How do you lower the cost of living in the third most expensive city in the world?
You might be surprised to learn: it all starts with toddlers.
We recently spoke with Sarah Auslander and Itai Eiges about their work with the City of Tel Aviv. As part of an internal innovation team—supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies—they came onboard in 2015 to solve some of the city’s most complex challenges: one of which was cost of living. Their work has since touched people across the city. But the path they took to get there isn’t what you’d expect.
From city playgrounds to public policy—this is a story of how incremental change can lead to a bigger lasting impact.
breaking down a big challenge
Cost of living is a big and complex challenge to go after. With so many factors at play, the team knew they couldn’t be effective tackling it all at once. So they posed the question: how might we reframe this challenge around something more tangible?
They started with a survey, asking 33,000 residents of Tel Aviv about their highest perceived expenses. Education and after school activities ranked high (just after housing, transportation, and food), and were areas where the team felt they could have an impact—so they decided to dig in deeper.
First, they broke down education into different age ranges to understand the problems and costs associated with each age group.
“We could very easily see that the most expensive age was early childhood—birth to 3. In Israel, the cost of a year of daycare for that group can be the same as 3 years of university,” explains Sarah. “That’s why we started with it.”
The team’s first idea was to expand the coverage of subsidized public education for children under 3 from 20% to 50% of the city’s children. But due to factors outside their control, like building and tax codes, it wasn’t a feasible solution. So they decided to reframe their work once again, this time honing on an area within their sphere of influence.
“We decided to focus on where the majority of children were at that time, which was independently run child care centers. And to explore what we could do to make that experience better and more affordable."
two sides of the coin
An estimated 60% of Tel Aviv’s young children are educated in the private sector, through independently run child care centers. To better understand that experience, the team met with parents and educators. Their goal was to gain a more holistic view of the costs and challenges faced by both sides.
From parents, they heard that the process of finding a reliable school and programming was stressful. Private sector educators weren’t required to have a license. Parents said that despite spending a significant portion of their income, they still worried about whether they were leaving their children in the right hands.
In their conversations with educators, the team began to understand why costs were so high in the first place. Most of the money parents were being charged went to high operating costs for private sector educational centers—including rent, special permits, and renovation costs to meet specific building regulations.
Over and over, the team heard a few key themes come to light: high operating costs for educators, parents’ lack of resources to help them find quality education, and the cost of tuition for families.To tackle these, their next step was to garner support with an initial prototype.
a palpable problem
The team needed a way to demonstrate just how much impact early childhood education had on Tel Aviv’s families.
First on their agenda was to build internal knowledge around the problem and garner buy in from city management. They wanted to help city officials see the number of families impacted by early childhood costs, and better understand their appetite for public services.
To do this, they partnered with experts from the Urban 95 program—which specializes in urban planning with young children in mind. Together, they created pop-up play areas in high-traffic parts of the city. They offered toys, activities, and equipment geared specifically towards the 0-3 age group. Borrowing from existing infrastructure, they also turned city storage sheds into toy rental stations where families could check out play equipment at no cost. This helped them get them up and running quickly, with fewer resources.
“Thousands of parents use the spaces over the course of a week,” shares Sarah. “It was really part of the strategy—we wanted to build up as much visibility as possible.”
And it worked. The play area prototypes helped people to see the number of families with kids in the early childhood age range with a demand for services.
The next question was how to make it scale.
They continued testing prototypes, growing the scope little by little each time. With initial momentum, they made the case to expand city services already offered to older children to the 0-3 age group too—like more toddler-friendly playground equipment.
They also built a digital platform for parents called Digitaf, which helped get the word out about services offered by the city and provided a public forum for parents to share their experiences.
“It really became a megaphone for parents' voices,” shares Sarah. “It connected parents to each other and created pressure groups pushing the city to change its policy towards early childhood education.”
The team’s combination of digital and real world initiatives allowed them to change the perception of the early childhood experience—and its importance to families—in Tel Aviv. As a result, the city of Tel Aviv was the first to establish an Early Childhood Division in its Education Administration.
“We built those case studies first to be able to build capacity later on. It was a powerful way of showing it works.”
As the team’s incremental improvements grew, so did support for their project. Motivated by their work, the mayor’s office announced a plan to take greater responsibility for early childhood education.
“It was a huge shift in policy,” says Sarah. “They saw that early childhood education can have a major impact on the quality of life and on the cost of living for families.”
As part of this policy shift, the city began offering more affordable rental spaces for early childhood education centers. When an educator rented from the city, they agreed to decrease the cost to parents as well and were provided free professional development to improve the quality of their services. The city also redesigned the educator permitting process, to lower the cost and barriers to entry for those who were professionally qualified.
At the onset of this project, early childhood education wasn’t a focus for the city. Thanks to the team’s focused work, the city announced it would take on greater responsibility—so much so that, today, they have an entire department focused on it.
Their capacity-building approach has now spread even more widely across the country too.
“Thanks to the generous support of Mayor Bloomberg and the professional guidance of Bloomberg Philanthropies—what started with the innovation teams in Tel Aviv, as well as Jerusalem and Beer Sheva, is expanding to many other cities across Israel,” shares Itai. “In recent years, we’ve seen a variety of programs, all building innovation capacity in cities for the benefit of their residents.”
What started with playgrounds transformed into country-wide changes that will have a lasting impact on families for years to come.