🏗️ Learning from past infrastructure projects💡Insights & responses from Acter

🏗️ Learning from past infrastructure projects💡Insights & responses from Acter

'Why should we believe you'll succeed when others haven't?'

This is a query we've encountered time and again, especially from funders and philanthropists who've seen their fair share of ambitious projects falter.

So how is Acter different?
What makes us believe that we have a real shot at building secure and effective digital infrastructure that can challenge big tech, and that movements and activists are willing to adopt?

Firstly, let's dispense with any notion of infallibility. Acter does not possess a monopoly on all the solutions, nor can we offer guarantees of success.
After all, as Bill Gross, the founder of Idealabs, pointed out, the primary determinant of startup success is timing, closely followed by execution.

While we can't exactly bend time to our will (believe me, we've tried), we can certainly polish our execution by taking a page from the book of past missteps.

This is why we've invested significant effort in analyzing past failures to inform our approach and mitigate risks, striving to better understand the things we know but especially the things we know that we don't know (Knowns and Unknowns matrix).

Through this process, we've distilled eight critical lessons learned from past projects, which we've thought might bring value to others, regardless of whether you are a funder seeking to bolster technological endeavours or a steward of digital infrastructure for the common good.

This compendium is by no means exhaustive, and there are surely still many lessons to be learned, which is why I invite you to share your insights, perspectives, and constructive critiques.

With that being said, let's dive in.

1. Failing to Include the Target Group in Focus:

  • Problem: Projects often overlook the perspectives and requirements of end-users, resulting in solutions that are disconnected from real-world needs. This includes the failure of not only asking what they want but also what it should enable. This leads to low adoption rates and limited impact, as the technology fails to resonate with its intended audience. Without active involvement from the target group, projects risk building solutions that are irrelevant or impractical, ultimately undermining their effectiveness.
  • Response: Acter recognizes the importance of user-centric design and actively places frontline organizers in the center of the development process. Through co-design sessions and feedback mechanisms, Acter ensures that its solutions align closely with the requirements of those who will utilize them, enhancing usability and adoption rates.

2. Replacing Existing Silos with New Ones:

  • Problem: Some projects inadvertently create new barriers to collaboration by introducing isolated systems instead of fostering interoperability. This leads to isolated silos of information and functionality, hindering collaboration and limiting the scalability of solutions. Without interoperability, projects struggle to achieve widespread adoption and fail to realize their full potential in fostering collaboration and innovation.
  • Response: Acter understands the importance of seamless integration and is committed to compatibility with existing platforms. By leveraging open standards and protocols, Acter ensures that its infrastructure can seamlessly integrate with diverse ecosystems, facilitating collaboration and reducing fragmentation.

3. Great Vision, but Lack of Execution:

  • Problem: Ambitious visions also falter due to challenges in execution, particularly in the realm of open-source software. User experience and interface design often suffer, leading to unintuitive applications. Additionally, some projects prioritize uncompromising features, which can limit accessibility to only tech-savvy users. Without focusing on including a great user experience and intuitive flows, the project risks failing to reach mass adoption, getting limited to a tight core of users.
  • Response: Acter prioritizes investing in user experience design and interface optimization to deliver intuitive and accessible solutions, understanding that many users prioritize convenience and user experience, to some degree even above security. By combining vision with pragmatism, Acter ensures that the outcome meets the highest standards of functionality and usability, enhancing user satisfaction and adoption.

4. Dependency on Continuous Funding:

  • Problem: Many infrastructure projects face challenges in sustaining operations beyond initial funding periods, leading to discontinuation and loss of momentum. Dependence on external funding sources makes projects vulnerable to shifts in donor priorities and funding availability, jeopardizing their long-term viability. Without sustainable funding models, projects struggled to maintain operations and deliver ongoing value, hindering their ability to achieve lasting impact.
  • Response: Acter addresses this challenge by having developed revenue streams from the outset. By diversifying income sources and fostering partnerships with stakeholders committed to long-term support, Acter reduces reliance on volatile funding cycles, ensuring stability and continuity of operations.

5. Reinventing the Wheel:

  • Problem: Many projects have struggled by attempting to build proprietary solutions from scratch instead of leveraging existing infrastructure. This approach can lead to wasted resources, slower progress, and reduced compatibility with established platforms and tools.
  • Response: Acter embraces a collaborative approach, building upon established infrastructure such as the Matrix protocol. By harnessing the collective expertise and resources of the existing ecosystem, Acter is able to accelerate development while avoiding duplication of effort.

6. Lack of a Clear User Adoption Strategy:

  • Problem: Successful adoption hinges not only on effective outreach and onboarding strategies, an aspect often overlooked in projects, but also on how the infrastructure has been developed from the get-go. Many existing projects, as they fail to catch people where they currently are, mistakenly think that "if we build it they will come."
  • Response: Acter acknowledges that people, for the most part, are already using existing apps and it needs to be able to bridge into those, to ease the adoption barriers. Further, Acter prioritizes user adoption through targeted outreach in partnership with larger intermediaries, who are part of driving the adoption.

7. Focus on symptoms rather than root causes

  • Problem: Many projects focus on incremental improvements or solutions that fail to address underlying systemic issues. This can result in temporary fixes that do not fully resolve the root causes of problems or lead to unintended consequences. An example of this is the focus on merely replacing existing messaging apps with OS messaging apps, which might improve data sovereignty or censorship resistance but does not tackle some of the correlated challenges brought by instant messaging apps, which include information overload, lack of overview, tech fatigue, and burnout.
  • Response: Acter focuses on investing the necessary resources in understanding the root causes of the problems within the digital realm and how it affects civil society's ability to organize, build coalitions, and ultimately drive systemic change. One of the important factors in this work, is to not only focus on user centric design, but asking the right questions, while remaining assertive to the “unknown unknowns”,

8. Lack of Succession Plan:

  • Problem: Many infrastructure projects neglect to plan for the possibility of project shutdown or discontinuation, leaving users and stakeholders vulnerable.Further, the lack of contingency planning can result in the loss of data and diminished trust in the project, jeopardizing the project's legacy and reputation.
  • Response: Acter recognizes the importance of continuity and transparency and develops ongoing documentation to mitigate risks. Most importantly, however, as Acter is built on the Matrix protocol, Acter is interoperable with all other applications built on the same protocol, which means that in the case of shutdown, users can simply log in to another matrix client and continue to communicate with their ecosystem.

Want to share your thoughts? I would love to hear from you!

Emil Vincentz
Mail: emil@acter.global
Acter: @emil:acter.global