derailed once the team found a prototype plane would cost US$200 million to create.


Google's Project Wing team tests automated flight and delivery in rural California, USA.

But X has also delivered some of Google's most innovative initiatives. The first X project, the self-driving car, is now being tested. And wearable tech products Google Watch and Google Glass both were born in the X labs. These innovation projects don't come cheap—Alphabet, Google's parent company, spent US$3.6 billion on moonshot projects in 2015 alone. But Google doesn't view each X failure as a waste of money, said Mr. Teller: “We may get a phoenix from the ashes of this project.” —Kelsey O’Connor

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