Imagine for a moment a city that is the best place in the world for a child to grow up. What would it look like? Feel like? How would children grow, learn, and play? How would decisions be made and resources invested? What stories would be told about the value and role of children in our communities?
Thrive By 5: Calgary’s Early Years Innovation Lab, co-convened by the United Way of Calgary and Area and the Province of Alberta (Ministry of Human Services), has set Calgary on a course towards collaboratively seeking answers to these questions. In doing so, Lab members aim to transform the early childhood development (ECD) system in Calgary and drastically improve the statistics. Currently, one-fourth of the children in Calgary are not meeting key developmental milestones by the time they enter kindergarten. The Lab’s purpose is to ensure that all children grow, learn, and thrive by the age of five. In taking on this challenge, the Lab also aims to establish Calgary as the kind of city that knows how to collectively solve complex problems.
Thrive By 5 has leveraged an opportune time in Calgary and Alberta by creating a space—or platform—that will enable the convergence of a range of ECD activity already happening throughout the province, for example, leading-edge research on babies’ brains, community development to build capacity for improving child development, and efforts to better align health, education, and human service systems, to name a few. Thrive By 5 offers a unique opportunity to align all of this thinking and action, such that Lab members can collaborate and experiment with new ways to translate their efforts into better outcomes for kids sooner.
Over the past year, Thrive By 5 Lab members have been journeying together “down the lefthand side of the U” for the important work of developing new insights and being better able to articulate the current reality of Calgary’s ECD system. Forty Dialogue Interviews with formal and informal leaders provided a glimpse inside Calgary’s ECD system and shed light on both its challenges and where opportunities may exist for transformational change. In February 2014, a Foundation Workshop articulated these ideas further and also helped the group co-create its ongoing learning agenda. With the idea of “visiting the future where it already exists”, in April 2014, the Lab team ventured on Learning Journeys to sites across North America in order to learn about the best of early learning and child care, social innovation, social movements and storytelling, and policy development, among other areas.
Now with greater appreciation for the depth and breadth of Calgary’s ECD system and having experienced firsthand how some of Calgary’s challenges are being tackled elsewhere, Lab members are about to embark on an Innovation Retreat. This three-day gathering—which includes a 24-hour solo—will provide participants with an opportunity to “step back” and connect with both their individual and collective roles in supporting all children in Calgary to thrive by 5. In doing so, the team will identify interventions they want to design and prototype over the coming weeks and months.
What is both encouraging but challenging, invigorating, and nerve-racking is that in deliberately taking an experimental approach, the group does not know what new responses may emerge as it journeys up the righthand side of the U. Yet as Miles Horton says, “we make the road by walking”, meaning that it is in the act of doing the work that we build our capacity to make progress. And what effort could be more important than creating the best place in the world for young children?