Studio C designed to help organizations work for social change

Have you ever faced a challenging situation — at work, in your neighborhood, even with just a group of friends — and realized your answers just weren’t solving anything? That’s not an uncommon circumstance in many settings, but how to get things moving in a new, more creative direction can be the biggest challenge.
Ramsey Ford, design director and co-founder of the downtown-based social innovation firm Design Impact, leads an organization that’s focused on techniques to get better results by applying design concepts in nontraditional ways. Trained as an industrial designer, he explains that design fundamentally is a creative change process.
“Design is used in a lot of different corporate settings to develop new products and solutions for consumers,” Ford says. “We started Design Impact with the idea that this powerful process could really be well used in neighborhoods and communities in the social sector. Our goal was to connect design thinking to organizations and people who were working for social change.”
Local applications
Following several years of success with this innovative approach, including a significant international initiative in India, Design Impact pivoted its focus to Greater Cincinnati and the Midwest.
“By and large, most of our work is helping organizations solve problems that they don’t know how to solve,” Ford says. “Often they don’t even know the right questions to ask.”
In response, Design Impact has created Studio C, a “project incubator” in partnership with United Way of Greater Cincinnati. It’s a 12-week program for nonprofits and community organizations that the United Way — based on a commitment to support innovation in the social sector — has made available at no cost to participants.
The program offers space, community support and workshops where new ideas, policies and collaborations can be developed. Studio C connects nonprofits with resources and tools to develop new programs and social services. Registration for the upcoming round beginning on April 7 is open now; the application deadline is March 25. (Another 12-week session will be offered in the fall.)
Now in its third year, Studio C encourages outside-the-box thinking to address social challenges. The program is designed for teams of two to four people representing any community group, neighborhood association, nonprofit or grassroots organization in the Greater Cincinnati area. In fact, groups need not be formally qualified nonprofits — any group of individuals seeking to address a problematic social issue is encouraged to apply.
During the 12-week program, teams analyze complex problems and systems, identify unmet needs and aspirations of their community or organization, seek opportunities for innovation and frame ideas in compelling and creative ways. Their learning process will culminate in building and testing new ideas for programs and services in the community.
Bubbling over with good ideas
Studio C aims to shift how social services are conceived and implemented by focusing on empathic, creative and inclusive approaches to generate solutions to real problems affecting communities. Ford offers a clear example involving the Northern Kentucky Community Action Commission and the Housing Authority of Covington, which together hoped to enroll more families from the City Heights neighborhood, a housing project, in the Head Start pre-school program.
Program managers needed to engage neighborhood residents but weren’t sure how to go about it. They believed transportation was a fundamental obstacle for the seemingly isolated neighborhood, but the Studio C and Design Impact leaders suggested talking to parents. NKCAC staff hadn’t succeeded in initiating such conversations. City Heights residents were not inclined to answer their doors when someone with a clipboard in hand knocked.
The innovative response from the design process was to outfit a “bubble mobile” to drive around the neighborhood and attract children. Head Start teachers were in the van to offer small bottles of bubbles to kids who brought their mom or dad to speak with them — the process led to informative conversations with parents who learned more about Head Start and what it can offer to their children.
What became evident was that transportation wasn’t the problem — it was a lack of familiarity. As a result of the initiative, the program’s enrollment has tripled.
Tools for creative change
Media Coordinator Caitlin Behle says Design Impact focuses on inclusivity and creativity.
“How do you do this work with a social program or organization that’s dealing with really wicked issues? We focus on getting the communities being served at the table the whole time,” Behle says. “We do that with these creative approaches.
“In the nonprofit world people often get bogged down with bureaucracy and fundraising and things that come along with that world. We work with this group who feel pretty limited by this box they’re in, and we use these creative approaches to help them think outside of that.”
Teams of participants accepted for the upcoming Studio C program are expected to attend three initial two-hour sessions (April 7, 14 and 21) where the focus will be on “Project Framing,” “Understand Systems” and “Understand People.” The following nine sessions offer open studios for specific project work as well as workshops on ideation, prototyping, storytelling and more.
Studio C has been a game-changer for past participants. Calista Stone of Cincinnati Works credits Studio C with helping her find a new perspective.
“My innovation talents were awakened and enhanced,” Stone says. “I have a fresh method of problem solving with other Cincinnati Works staff members. The strategies I learned in Studio C are resources that I can utilize naturally and systematically.”
Ford says that Design Impact’s easy-to-use tools are geared around “how to do creative engagement.” Participants in Studio C come out of the program with new skills.
“Some of them are a little more comfortable in taking risk,” Ford says. “A lot of this is about the idea of iterations. You don’t necessarily start with the right answer. Instead, you start with a hypothesis and work through techniques to find a better answer than you have right now. That happens with putting an idea out there and seeing how it works and then trying again. That’s a big leap for a lot of people.”
But the leap often leads to great results.
“We want to empower community organizations and engage voices who aren’t always included at the decision-making table,” Ford says. “By bringing them into the process, we can produce big ideas and better outcomes.”
“Studio C is exciting because you don’t have to have a full-fledged business plan,” Behle adds. “If you have a few ideas about a social issue, apply for Studio C and we can help you figure out how to make a difference.”

Read more articles by Rick Pender.

Rick Pender is an Over-the-Rhine resident with many years of writing, editing, fundraising and public relations experience. He is the theater critic and contributing editor at CityBeat and a regular contributor to WVXU's "Around Cincinnati." Follow him on Twitter @PenderRick.
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