Ensuring our youngest children flourish: the need for intersectional innovation

Recently I have been reading Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures. Johansson argues in this book for “intersectional innovation.” I am now more convinced than ever that intersectional innovation can help us understand how to innovate more powerfully to achieve better outcomes for young children and their families.

Johansson argues that transformative innovations emerge from the intersection of different disciplines and cultures. This intersection is what made the Renaissance in Florence — largely funded by the Medici family — such a prolific period of innovation.

We need a similar movement today to rapidly catalyze better outcomes for our youngest children and their families. We need to break out of the cycle of familiar and marginal improvements that characterizes innovation in the early childhood field. This break from more traditional innovations can help more children, families, and systems thrive in an age of great economic, political, social, cultural, and technological transformation.

Most innovation in early childhood today is what Johansson would identify as “directional innovation.” Such innovation creates marginal improvements in existing systems, products, or services and proceeds in a fairly predictable way. Directional innovation can be valuable and lead to real improvements to the status quo.

Examples of directional innovation might include efforts to find new ways to “blend and braid” different types of funding for early childhood programs, create new products to meet the classroom needs of early childhood educators, or update parents about their child’s developmental milestones (via text messages). Although exciting, these improvements exist only within the “well-defined dimension” of early childhood education and seek to improve outcomes for children within the framework of the existing systems, programs, and policies.

At Capita, we know there are many excellent early childhood organizations, with whom we often partner, who catalyze this type of innovation. These kinds of improvements, however, are not enough or sufficient on their own to change the paradigm for many children and families in the United States and beyond.

Capita’s approach is different, and we hope to spur even bigger thinking in the field. We intend to catalyze intersectional innovation to improve outcomes more substantially for our youngest children and their families. While we are just beginning our work, already we are beginning to see the fruits of collaborations across disciplines, sectors, and systems. In November 2017, Capita and AIR Serenbe, the non-profit artist residency program near Atlanta, convened 50 innovators from across the fields of art, architecture, design, health, and early childhood. This “contact zone” exemplified the sort of intersectional conversation that we believe is so incredibly valuable for breaking down barriers to innovation necessary for families and children to thrive in the future.

One participant in this convening was Rusty Smith, the associate director of Rural Studio. His discussion of their “20K Home” line to provide more affordable housing in Alabama led several participants to consider the many contributions that architects could make to solving the persistent problems of childcare deserts, especially in the communities of the rural South already served by Rural Studio. What if informal childcare providers were incentivized with beautiful and affordable housing; small, well-designed childcare facilities on existing properties; and/or low-interest mortgages, to help them meet more advanced and ambitious child-care quality standards? These ideas show the type of status-quo-busting thinking — intersectional innovation — that can happen when architects and early childhood policy leaders begin to collaborate across sectors and systems.

Next week, in collaboration with a range of partners, Capita will lead a conversation with business leaders and policy makers about the childcare challenges of families and their impact on businesses. The temptation in these discussions is to believe that the solutions to the challenge of providing adequate care for children while parents work are always more of the same — more funding for childcare, greater access to childcare, and more flexible childcare arrangements.

We do not necessarily disagree with any of those ambitions, but at Capita we believe we can have different kinds of conversations that will yield new insights. A conversation about the childcare challenges for many families cannot be divorced from broader discussions about the future of work and changing nature of the economy. We must consider how the sharing economy is reshaping the experience of parenting; how family life might be impacted if we run out of jobs; and how we can positively re-imagine the roles of caregivers, both for children and the elderly, in the post-industrial economy. All of these questions point to a deeper reconsideration of the values surrounding care, work, parenting, and childhood. We must allow these challenges to be a new source of innovation.

Next week we will lay out four principles that will guide Capita’s work as a catalyst for intersectional innovation.

Image of Florence, Italy by Matthew Roberts.