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Why businesses should see designing for early childhood as a business opportunity

Ravi Gurumurthy, Nesta

In the early 1960s, the television producer Jaon Ganz Cooney posed a simple question to her colleagues: “Do you think television could be used to teach young children?”.

That curiosity was the start of a journey that was to lead to the creation of Sesame Street, and the birth of ‘edutainment’. Two years of work with child psychologists, educators, and researchers led to the creation of a TV program that subsequent evaluations showed delivered an impact on child development similar to pre-school. Fifty years later, I was lucky to work with the Sesame Street team, in a partnership to develop a TV program for millions of Syrian children displaced by the conflict and living across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, that indeed is teaching young children without stable access to education and schooling.

We need every business asking Cooney’s question of their own industry. Businesses already play a huge role in our children’s development, from toys and books to media and food. But technology is opening new opportunities – in particular, to generate personalised experiences for children, and to make critical services more accessible and engaging.

Nesta is working with Tandem, a tool which uses AI to generate personalised storybooks, aiming to make shared reading more engaging for children and parents. Tools like Tandem could open doors for creating stories that are a better fit with children’s interests and their family’s cultural background. We hope this kind of personalisation will not just lead to more inclusive technology, but to more stimulating, shared experiences between children and their caregivers.

Ogma, a Nesta-backed venture, is another great example of using technology to make important child development services more accessible and engaging. Building the world’s first conversational AI ‘therapist’ in the form of an adorable pet ‘Og’ that can engage the child and their parent with naturalistic speech, Ogma is making evidence-based interventions fun for children, and in doing so transforming speech and language therapy. At the same time, Ogma is making them more accessible – using technology to reduce waiting lists and expand access to therapy.

Technology can certainly open doors, but every business has a role to play. For more traditional businesses, Asda’s partnership with the BBC to promote Tiny Happy People resources offers a path to supporting children’s learning and development – using their platforms and trusted brand to raise parents’ awareness of evidence-based products and services that can benefit their family. Similar ways of stimulating children with activities or signposting support to parents have been tried by Transport for London, John Lewis & Partners, Waitrose, and several other companies.

Just as Sesame Street pioneered the edutainment genre by blending creativity with scientific research in TV programming, businesses today have the potential to create new genres and methods to enhance child development. By combining rigorous research and a playful mindset, I am optimistic we can create new exemplars, grow the evidence base of what really works, and help children build a solid foundation for their future.