Frontiers of Innovation: an Update from Corey Zimmerman, Chief Program Officer

How does one spark and facilitate innovation? That’s the question that brought me to the Center on the Developing Child eight years ago. I was excited about the prospect of joining a team who was building an initiative to accelerate the pace of innovation in the early childhood sector. Over time, this initiative—Frontiers of Innovation (FOI)—became a global movement driven by change agents who were committed to sharing their learnings, building replicable processes, and applying the science of child development to their work, all in service of improving child outcomes at a population level. Recently, we reached an inflection point in this work, with the need to ask ourselves several important questions: What has been learned from FOI? What has been achieved? What is needed next? In my role as Chief Program Officer, I am pleased to share with you some personal reflections on these questions, as well as to announce the world-wide launch of an open-access toolkit that encompasses the core ideas and tools created during FOI in a new self-serve format: the IDEAS Impact Framework toolkit.

A Brief History of Frontiers of Innovation

The original question that launched Frontiers of Innovation was: how might we accelerate the development and adoption of science-based innovations to achieve breakthrough impacts for children and families at scale? The first proof of concept was the Washington (WA) Innovation Cluster. This cluster was co-developed and led with several partners including Children’s Home Society of Washington, the Washington State Department of Early Learning, and the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, as well as several intervention teams. It quickly became clear that innovators shared common challenges in trying to develop, improve, and scale their work. We iterated and refined a set of tools and processes for addressing these challenges, which were formalized in 2015 as the IDEAS Impact Framework. This framework, developed in conjunction with researchers at the University of Oregon and the University of Washington, came to encompass a set of guiding values, processes, and tools to support teams through the development and testing of their interventions.

Starting in 2015, we began, with partners, to offer a variety of capacity-building experiences based on the IDEAS Impact Framework. This included one-day trainings, two-day workshops, seed funding, and ongoing coaching. Based on the success of the first innovation cluster, in 2016 we launched two additional innovation clusters with partners in Latin America: the Aceleradora de Innovación para la Primera Infancia in Mexico and the iLab Primeira Infância in Brazil. In each case, local teams were trained to utilize the IDEAS Framework to support innovators in context. We also collaborated with partners across the country leading initiatives aimed at catalyzing innovation in the sector to use the IDEAS Impact Framework, including the Best Starts for Kids; the MIT Solve Early Childhood Development challenge; the StrongStart Early Childhood Support Organization Initiative; and the Promising Ventures Fellowship. Over time, around 1,000 people attended a one-day training session, over 100 teams from across the globe participated in multi-day workshops, and 85 teams used the framework to engage in fast-cycle iteration projects. We also supported two cohorts of teams with seed funding and coaching in the “transition to scalability”.

Throughout the past decade, we hosted several FOI Convenings, which were opportunities to share learning across the growing global community of innovators, release new science with immediate implications for action, and continue to accelerate the pace of innovation.
All of this work was driven by a community of passionate practitioners, practical policymakers, serious scientists, and steadfast staff. There were also a number of generous, committed funders who made all of this work possible, and to whom we are deeply grateful. We were delighted by how far and fast FOI was growing, and yet, we began to question our own strategies for reaching impact at scale. This past year we took time to step back and determine where we should go from here in order to meet the current needs of the field.

After more than a decade of this work, the early childhood landscape has changed dramatically. There is greater understanding of the importance of the early years for lifelong learning and health.


Working together at an IDEAS Impact Framework workshop on a theory of change.

Insights from Frontiers of Innovation

Honestly, a book could be written about the collective learning that emerged from the years engaged in FOI, but I will share here some of my top reflections, each the result of hours of conversation and meaning-making with colleagues. I am indebted to so many collaborators within and beyond the Center for their help in shaping these ideas. I want to, in particular, share my gratitude to Melanie Berry, Psy.D. for her steady and inspiring leadership which brought forth the creation of the IDEAS Impact Framework, the Innovation Clusters, our technical assistance model, and the learnings reflected below.

1. Innovation is often conflated with ideation.

We, like many others, came into this work believing that “innovation” means “new.” As such, over the course of FOI, with partners, we tried out several versions of ideation workshops, each intended to spur new intervention ideas. And, while each workshop generated inspiring insights, there were varying degrees of success in terms of the development of truly novel ideas. We started to notice that innovation is as much about solving old, longstanding problems as it is about creating totally brand-new approaches. With this insight we began to pivot towards looking at how to better build from and strengthen existing programs, rather than starting from scratch.

2. The tool I still reach for most often when talking with intervention teams is the FOI Theory of Change template.

As we began to build out the IDEAS Impact Framework, we evolved and developed several tools to help teams plan, design, and fast-cycle iterate. The Theory of Change template helped teams at all stages of development pause and really investigate their beliefs about why their work would lead to a change in outcomes for children. Coaching around the template invokes a domino metaphor to describe how strategies should push on a change in specific targets (behaviors, skills, or mindset), which then lead to a change in desired outcomes. In the context of a workshop, each team would have a facilitator and multiple hours dedicated to working on this. I was consistently amazed at the number of “aha” moments that emerged from these sessions. The magic of these moments—and the desire to make more of them—contributed to us starting to wonder how we could scale the IDEAS Framework beyond the limited number of intensive workshops we could produce each year.

3. It’s one thing to have early promising results about impact.

It’s another to figure out the business operations to sustain them at scale. A few years into FOI, we began to recognize that teams with a strong background in impact rarely had a developed strategy for building the business operations needed to reach and sustain impact at scale. Simultaneously, we saw that teams with a strong background in entrepreneurship often had robust plans for growth but minimal strategies to measure and improve their impact. We also observed that there was a critical moment in ventures’ development when this mattered and they needed to build up the missing components to reach having impact at scale. Naming this phase “the transition to scalability”, we worked with partners, in particular Promise Venture Studio, to develop content and coaching support unique to this stage. Today, reaching impact at scale still remains elusive and hard, yet there are many more supports and robust resources available to teams in the early childhood ecosystem at this stage of the journey.

4. Accelerated learning happens in community.

Over the course of FOI, we experimented with many different venues for sharing learning across the full community of stakeholders: convenings, webinars, an online basecamp, a shared data repository, cluster meetings, weekly coaching meetings, and more. The unifying theme was that getting better at this work happened through conversations with each other, whether informally in hallways or formally through structured workshops. Over time these lines of communications became a deep interwoven network of relationships that will continue to carry knowledge and insights around the world.

5. We must center equity in all that we do.

There were opportunities in FOI where we could have done more, and we should have heeded the voices who raised this issue early on. For the Center, we now see a greater focus on racism and inequity as fundamental to our work—both in substance as well as how we need to work differently to address these issues. As such, we are figuring out what it means to bring an equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging (EDIB) lens to everything we do. Our aims are to: build and communicate knowledge about racism as a distinctive source of adversity; diversify the perspectives and voices we bring to our science synthesis, translation, communication, and application processes; and build our own organizational capacity to center equity in our work. For us this includes the need to significantly expand the voices and perspectives that inform all that we do, particularly those of families, caregivers, and practitioners who bring current, lived experience with early childhood services, policies, and practices. We have actively brought this focus to the development of the online IDEAS Impact Framework Toolkit in various ways, including establishing a design principle at the outset of the project that prioritized content “informed by an EDIB lens…that is accessible and inclusive.” To live into this principle, we developed the toolkit in an open-access format to ensure cost-free, equitable access; we included images, quotes, videos, and examples that represent diversity among early childhood educators so that all users could “see” themselves in the toolkit; and we eliminated jargon and technical language wherever possible, to ensure accessibility for a wide range of users from diverse educational and professional backgrounds.

Working together at an IDEAS Impact Framework workshop.

Looking Forward

After more than a decade of this work, the early childhood landscape has changed dramatically. There is greater understanding of the importance of the early years for lifelong learning and health. There is a large network of change agents across the world building and scaling science-based innovations focused on precision, fast-cycle iteration, co-creation, and better outcomes for children. New intermediaries exist to help accelerate the pace of development and adoption of innovations at scale. It is exciting to see all of this attention placed on innovation, as well as the resulting improvements for children, knowing we played a part in catalyzing this work.
There is more work to be done, always, to support the development of programs in the early childhood sector, and we believe that it is our time to transition out of providing direct technical assistance related to intervention design and evaluation. This is not a commentary about the quality of the work, but instead a realization that, as a 30-person academic center, the best way we can scale FOI is to release the core tools and processes of the IDEAS Impact Framework as an open access toolkit. This will allow anyone, anytime, anywhere in the world to engage in this work, greatly expanding the opportunity for teams across the globe to have their own “aha” moments.

With that, I am delighted to share the news that the IDEAS Impact Framework Toolkit is now available online!

The toolkit is meant to be a self-guided, self-paced training, ideal for anyone involved in the development, implementation, or evaluation of programs for children and families and interested in learning how to go beyond the best of what the field has achieved so far. The suggested activities can be completed individually but are best done as a team. The toolkit is designed to help you:

Within each section, you’ll find learning materials, questions to reflect on independently or discuss with your team, illustrative examples, downloadable templates, and related resources. Throughout are testimonials and examples from teams that were part of FOI.

Later this spring we will also be releasing a second toolkit about using the science of early childhood to identify areas for innovation. We hope that you will engage with these online tools and continue to innovate in service of improving outcomes for young children and their families. From here we share immense gratitude for working with committed fellow travelers in the field and are excited to see how everyone leverages these tools to bring their unique expertise into powerful new solutions. Onward!

Share Your FOI Story

We invite everyone reading this to share their stories from the Frontiers of Innovation era. Corey has shared her story here, but FOI is really the story of a whole movement of people who care passionately about achieving better outcomes for children and families. Please share your reflections on this Kudoboard.

Here are a couple prompt questions:

  • What did you learn during your engagement with FOI?
  • What impact did FOI or the IDEAS Impact Framework have on your work?
  • What insights would you share with the community looking ahead?

Share your FOI story.

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