There’s a movement building around the world as more people are exposed to the science of brain development and the critical early years of a child’s life. While early learning is still an under resourced area, time, talent, and resources are increasingly being devoted to ensuring that all children have the opportunity to establish an essential foundation to thrive in work and in life.
One organisation at the forefront of this burgeoning global movement is South-African based Innovation Edge, which started three years ago within Ilifa Labantwana. Innovation Edge invests in unconventional early childhood solutions and provides customised strategic, financial, and hands-on support to help innovators turn brilliant ideas into sustainable solutions.
In November, Innovation Edge held the inaugural convening of Think Future with 230 participants from 20 different countries, notably with 40% of the participants from sectors and fields of expertise outside of early childhood. The following key themes emerged, which will inform our work in US education at Omidyar Network, where we invest in solutions to improve kindergarten readiness. While the lives and work of those from the 20 countries represented at the conference differ immensely in some respects, I believe that we can all take these global ideas and adapt them to our own contexts locally.
Early childhood needs to be more like jazz: enabling microentrepreneurs through platforms
One speaker, Vuyo Jack of Empowerdex, compared the early childhood sector and different types of musical groups. On one end of the spectrum, there is an informal celebratory chorus. Everyone is invited to sing, even if they don’t know how, and they use no script. There is something beautiful in this chorus, as everyone can contribute, even if the notes don’t amount to a perfect tune. On the other end of the spectrum sits a symphony, where the musicians have trained for 20 years. It’s highly scripted and conducted, and the trained ear can spot even one note that’s out of place. This too produces beautiful music in a very different way, but only a few have access to it–both as the players and the audience. The perfection lacks the ability to scale, intentionally so. What early childhood needs, this leader suggested, is to be more like jazz with some structure and solid leadership, but also with a lot of room for improvisation and individualization — including mixing in local color and context.
Much of the early childhood sector today is highly informal. It consists of children and caregivers in many different contexts — in homes and in centers — for different hours of the day and with different activities and approaches. For many caregivers, the role of nurturer comes innately. Yet, they may not have the full understanding of how influential the time they spend with that child is on the child’s brain development. In the US, we are already seeing the use of platforms to enable these caregivers as microentrepreneurs. Rather than creating a new, highly structured system (the symphony), these platforms provide a bit of structure and a bit of leadership to support an otherwise informal network of caregivers. In addition to respecting, preserving and even unleashing the expertise of the caregiver, this jazz-like network also lends itself to much faster scale than the slow rigidity of a symphony-like system.
Emerging technology has a key role, even in a sector that will continue to heavily rely on human connection
We must consider the implications of emerging technologies on our rapidly changing world as we develop early learning solutions. Some people in the early childhood field can at times hesitate when technology enters the conversation, as they default to the image of a two-year-old staring at a tablet for hours on end and lacking opportunities for human connection. Yet there are thoughtful ways to integrate not only child-facing technologies but other emerging technologies as powerful early learning tools.
Anne Connelly, of the ixo Foundation, (one of Innovation Edge’s partners on a project called Amply), shared several ideas on this front which inspired me to think about their applications in our US context. For example, how could blockchain enable a more efficient payment mechanism for childcare subsidies, thereby increasing the number of children that have access to them, increasing the number of high-quality caregivers serving families with subsidies, and possibly even reducing the cost of management, leaving more dollars to put higher value subsidies in the system? Or how can more platforms, such as SmartStart in South Africa and Wonderschool in the US, support networks of caregivers and enable more seamless connections among caregivers, families, and other necessary resources such as facilities and supplies?
Design for scale from the start and look toward the future
The problems we are facing in early childhood are widespread, so we must be designing for scale from the start. We can continue to test and iterate on newer solutions to improve the resulting developmental outcomes, but those outcomes will only be realised if they are actually reaching children. We have billions of children to reach globally who desperately need better early childhood options. We will never get there by making the perfect the enemy of the good. Innovation Edge pushes all of the entrepreneurs they work with to focus on scale from the start — and I hope they can continue to influence the rest of the early childhood community with this mindset.
Additionally, as Kene Umeasiegbu of Tesco discussed, there are emerging megatrends such as the population explosion and urbanisation of the African continent that must be kept top of mind as we design for impact. Systems can take a long time to move. If we are seeking systemic changes without an eye toward the future, no matter our context, we are already too late.
The early childhood message is powerful — let’s supercharge the movement
Several of the attendees that were newer to the topic described the experience of “being hit by the early childhood development bombshell” — that hearing the neuroscience and lifelong implications of the 85% of brain development that happens in the first five years of life left them with the drive to act urgently. I hope these attendees will leverage their own platforms of power to benefit the early childhood sector, whether through contributing financial resources or through collaborative influence with government. Yet, we need to both continue to inspire others with power and influence and further catalyze a grassroots movement of parents, families, and communities who want the best for their children. The science and the stories of the first five years of life are highly compelling. How can we take the early stages of this movement and give it the accelerant to spread?
I hope the perspectives and questions I’ve raised here will prompt further discussion and action to advance outcomes for young children around the world and that investors in particular ask themselves these questions as they look for solutions with the highest potential for impact at scale. I’m grateful to Innovation Edge for convening this group of changemakers, for pushing us to think on the edges and for forcing us to ask questions that may not have answers today, but will ultimately be critical to furthering our work in advancing outcomes for young children around the world. Let’s supercharge this movement together.
You can find videos of the talks and downloadable presentations from the Think Future convening here.