5 questions with Innovation Edge’s Sonja Giese

I am pleased to feature Sonja Giese of Innovation Edge in this week’s 5 questions with feature. Innovation Edge is a grant and investment fund focused on unconventional ideas that find solutions to early childhood care and education challenges in under-resourced communities. Based in Cape Town, South Africa, Innovation Edge provides strategic, financial and hands-on assistance from ideation to proof of concept (POC); and support transition to scale for successful POCs that promise large-scale transformative impact.

In early November, Innovation Edge is producing the most interesting early childhood conference on the planet. The Think Future conference aims to bring together a global mix of change makers and risk takers. Together they will explore and co-create action around five of the critical ingredients needed by today’s children to succeed in tomorrow’s world. On behalf of Capita, I am thrilled to be leading a breakaway session during Think Future focused on leveraging the power of design to improve outcomes for young children.

JW: Tell us more about Think Future and, in particular, the five critical ingredients around which the conference is organized.

SG: One of the most important lessons we have learnt since establishing Innovation Edge in 2014 is that we have to bring new ways of thinking into the early childhood space. This includes making unlikely connections between people with very different areas of expertise and interest, and purposefully disrupting mindsets and challenging assumptions. We have done this in multiple ways over the past 3 years and Think Future aims to take this approach to the next level. In designing the event, we were conscious of our own limiting assumptions — even in terms of the way in which we framed the challenges and opportunities. The outcome of many reflective sessions was the decision to focus the event around five characteristics that we would like to nurture and develop in all young children — resilience, aptitude, ingenuity, imagination and empathy. Five characteristics that will enable children to adapt and thrive in whatever current and future space they find themselves. In line with our intention to be positively disruptive, we have selected five of the forces currently driving massive change and innovation globally — environmental consciousness, social movements, decentralization, accelerating technology and the sharing economy. The event begins with inspiring talks from experts in these five fields. Over the 2,5 days, participants will be taken through a curated journey of inspiration, reflection and co-creation. We have a fantastic programme planned and an unusual combination of delegates, from a variety of sectors and geographies.

JW: You are already partnering with designers to build engaging places in everyday spaces for young children. What lessons have you learned thus far for designing better places, cities, and neighborhoods for children?

SG: We often look for solutions outside of the spaces we occupy and yet there are so many unrealized opportunities all around us. We need to reboot our perspective. This is especially critical in the context of severe resource constraints. One of our approaches is to look for “touch points” that are already at scale within our targeted communities and to design interventions that can be grafted onto these platforms. Examples include everyday waiting places where parents and children spend hours at a time, such as immunization clinics; retail outlets such as grocery stores which are filled with potential interactive learning opportunities for young children and their caregivers as they shop; and credit and savings groups where individuals gather monthly and save or buy collectively. The built environment also provides numerous opportunities for integrated learning and we encourage developers to reimagine low cost housing developments, transit routes and school infrastructure with this in mind.

JW: What is one book we should read, podcast we should listen to, or piece of art we should encounter to better understand childhood today?

SG: This is a tough question! With growing recognition of the importance of early childhood experiences in shaping socio-economic growth there are now more and more great short videos, podcasts and books which are enlightening and inspiring. I think the important point to note is that childhood looks very different in different places. Despite these differences however, all children need the same fundamental things in order to thrive, in whatever context they are born — meaningful connections with other people who care. And this a truth that has stood the test of time — this is not about 21st century skills, this is about what makes us human.

JW: Looking ahead, what signals or trends do you perceive that make you most hopeful about the future our children will inhabit?

SG: I think that increased recognition of the importance of early environments in shaping young children’s brains, and the lifelong implications of this, is a significant development. Understanding the ways in which environment influences genetic expression moves us beyond the nature vs nurture debate and emphasizes the important role that anyone can play in positively impacting a child’s life. The implications of this for shaping collective action are profound. This is reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals and in the increased recognition amongst political and business leaders of the importance of investing in early years.
JW: Finally, what is one thing you wish all early childhood leaders understood about entrepreneurs, and one thing entrepreneurs understood about the early years?

SG: I’d love to find greater synergy between these two important groups of changemakers. Entrepreneurs and Young Children are both looking for the same thing — people who believe in them and are willing to make an unconditional investment in their growth and development, as early as possible!
Thank you, Sonja! There are still spots available for Think Future. You can register here.