Insights + interviews

Tech startups can provide answers to early childhood development challenges

By  |  0 Comments

Dr. Yousef Alhammadi, Executive Director, Abu Dhabi Early Childhood Authority: “We are currently in the midst of an artificial intelligence (AI) transformation. It is now only a matter of when, not if, the capabilities of this technology take root and begin to flourish in the ECD sector.”

We have to ensure the new generation is equipped with knowledge and science so they can represent our competitive advantage in front of the whole world. Our only choice is quality.

Hearing these words spoken by His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, I was radically inspired to embrace constant and consistent growth through experimentation and a fail-fast mentality.

Since these words were spoken, the world has experienced a rapid technological revolution impacting almost every area and aspect of our lives. But the words still hold firm today. Should you choose not to keep up with the pace of change, you must be prepared to fall behind. Now, more than ever, we all must do our best to embrace the progress technology affords us from the earliest opportunity life grants us – childhood.

Through the Abu Dhabi Early Childhood Authority (ECA), our work within the early childhood development (ECD) sector is encouraging the creation and expansion of innovative technology that will have a reach and impact far beyond our borders and times in the years to come.

I strongly believe that young children everywhere should be healthy, confident, curious, and able to learn and develop strong values. With the assistance of the technology available today, and the tools being developed for the future, these goals can be achieved better than ever before. Through mentorship and financing support, we can promote the technological village that it takes to raise a child in the contemporary digital era in which we live.

early childhood

To obtain the maximum potential technology presents us with, greater awareness is needed to highlight the significance of developing startups that can provide the solutions and answers to the many problems facing us within the ECD sector. Technology can promote optimal child development and well-being through various areas, including health and nutrition, child protection, family support and education, and early care from the early stages of pregnancy right up until the age of eight.

Globally, parents, educators, caregivers, and medical professionals are working to overcome challenges in identifying development issues in the early years, strengthening all aspects of a child’s wellness, and searching for better and more accurate data that can bridge educational gaps.

Regarding my special interest in the technology being created in this sector, I am passionate about weaving storytelling through its development. By forging a personal connection between the user and the technology, complex data, and information can be disseminated more easily. Combining analog and digital platforms to convey complex data and information on ECD can be a succinct and humane way to help the audience identify with the technology and inspire them to act. That’s why I believe fostering and supporting founders of these startups now, holds the key to unlocking and realizing the full potential of our children’s futures.

There is no denying the ubiquitous nature of technology. While the beneficial change it has brought to our lives is truly hard to quantify, there is a large reluctance and pushback when it comes to introducing it to our young children. There exists a fear that embracing technology from a young age will result in children being exposed to a damaging excess of screen time.

However, this fear is largely misplaced and misguided. When used interactively and educationally, technology benefits children, educational providers, and medical professionals. In fact, technological interventions can potentially enhance the ability to detect possible developmental delays or medical concerns in young children.

According to academic research, developmental delays occur in 10 to 15 percent of preschool-aged children and can often be difficult to identify. Technology can help educators and professionals identify these obstacles sooner. By doing this, children can be provided with better resources and tailored educational plans that are reflective and cognisant of their individual learning needs. In today’s society, children are exposed to technology from such an early age – why not capitalise on this and ensure that the technology they are engaging with, benefits them developmentally and also has the capability to provide much-needed data and analytics?

Decisions that are driven by quality and informed data go much further and have a larger potential to appropriately and accurately address key issues in the area of ECD. For governments, this wealth of potential must be utilised. The automation and digitisation of tools that seek to aid in overcoming many of the pertinent issues facing the ECD sector will provide data that can be used to address all issues impacting a child’s development.

early childhood

Startups working in the ECD industry have developed technologies capable of ensuring children are exposed to STEAM from an early age, have the appropriate tools to develop their mental well-being, and can greatly improve their health overall and show how we can leverage technology in the growth and development of children. Investing in the belief that children are the future and granting them the best shot at life is the most effective way to make a significant societal impact. I believe that our best chance is to make quantum leaps in social progress by making a difference in the lives of the youngest in our society.

Academic research has shown that one in ten children experience mental health problems, but such disorders are often left undetected till much later in life. The implications of delayed intervention on development are not just restricted to the suffering of children and families but have broader consequences for the development of society as a whole.

early childhood

We are supporting a predictive mental health platform that turns children’s games into personalised, evidence-based insights for families, schools, and healthcare professionals. We are also working with a robotics startup revolutionizing education by addressing the shortage of affordable STEAM educational tools and qualified teachers to deliver the materials. This shows there are tools to support ECD and it is important to remember that tomorrow’s inventors and scientists are today’s inquisitive young children. As those children are given adequate opportunities to explore and are mentored by adults and technology, they can be encouraged to reach their fullest potential.

We are currently in the midst of an artificial intelligence (AI) transformation. It is now only a matter of when, not if, the capabilities of this technology take root and begin to flourish in the ECD sector. Through effective investment and mentoring, the encouragement of development creates the unique potential to create new technologies with these AI capabilities that can reconfigure how ECD is considered, engaged, and advanced.  Using this technology can potentially contribute to future decision-making, policy creation and planning within the sector. We can also use this technology to make childhood development more resilient to any crises, creating opportunities that benefit the broader society.

Owing largely to rising inflation, a recent study surveying Singaporeans disclosed that only 27 percent of individuals describe their current financial situation as “good”. Compounding the increasingly expensive cost of living crisis, childcare in Singapore certainly does not come cheap.

Figures from a Statista study have revealed that the average fee for a full-day child center program is SGD 1017. There is specialised software that can cut down on operational costs and ease administrative financing – but technology can detect difficulties, illnesses, and obstacles children may be facing sooner, thus, majorly cutting costs. Investing early in new technologies that can identify and flag these stumbling blocks can save costs further down the line. Governments play a crucial role in encouraging these burgeoning technologies and ensuring that they receive maximum support as they benefit larger society and its successful future trajectory. The earlier the investment is made, the less it costs later.

early childhood

The very nature of the technological era we live in means that things are constantly developing at breakneck speed, and advancements made mere weeks or months ago are frequently rendered obsolete. Truly, this technological world that we inhabit waits for no one. We must be prepared to trial and to fail, to stumble and to fall, but not to be held back by a fear of not succeeding.

Error makes us resilient. Just as children learn from their mistakes, we must be prepared to learn from ours. It is essential to remember that just as you would nurture and care for a newborn or a young child, emerging technology needs to be fostered and cultivated to best ensure that the children of today grow and live alongside the technology of the future.

Article shared by Dr. Yousef Alhammadi. He is the Executive Director at the Abu Dhabi Early Childhood Authority (ECA) and has over two decades of experience within the analytics space at the intersection of human-centric technology.

With a PhD in Applied Statistics and Machine Learning and experience at MIT, Dr. Yousef has worked in a variety of notable roles, including Chief Intelligence Officer at the Special Olympic World Games in 2019, where he developed a loT smart device and technology that leveraged VR and AR to real-time mapping, translation, and event updates.

He is passionate about advanced technologies and creating positive change by inspiring people to build a prosperous nation in the age of data.

Photo by note thanun, by Markus Spiske, by Tim Gouw on Unsplash and Photo by Shawn Rain on Unsplash