Local nonprofit Design Impact releases 'Metathemes' social change report

Over the last decade, the emerging field of social design has sought to apply the design process to systems and problems instead of products.

For over a year, Cincinnati-based social innovation firm Design Impact has conducted hundreds of interviews, overseen dozens of projects and wrestled with shaping the resulting commonalities and themes into a coherent set of action items that could be shared with community leaders, government officials and nonprofit staff.

The result of that work is Metathemes: Designing for Equitable Social Change, an actionable report aimed at creating equity and addressing complicated problems like hunger, homelessness and access to healthcare.

Cincinnati joins national social design movement

Anyone who has held an iPhone or seen a Tesla has experienced how the design process can create a product that fully expresses human desire and functionality. Just as anyone who has visited the motor vehicle department or negotiated a permitting process has been hampered by design processes that are not people-centric.

The field of social design has expanded to include social enterprise, social entrepreneurship and social innovation. The concept is moving beyond the individual experience to explore possible design-based solutions to social problems like poverty and educational inequity.

A national community of social design practitioners has emerged to connect and share their work. Recently, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City opened By the People, an exhibition on collaborative design projects that seek to remedy specific inequalities in communities around the United States. The significance of the social design field is such that the museum also employs a Curator of Socially Responsible Design.

On the opposite coast, Stanford University publishes the Social Innovation Review to share best practices with a national and international audience. One section of its website is devoted specifically to Design Thinking as a solution to social problems.

Here in Cincinnati, Design Impact uses human-centered design focusing on human experiences, behavior, motivation and needs to help nonprofits, philanthropic organizations, schools and governments develop products and systems.

“Often organizations start with a solution to a problem, instead of focusing on the people they are trying to help,” says Kate Hanisian, Design Impact co-founder and executive director. “We want to change that model. We use the design process to train organizational leaders and we engage the community as partners in co-creating solutions.”

Typically, local organizations engage Design Impact when they are facing problems related to improving or expanding an existing program. Design Impact focuses on turning qualitative research into user experiences to help evaluate the problem's impact.

“We engage people throughout the process,” Hanisian says. “They are part of our team, not subjects to be studied.”

Much of Design Impact’s work takes place in living rooms and around kitchen tables. Staff sits one-on-one with community members to discover through empathetic listening the opportunities that exist within a problem. Once those interviews are analyzed, the Design Impact team synthesizes common elements and targets design solutions to present to the client.

“The same comments and themes kept coming up in interviews and projects across sectors,” Hanisian says. “We realized what needed to change was the system itself, not the people trying to use it. We not only needed to listen to those cross-sector bigger themes, but we had a responsibility to share them.”

Research-driven report focuses on changing systems, not people

The Metathemes report is organized around six overarching ideas, each section outlining the tension around an issue, its importance, opportunities for change, operational calls to action and real-world stories from community members impacted by a given theme.

The United Way of Greater Cincinnati helped underwrite the report, which will be available in hard copy format and via free electronic download.

“The United Way has renewed our focus on driving and expanding opportunities for families in poverty,” says Ross Meyer, Community Impact's vice president. “Far too often, the voice of those we seek to help is not heard. Using Metathemes, we want to incorporate these insights and perspectives into the work right from the start.”

The United Way has been working with Design Impact for several years to encourage social innovation in the region. The United Way’s Studio C program helps nonprofits with capacity-building and integrating design thinking into building solutions for the people they want to help. As that program moves forward, Metathemes will be integrated into the curriculum.

Metathemes points to larger structural challenges we need to focus on,” Meyer says. “We need to be clear and intentional in addressing inequality so we don’t perpetuate it.”

Both Hanisian and Meyer highlight a first call to action from the report: "Look into the mirror. In order to rise above status quo, we have to start with ourselves to understand our role in structures of power and oppression. We recognize this is an ongoing growth process that requires constant attention and an ability to reflect on our individual and collective beliefs and actions.”

“We are telling every organization we work with to read that call to action out loud,” Hanisian says.

“We are starting with ourselves,” Meyer says. “We are asking what role we have in perpetuating the system, but also, how we can change it.”

One area philanthropists and funders are considering is their role in incentivizing collaboration, partnership and coordination of services across organizations and even sectors.

“The system of support is fragmented and disconnected,” Meyer says. “That doesn’t help change a family’s trajectory to move out of poverty.”

The United Way will host two workshops to introduce community leaders and organizations to the report and discuss how the findings can be integrated into their work. Design Impact is also working with other community partners to schedule additional programs to help people and organizations implement the Metathemes findings.

“We feel there is a really broad audience for this work,” Hanisian says. “Anyone who cares about social change, whether a philanthropist investing in that area, a community member seeking to activate change, a nonprofit employee on the front line, schools, hospitals, government or really everyone.”

The United Way plans to share the report with its national and international network of peer organizations. Although Metathemes is based on Design Impact’s work in Greater Cincinnati, the themes themselves have a wider resonance.

“Much of the report is transferable to other communities,” Meyer says. “We are excited to be able to share this work with others.”

A digital version of the Metathemes report is available for free online. United Way workshops on Jan. 24 and Feb. 14 are free and open to the public, but advance registration is required. Upcoming programs and workshops about the Metathemes report will be shared through Design Impact’s website and social media.

Read more articles by Julie Carpenter.

Julie Carpenter has a background in cultural heritage tourism, museums, and nonprofit organizations. She's the Executive Director of AIA Cincinnati.  
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