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A Children’s Observatory for Canada: November 2015 Update

As a valued informant in our two-year journey to explore the potential for a children’s observatory in Canada, we’re pleased to share key developments and invite your continuing collaboration. We’ll provide e-mail updates every couple of months until we’ve completed the process. Every point in our journey involves opportunities for the involvement of diverse contributors.


New in Design

We convened Design Week in Waterloo, Ontario from October 4 - 9. Thirty experts from child-serving sectors and in measurement, design and storytelling joined UNICEF Canada and Overlap Associates to prototype new approaches to measuring child well-being. We used a design process including site visits with children and youth and inspiring guest speakers from Canada and around the world to explore and rapidly ideate some solutions to these questions:

  1. What do we need to know and measure to understand children’s lives?
  2. How might we do this?
  3. How can we better translate data to action?

We chose these questions because we believe that Canada’s middle rank relative to other high-income countries in the UNICEF Index of Child Well-being is not only a problem of performance that can be addressed with better data and evidence; it is a storytelling problem because as a society we generally believe we are doing much better than the data indicates.

Participants generated 50 ideas for ways to address parts of these big, complex questions. Then they developed prototypes for five of them:

YOUTH BOOTH: A portable object the size of a telephone booth in which older children/youth can record statements about issues asked about (i.e., survey questions) or provide open-ended statements; create video and other communication options; and generate new data to inform various audiences.

WELLBOT: A friendly, roving robot that collects data/information from children by asking them simple questions about their lives; reports this information back to a survey/analysis platform; and drives public discussion by travelling the country. Groups of children could take Wellbot to other communities and engage with them.

CULTURAL MEDIA OFFICE: A message placement team that works strategically with mainstream television and film to integrate issues of child well-being into the public narrative/awareness.

“OPEN DOORS” YOUTH: A community initiative adapting the general population “Open Doors” program by connecting youth to local businesses providing mentorships, events and partnerships through a range of activities.

ENOUGH: A mixed media campaign to generate public conversation about child and youth well-being, based on evidence.

TELL ME A STORY: A mixed media campaign to generate public conversation about and engagement in activities to support child and youth well-being.

Some of these prototypes such as Youth Booth and Wellbot are solutions to generate data with and by children to complement the ways we create data about children. They were inspired in part by the citizen-led approach UNICEF has created in Uganda to generate data and use it to better understand children’s daily experiences and influence better policies and services: the U-Report. Other prototypes respond to the need to create better public conversations and question the narrative that Canada is the best place to grow up – so that we can live up to it.

UNICEF Canada will test these prototypes and develop those that prove viable. We are deeply grateful to our colleagues in Design Week for generously exchanging new insights and ideas in our shared effort to advance the well-being of Canada’s children and youth. We learned a lot about the potential to harness design for this work. It can be a challenging, uncomfortable and rewarding process to unleash creativity and rapidly develop innovative approaches to act on complex problems. The willingness of unusual allies and diverse actors to contribute opens up remarkable opportunities to try new things, take a few risks and connect us together in a broader effort to help every child connect to opportunities.

New in Research

Our Research Agenda is proceeding with the International Institute for Child Rights and Development, Ron Wray and Dr. Nazilla Khanlou, and the Students Commission of Canada, together with a multidisciplinary Research Advisory Group. Key research questions include:

  • What social, political and other key drivers or conditions scaffold strong outcomes in child well-being in “top-performing” countries according to the UNICEF Index of Child Well-Being, and what does this suggest for our domestic efforts?
  • What do children and youth in Canada say is important to their well-being, and what are the implications for how we understand and measure it?

We’ve been interviewing and surveying people in seven countries to inform our research – revealing fascinating insights about child well-being to extend beyond literature review. To listen to children and youth, we are drawing on years of consultations with them by organizations across Canada to identify important themes about their well-being and the implications for efforts to measure it.


These recent developments in Canada and worldwide amplify the conversations at the intersection of child well-being, measurement and innovation:

Vital Signs 2014

Vital Signs is a national program, led by community foundations and coordinated by Community Foundations of Canada, that leverages local knowledge to measure the vitality of Canadian communities and support action towards improving our collective quality of life. Community report cards were released in October and the national Vital Signs report focuses on how connected people feel to their communities and how much they feel they belong to the country. Among the report’s key findings:

  • Supportive interactions between people are one of the strongest factors found to increase community belonging.
  • Aboriginal communities that have maintained more elements of their culture and a greater level of self-governance feel more individual identity.
  • Only 17% of Canadians are optimistic that things are getting somewhat or a lot better in Canada. 83% of Canadians believe that things are staying the same (39%) or getting worse (44%).

Ian Bird, President, Community Foundations of Canada, explained, “When we look at the challenges facing our communities and our country right now, from our inclusion of refugees to opportunities for greater reconciliation with Aboriginal peoples to our increasingly diverse cities, belonging is at the heart of our connection to one another”.

UNICEF Canada believes that a nation in which children and youth “belong” can be measured by the state of their development, protection and participation.

New from UNICEF

Data for Children Forum: Reflect on Progress - Imagine the Future

View the livestream recording of UNICEF’s Data for Children Forum, held September 11. Speakers and participants from around the world considered how the “data revolution” offers new opportunities to measure and support the well-being of children and youth. Don’t miss UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake’s introduction, or Hans Rosling’s contribution toward the end of the recording!

UNICEF, WHO and the World Bank Group released Levels and Trends in Child Malnutrition and A New Dashboard to visualize the data in October. The headline indicators reveal that while 159 million children under 5 are suffering from chronic malnutrition, this rate has been declining steadily. But globally, 41 million children under 5 are overweight, 10 million more than 2 decades ago – a trend going in the wrong direction. UNICEF’s Index of Child Well-being found that Canada ranks 27 of the 29 highest income countries in the rate of children who are overweight (20%, in contrast to 8% in the Netherlands).

CAPHC UNICEF Award

UNICEF Canada was honoured to accept the annual Citizenship Award for its commitment to the health and well-being of Canada’s children and youth. The 2015 CAPHC Citizenship Award was presented to UNICEF Canada’s President and CEO, David Morley, on October 20 at CAPHC’s Annual Awards Luncheon at the Quebec City Convention Centre.

“We work with policymakers and a range of institutions and organizations in Canada, as UNICEF does worldwide, to promote the best interests of children, informed by international standards and by the best evidence,” said David Morley.

Elaine Orrbine, President and CEO of CAPHC, said, “The work of UNICEF Canada has influenced governments and other organizations that develop policy, law and practice and has helped to place children at the centre of decisions and action.”

Like many other organizations, we’re really interested in how to address important challenges creatively and effectively. Overlap Associates introduced us to design thinking as an approach to problem-solving. It’s proving to have incredible value to us in exploring the potential for a children’s observatory, and we thought it could be helpful for you too. We asked Overlap to contribute a design tip or tool for each update. We hope you find the second tip in this series helps unleash creativity - stay tuned for the next tip!

Creativity isn’t just for painters

In one of my favourite classroom creativity exercises, I show a montage of pictures of all the ingredients I have in my fridge and pantry. I ask, “What can I have for dinner tonight?” and wait for people to volunteer recipe ideas. Everyone has suggestions. Everyone. Young and old, male and female, poet and engineer, we’ve all got ideas about dinner. Creativity isn’t just for famous painters and best-selling authors. Creativity is a universal capacity. Whether it’s Georgia O’Keeffe painting glorious floral close-ups, or you standing in the open fridge door inventing new ways to eat zucchini, creativity is about employing the same skills.

The most important thing to know about creativity

If I only had time to teach one thing about creativity, it would be this.

How to catch a big fish:

1. Catch a lot of fish.
2. Throw back all the little ones.

Creativity swings back and forth between these two phases: enthusiastically and uncritically producing an abundance of ideas and then choosing the most useful of them. Abundance then choice. Quantity then quality. Anything goes then the winner is…! You will produce more ideas when you’re not trying too hard to come up with a great one, when you’re not criticizing your own work, and when you know that you will still be able to throw away the stinkers later. You’ll get the best ideas when you have plenty to choose from.

The more you can do to separate those two phases, the better. Separate them in your mind: “Writing is different from editing.” Separate them in time: “Mondays we make things up; Tuesdays we choose.” Separate them as responsibilities, if necessary: “I’m too close to my own ideas so I’ve invited someone else to pick out the best.” This is the essential pattern of creativity: abundance then choice. You never know, looking at a painting, how many sketches it took.

Linda Carson
Overlap Associates

Good reads about creativity

The most-watched TED talk of all time is by Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity? Robinson says, “My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” Of course, TED dedicates a lot of its energy and attention to creativity. Cassie Noble Beyer has put together the greatest hits, 50 TED Talks About Design & Creativity You Should Check Out.

When you want to know more about how creativity works day-to-day, check out a variety of experienced creative folks like the MacArthur Fellows or those in the documentary series The Creative Influence, all people who make creativity their mission every day. Or dip into the advice of Canadian design maverick, Bruce Mau of Massive Change fame: An Incomplete Manifesto For Growth.

In this longer read, Tim Brown and Jocelyn Watt dig deeper into the creative potential of design thinking in social innovation, framing it in three phases: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.

  • If you belong to or support a youth group, and there’s an interest in testing some of our prototypes and exploring other opportunities for children and youth to participate in Design Year, please let us know at policy@unicef.ca.
  • Complete the slogan: “a nation where all children truly belong is...” here and send a photograph it to policy@unicef.ca where we’ll post it with others on our Facebook Gallery.

E-mail us at policy@unicef.ca with questions and suggestions – we would love to hear from you.
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