A systems lens on city innovation

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Name: Alicia Moon

Title: Executive Director, Innovation Team

City: Detroit

When Alicia Moon graduated from Yale Law School six years ago, she was interested in “systemic advocacy” — finding ways to help vulnerable people advocate for themselves, so that entire public-sector systems, such as foster care, would function more equitably. Now, as the head of the innovation team in Detroit, she’s pursuing that goal from within City Hall.

The team’s first priority under her leadership was to find ways to improve access to quality early childhood education for families. To understand the system from the vantage point of people experiencing it, they conducted 40 in-depth, one-on-one interviews with parents, childcare operators, and others. One morning, two team members got up early to shadow a family with two working parents, one car, and kids in preschool programs all over the city. “We tried to put ourselves inside the shoes of parents and providers,” Moon said, “and we invited all of them to help us develop and prototype ideas.”

Insights from this research informed Detroit’s plans to replicate Providence Talks, a successful program targeted at language development in young children. And feedback from providers led directly to a new step-by-step guide to starting a childcare business in the city.

“When I was working in the legal system advocating for vulnerable clients, what I learned was a lot of the challenge was about people not having access to information,” Moon said. “It’s really similar in early childhood education. You don’t have to break the system to change it. What may feel like incremental changes you’re making can have a significant impact on individuals.”

Pro tip: “Treat your residents like the experts they are.”

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