“How can we strategize about literacy today by imagining different possible futures?”

Client: Early Literacy Alliance of Waterloo Region (ELAWR)

Project: A Prescription for Literacy: Accelerating the Early Literacy Movement in Waterloo Region

Timeline: January 2017-ongoing (Anticipated Completion: December 2018)

Project Services: Strategic Foresight, Design Research, Design Sprints, Activation

The Challenge:

Across Waterloo Region, many people struggle with basic literacy skills. Limited literacy hinders individuals’ abilities to complete everyday tasks and creates barriers to participation in today’s knowledge-based society. The Early Literacy Alliance of Waterloo Region (ELAWR) aims to improve early childhood literacy so that children can reach their full potential and increase equality and access for future generations.

Together with Overlap Associates, ELAWR is accelerating the early literacy movement in the Region by developing community-led solutions, supporting collective impact, collaborating with local healthcare communities, and building capacity. Overlap and ELAWR are taking a human-centred approach to co-designing, testing, and implementing this initiative. A particular challenge within this goal is to look beyond the current state of literacy and imagine the factors that will affect it in the future—and then harness that understanding to strategize for a literacy movement today.


To address the particular challenge of planning for an unknown future, Overlap and ELAWR underwent a week-long Design Sprint focused on Strategic Foresight. A Design Sprint is a unique and highly effective facilitation format that leads participants through the full cycle of design in just five days—including problem mapping, ideation, prototyping, testing, and iteration. By the end of the week, the process leads to actual strategies and solutions that teams can continue to refine and implement right away.

For the Foresight Design Sprint, Overlap and ELAWR applied concepts of foresight to the rapid cycle of design. Foresight is a process that helps us to better understand possible futures by understanding current elements and conditions that signal significant future changes. Within this framework, the Sprint focused on examining the future of early literacy and learning in 2040. Throughout the Sprint, ELAWR members identified 100 signals and 18 current trends, and invited experts and community stakeholders to validate 10 identified drivers—or forces that can create systemic change.

From this collection of evidence-based ideas, the team collaboratively developed four scenarios—or imagined future worlds—exploring the future of literacy in radically different forms. The four scenarios included a world in which mediocrity is standard, one in which language and culture is a priority, one in which technology hubs are focal points of communities, and one in which education is a personalized experience through artificial intelligence and technology. Mapping these four worlds enabled ELAWR to consider how people, organizations, and communities may be impacted by change. These ideas will shape ELAWR’s current planning for a future-oriented literacy movement and productive community collaborations.

Foresight does not seek to predict the future. But by imagining what the future might be like, foresight can help organizations conduct future-oriented strategic planning and challenge assumptions about the directions of current trends and forces.

“One of the most powerful experiences of this sprint has been the way that Overlap has treated ELAWR members. I feel that Overlap has been genuinely interested in our growth and wellbeing, and you have taken the time and effort to demonstrate that. […] The team has been professional and compassionate in working with us, and I feel that we have received respect and extra patience during a time of growth and making difficult decisions.” – Kim Krueger-Kischak, Community Connector at YMCAs of Cambridge and Kitchener-Waterloo; ELAWR Member