Failure and Empathy Becomes Innovation at Twenty One Toys

When was the last time you played with a toy? Ilana Ben-Ari thinks it’s been too long.

As the founder and CEO of Twenty One Toys, Ben-Ari has spent the last six years designing, prototyping and selling toy TIME Magazine said will “shape classrooms of the future.” But these quirky little pieces aren’t just for young minds—they can be found in workplaces, at team building events, on the desk at job interviews, and really anywhere that values empathy and failure. Which, as it turns out, is quite a few places. And Ben-Ari is fine with that.

Leaning into the past to build the future

It can be difficult to plan for how the world will change over the next few decades, but the experts all agree on one thing: the best way to approach the future is to build skills rooted in communication, creative problem-solving, and strategic thinking. A lot of what Twenty One Toys built its name and products on is rooted in the thinking of a man named Friedrich Fröbel. As one of the leading thinkers who influenced our current education system, Fröbel realized playing could be a form of education and led his revolution with toys, resulting in the establishment of what we today call kindergarten.

“Play is a medium for learning, and for some reason, we’re okay with that notion until kindergarten ends, then we’re like ‘nevermind, nope.’ It’s no longer how you learn, it’s the opportunity,” Ben-Ari told Techvibes at the QuickBooks Connect conference, where she sat on a panel championing the growth of SMEs.

“Bringing back play is important for us to tackle really complex challenges.”

It’s this opportunity of being able to tackle difficult problems through play that led Ben-Ari to found Twenty One Toys. Despite the company’s name, they currently offer just two toys, as the “Twenty One” relates more to how the toys deal with 21st-century skills.

The Toronto company’s first offering is called The Empathy Toy and it can be found in thousands of offices and schools around the world. The point is simple: use play to teach skills that are often forgotten as children become adults. It works like this: one person uses the shapes in the box to create a shape, and then the other person has to create the same piece. The trick is, they are both blindfolded. The players must communicate and deal with slow learners.  The overall goal is to remind everyone who plays with it that creativity and empathy are not frivolous, but in fact an important part of life, whether it be an artist or investment banker who happens to be playing.

The story for Ben-Ari is unique in the sense that her vision has shifted several times, even with an original intention to flip how people learn and apply foundational skills. Her original thesis in design school was based around helping the visually-impaired, and as Ben-Ari puts it, her classmates thought she was going to create a BlackBerry app that helped blind folks navigate the subway. That thesis became the original Empathy Toy but had its scope widened so that all kinds of people could use and learn from it.

There’s also the idea of wondering whether a toy like this could actually gain a foothold in the first place, especially when there are alternatives—often rooted in tech—that people may be familiar with. There are apps that teach empathy, or devices that can help the vision-impaired. So, even if it works well, why would people want to turn to a toy?

“The foundational skills are foundational for a reason,” says Ben-Ari. “Tech is always changing, but it’s about understanding the complexities of creative problem solving, and learning to learn. Those are skills that we shouldn’t just learn young, but should keep practicing.”

The Empathy Toy is innovation from a new perspective. It uses a medium that is essentially long-forgotten to teach skills that stop being a focus beyond grade school. The process of creating the toy mimics the process that would be used to create a similar idea rooted in tech—there is the point to disrupt an entrenched ideal, which is using toys to learn; a realization to pivot from one idea to another, which was when Ben-Ari realized the toy could be suitable for groups beyond the visually-impaired; and a rigorous QA and UI testing process. All of the tech buzzwords are there, but the end product was miles away from a video game or educational app.

Failure is an option

The second toy offered by Twenty One Toys followed a similar trajectory to the first and is rooted in another feeling many people face but choose to deal with in different ways: failure. The kits for The Failure Toy will not be available until 2019, but workshops involving the toy are now bookable. Failure has been shown to help kids boost their resilience and help them overcome anxious thoughts or feelings, which fits directly with Ben-Ari’s MO.

“In music and in sports, failure is called practice,” says Ben-Ari. “For some reason, in education, we don’t have a word for it. It’s this thing we should avoid at all costs. We’re reframing failure as feedback.”

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A team playing with The Failure Toy.

The Failure Toy took Ben-Ari almost three years to design, and just like the name implies, she failed at the design several times. Turns out it’s hard to design something to intentionally teach failure. But what she ended up with was a game that lasts anywhere from five to 15 minutes and asks players to balance blocks or objects, all with an impossible outcome. What follows the game is the important part—a deep discussion on what failure meant to the player and how they can use that feeling to familiarize themselves with not always succeeding at their goals.

“We can’t ask people to say that ‘Failure is great, yeah, fail fast!’ without knowing that failure can really suck and that it’s weighted and everyone deals with or translates it differently,” says Ben-Ari. “There’s a lot of extreme conversations on failure, but very little failure education.”

“We’re reframing failure as feedback.” – Ilana Ben-Ari

The process to design the toy was the most “meta-process” Ben-Ari went through and involved a lot of user testing (and failing). She had to put off its official launch while she went back to the drawing board several times during its design. Eventually, Ben-Ari found that failure is not something you “slowly get,” but rather it’s something that clicks into place after playing and talking. As the toy gets into the hands of more players, especially younger kids, she will look to see what kind of an impact it has on shaping the understanding of failure and how it is okay to not always succeed on the first try.

Scaling empathetic innovation 

Twenty One Toys is not a tech company, or at least not a traditional one. It runs an e-commerce shop and uses elements of computer design for its products, but that’s about where the “traditional tech” stops. Even Ben-Ari will be quick to tell you she is a designer first, above everything else. But there’s a line here somewhere that parallels Twenty One Toys with a tech startup, and not only because it is used by several huge organizations (including every major bank in Canada and almost every single major law firm). The values Twenty One Toys instills are those of the biggest tech leaders in the world—Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella once said “Empathy makes you a better innovator.”

“I’m in the startup space, and there there’s an emphasis on ‘make it an app’ and become a billion-dollar company with three employees,” says Ben-Ari. “But at the end of the day, the physical and tangible is so important, and to dismiss that entirely, we lose a lot of that literal connection we make.”

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The next steps for Twenty One Toys include a mass rollout of The Failure Toy across North America, with a goal to get it in the hands of as many educators as possible. Beyond that, the next game will be one rooted in improv with the goal to improve communication and how different players can work together.

Scaling a company like Twenty One Toys can be difficult, especially in a climate where the target audience of teachers is leaning more heavily into technology solutions to solve for learning shortcomings in the classroom. To help keep up, Ben-Ari leans on different tech solutions such as QuickBooks to help grow her brand and keep operations running smoothly.

“It’s about giving me a lot of information,” says Ben-Ari. “Same thing with the toys. In 15 minutes they can give you insights into how someone deals with patience, communication and more. Once you have that information, then I can work with that. It’s the same thing with something like QuickBooks. I can log in throughout the week and get a general sense of the health of my business. That allows me to make important decisions about hiring and manufacturing and really understand my long-term strategy.”

“There’s so much information there and I can look at with my bookkeepers and advisors. Seeing all of that, that’s the moment I felt like I had a real business.”

The higher-level motto for Ben-Ari is refusing to fit in where people think her and the company should. In a world of tech-first solutions and the phrase “there’s an app for that” ceasing to be a joke because there actually is an app for everything, Twenty One Toys is using innovation to literally put learning back into the hands of users, one failure at a time. Just don’t be scared if there’s an Empathy or Failure Toy sitting on the desk in front of you during your next job interview. SIt down and embrace the play.

Techvibes is the official Media Partner of Intuit Quickbooks Connect.