Children First City Design

This article was originally published by Canay Atalay on  on the Human Works website. It was taken from Canay’s keynote presentation in at the and& Summit and Festival in Leuven.

#ChildrenFirst city design

When I was little, we moved to a small village where there were no big apartments, shopping malls, entertainment parks nor galleries. My parents tell us that living standards were pretty low. Somehow my side of the story is very different.

We were living in a house with a huge garden where we grew all sorts of vegetables. I used to eat parsley from the garden without washing it first, and despite the warnings of my parents, I never got sick because there were no pesticides used on them. I could watch the sunrise in front of our house and the sunset in the back of our house without any high buildings or pollution fog to shadow my view, somewhat like the Little Prince on his little planet. One of the best parts was the neighbourhood. As children, we were allowed to enter any house without knocking on the door, sit on the lunch and dinner tables and eat with neighbours as if we were a part of their families. My parents worked walking distance to our home and were always at home before it was dark. To me, this was a very high quality of life.

Now I am living in Istanbul with my two daughters. Although I have been in the same neighbourhood for the last 10 years and I don’t know many of my neighbours – but I know all of the WiFi names. My daughters have to travel two hours to and from school. All I want is for my children not to have to inhale too much car pollution and to be safe while they are playing outside, even within our fences.

As the city grew, the buildings got higher, cars flooded the roads, children got stuck in little areas, people became distant and parents got busier. Neighbours switched from family member to strangers in the same building. Something felt profoundly missing: It didn’t feel like home anymore.

Creating new narratives

Cities shape our physical lives but they affect our mental and emotional wellbeing as well. Most importantly, cities shape how we define life and ourselves. Research shows that children who commute or are exposed to more traffic see their neighbourhood and life as more dangerous than children who commute less. We are poisoning our children, not only with car pollution and fast food but also with distorted value systems.

With unlimited power of AI on the horizon, the time is up to create new narratives so we don’t amplify the existing human problems and pass them on to future generations.

1-THINK RADICALLY NEW Beyond our addictive thoughts and assumptions. As systems shape how we think, we need to think and design new systems beyond fixing what’s wrong with already those that are already collapsing.

2-WORLDWIDE CO-OPERATION With Climate change, refugee crises and innovations in the technology, we are becoming one global tribe who wants to survive and thrive. As conscious leaders innovating for future cities, it’s time that we find worldwide co-operation that motivates us to create meaningful futures.

Radical new thinking and worldwide co-operation is possible when we focus on the children’s wellbeing and let the children design new narratives for themselves.

In the last two years, I transformed my personal and business life to prioritise children. By listening and working with children, I noticed the vast ocean of possibilities we can unlock when it comes to designing anything, from products to cities, business models to cultures. And here I want to share some of these learnings with you.

#ChildrenFirst world design

‘Children First World Design’ is a compass of innovation for humanity, prioritising children’s wellbeing above anything else and enabling children to design their own lives. It is a holistic and analytical way of thinking, considering both a present and future that benefits us all. Beyond thinking, it also transcendents ‘being’ in the joy of meaningful and sustainable innovation, together with the most innovative human role models: children.

Here are four steps to innovate with ‘Children First World Design’ principles:

1. Children-first decisions

We don’t think how our decisions and the narratives that we teach children are affecting them, because that’s not our focus when it comes to business. That’s why obesity and social media addiction are skyrocketing, leaving children at the risk of mortal diseases and depression with high self-harm and suicide rates. The problem is the short term thinking and our wrong assumptions based on 16th-Century thinking.

Putting children first is not only the right thing to do but it is also smart for business. Children are future customers, employees, leaders and shareholders. From the Facebook Cambridge Analytics example to the Blackrock CEO’s announcement to business, inviting them to consider society’s values, we know that any business that doesn’t respect communities’ values is doomed to fail. A children-first business / public service approach combines short and long term thinking and forces us to think more holistically around topics like ethics, sustainability, employee/citizen happiness and education.

For systemic innovation, imagine new roles such as Chief Children First Officer who reports to a commission of children. And imagine new KPI’s: What is the impact of the company on children’s wellbeing, physical, mental and emotional? For cities, check these metrics: What is the size of the free-roaming area of an average child? How frequently do they play outside? How close is the nearest park or forest? How frequently are their opinions are heard and applied? How long can they be together with their parents and community members? How are we enabling communities to consider and act children first?

2. Design with and for children

We know that children are far more creative than us because they are not educated off their creativity yet. Then why to treat them just as users and not let them lead the way?

With Children First World, we are providing platforms for children to explore, dialogue and design their own lives, their city, school and family experiences, together with their parents. We use philosophy and design thinking methodologies, different art forms such as dancing, role-playing, singing and playing music together.

my dream city

Children imagine future cities as nature. They exclude pollution, cars in traffic and high buildings and reflect on them as a part of history.

trees & family

We run value exercises with children, and most children come up with ‘FAMILY’ as one of their top 5 values. In a city where family is valued the most, there is no child or elderly person alone without families, no concept of refugees, street animals (even elephants) because we are one big Earthling family. They designed houses connected to each other on the trees, which are also transportation and communication channels.

green energy

Kids dream bigger and greener. For these kids, it’s not self-driving cars that symbolize the future. It’s alternative energy like chocolate, new materials, and flight.

freedom to move

For children, their perfect city is one that makes them happy, with simple pleasures like nature to play in, learn and feed from, with the freedom to move flexibly, create and express themselves, express love and feel loved with their families and communities.

floating and undersea cities

Mobility is very important. Children design floating cities in the sky or below the sea so they can change locations according to seasons and ecological needs.

robots take care of boring

Children imagine flying schools so they can learn from other children living in different countries. They want to learn to grow their own plants, make experiments in labs and play music while robots take care of all the boring things.

3. Learn from children with children

We all know that the existing education system is collapsing. With technology, we automize more decisions every day with big data and algorithms. This removes the decision making, any chance of failure and thus learning opportunities of our children. We want children to be critical thinkers and decide for themselves.

That’s why in Wapaland workshops, our main focus is art and philosophy. We run Socratic dialogues with both children and adults, and enable them to experience the art of listening. Many parents listen to their children for real – maybe for the first time- and get shocked when they hear how their children are talking. Let’s stop talking at children and instead talk with them. Let children’s voices be heard. Let them join in the decision-making processes.

To leave children out of urban planning means losing the chance to connect future leaders with issues like overcrowding, safety and sustainability. Getting kids thinking about their surroundings early on – observing and commenting – teaches them critical life skills.

More importantly, let’s learn from children: How to enjoy our human qualities and flourish in imagination, curiosity, creativity, the joy of living, being in the moment and being flexible to change.

4. Listen to your inner child

When was the last time you did something you used to love doing as a child? What do you do just because it’s fun? You can not ignore your inner child and still create happiness for children and others. Let’s stop trying to think or do happy cities, let’s become happy cities by being happy like children. Whenever I am upset, my five-and-a-half-year-old Mia says; ‘Kalbinde güneş açsın anne’ which means ‘Let the sun shine in your heart mother’. A child knows that happiness is a natural state of being when you let yourself. Let’s listen to our inner children to show us the path to happiness.

One global human tribe

Carl Sagan once said ‘Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known’. I believe that an incredible thing is on this planet, right in front of us. No, it is not artificial intelligence, it is our natural intelligence, our children. They need our attention to their dreams and courage to change ourselves. Let’s make today and this beautiful festival kick-start a ‘Children First World Design’ and inherit a new story to future game-changers. A loving story of one global human tribe.

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