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Photo by Bruno Guerrero on Unsplash

Innovating for Long-Term Resilience

A Way Forward for Families and Children

Editors’s Note: This piece was originally published by Early Insights to accompany the launch of their report on the state of the global early childhood sector after Covid-19. It is republished by Early Learning Nation with permission. You can access the Early Insights report here.

A 2002 Harvard Business Review essay called “Creativity Under the Gun” draws a distinction between innovation that happens under extreme pressure and the kind that happens when thinkers have time and leisure. The authors acknowledge the importance of high-pressure innovation, citing the example of the NASA engineers who invented an air filtration method that saved the Apollo 13 in 1970, but they argue that the evidence strongly favors giving people the space for what Albert Einstein once referred to as “combinatorial play.” In the absence of time pressure, they are “more oriented toward exploring and generating new ideas than identifying problems to be solved.… People behaved as if they were on an expedition” (emphasis not mine).

On a personal note, Covid isn’t the only thing that destabilized my understanding of the future. With the birth of a baby boy, my family’s expedition swerved dramatically in October 2020. Being home in those earliest days helped me to see firsthand the value of taking time together in those early days. It also gave me time to ponder ways that each and every family, as well as society as a whole, is on an expedition.

During two years of a global pandemic, high-pressure innovation was undoubtedly happening in the field of early childhood development, but many of us also gained a renewed appreciation of the value of creating space to explore new ideas that may or may not work. Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics Action Lab is creating the space for that reinvention to take place.

Innovation, with a focus on building resilience for future disruptions, distinguishes Capita from most other policy organizations and think-tanks. Many observers have expressed surprise at our steady focus on climate change, but we recognize that virtually any conversation about the future is incomplete without it. (Read more about Capita’s exploration of childhood and the climate.). The pandemic is just one nudge to explore scenarios more deeply.

As it recedes, we are in a moment where we can and must embark on a collective, multisector expedition accounting for the interconnected ecosystems that enable children to flourish. The disciplines of economics, agriculture, brain science, and sociology all come into play, as well as the voices and visions of those with lived experience in the communities that are most likely to experience further hardship in the next crisis. Capita has embraced multidisciplinary thinking from our founding. We know the solutions we seek go beyond any one sector, and we have to take a systems approach in order to really get to the roots of problems that keep children from flourishing. Childhood by Design, our collaboration with the artist residency program AIR Serenbe, drew inspiration from the concept of “contact zones,” pioneered by Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Multidisciplinary thinking takes us out of our organizational and institutional silos. Colleges and hospitals are also rethinking their models in the wake of Covid destabilization, and their family- and community-rooted missions overlap considerably with the early-education sector. These powerful institutions, which have become adept at public-private partnerships, can fill gaps where the government alone cannot. Last fall, Neighborhood Villages partnered with Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) and Boston-area community colleges to start Career Pathways for Early Educators, a unique program that supports educators in their attainment of advanced early education and care credentials. Urban College of Boston and Bunker Hill Community College take part in the enterprise.

For better and for worse, we here in the United States have always been caught up in the now; social media and other technology have only accelerated the pace of change while interfering with more patient thought and discussion. Advocates continue to call for greater funding to shore up child care, and while this assertion is hardly debatable, labeling everything an emergency leads to a constant state of being overwhelmed — which is not conducive to innovation. (Read more about Capita’s approach to the child care economy.)

Taking a step back, if advocates want to catalyze lasting change, it will take more than Tweeting and op-eds. These are valuable tools for mobilizing supporters, but they are unlikely to change minds, let alone shift the narrative. Building the case for child care as a public good could take a decade or more, but once the idea catches on, advocates’ goals might become far more realistic.

What can we learn from children? I refer not to the wisdom of youth, although that’s always worth remembering, but to the physiological phenomena that characterize the infant mind. Although fragile, the youngest minds demonstrate extraordinary growth, resilience, and plasticity. Babies are geniuses at learning to recognize new objects, acquiring skills and vocabulary, and processing information. Maybe the very fragility that is such a concern to new parents is also the secret to rapid-fire leaps in comprehension.

We don’t know what our babies are dreaming of, but it’s quite likely that their dreams are wild and unbound by logic and reason. Audacious dreaming, coupled with difficult conversations, can lead to previously undreamed-of ideas. When historian Vincent Harding laments “the poverty of our public dreams,” he’s referring to America, but his prescription applies universally: “open minds, hearts, and memories to those times when women and men actually dreamed of new possibilities for our nation, for our world, and for their own lives.” What Early Insights captures in this report with feedback, community and partnership reflects the audacity we need well.

Joe Waters is the co-founder and CEO of Capita, a think tank working to ensure a future in which all children and their families flourish.

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