Design Impact grows local social innovation roots

When Ramsey Ford and Kate Hanisian spent months in Thiruchuli, a rural town in Tamil Nadu, India, they weren’t on an extended vacation. They were working with members of the community to design a way to use waste from a nearby charcoal plant to make fuel that burned cleaner than wood while creating new jobs for the locals.

The Northside couple’s journey started when Ford, 31, an industrial designer with a masters degree from UC, talked his wife, Hanisian, 32, about how the design process could be used to change the world, one problem at a time. To him, it seemed a responsible alternative to spending billions of dollars to design products that only a small percentage of the world ever use.

Hanisian, who has a masters degree in education from Xavier and is a veteran of working with non-profits that focus on social justice, started her research. She wanted to find ways people were using the creative process to address poverty, clean water and sanitation. After a couple of dinner conversations, Hanisian and Ford decided to put their good intentions to work. The result? Design Impact, a non-profit with a mission to improve lives in low-income rural communities around the world.

As they investigated existing social design companies, Hanisian and Ford learned that most similar non-profits do their work and then leave communities. They spend short periods of time on the ground and often create solutions that don’t take community needs and cultures into account.

“If you’re designing the next Pantene bottle, our culture is similar enough that a lot of the assumptions made will be correct,” Hanisian says. “When you’re crossing economic and geographic borders, assumptions can be wrong, and it can alienate the community from the process.”

Hanisian and Ford charted a new path for Design Impact. They wouldn’t arrive in a community with a pre-fabricated plan to “fix” it; instead, they would become a part of the community. By living and working with community members, they would find the best ways to help create deep and lasting change.

Hanisian and Ford started saving money and searching for volunteer positions with non-profits so they could test out their idea of imbedding themselves in communities as a route to social and societal change. At the same time, Ford went to a meeting at his part-time consulting job at Kaleidoscope, a product development company. Kaleidoscope CEO Matt Kornau asked him where he saw himself in five years. Ford explained his dream of working in rural communities, and Kornau asked for a presentation about the plan. It didn’t take long for Hanisian and Ford to form a business plan for Design Impact. Kaleidoscope provided the funding.

“It pushed us to make this something formal and real,” Hanisian says.

The plan for Design Impact is a novel twist of social innovation – they both immerse designers and embed the design process in a community. To get started, DI paired with the non-governmental Organization of Development Action and Maintenance (ODAM). Between September 2009 and September 2011, Hanisian and Ford spent 16 months in Thiruchuli, India. After asking the people of Thiruchuli where they needed help, Hanisian and Ford worked on two main projects for two years.

One was the charcoal briquette project, which replaces wood and kerosene as heat sources for cooking. The project achieved two goals. It eliminates the air-pollution-causing smoke that wood and kerosene emit since the charcoal briquettes burn smokeless. Since the briquettes are harvested from the local charcoal plant and manufactured in the community, their use creates jobs and raises the local standard of living. Already, the briquettes are being test-marketed to see how they can be distributed in community markets.

Design Impact’s second project focuses on business and leadership development for the women of the Thiruchuli. ODAM had already established a small biofuel-producing system, with a natural by-product of glycerin, which was not being used to its full potential. No one had considered turning the soap into a marketable product. Hanisian and Ford researched soap and talked with women in the community about scents they would like to produce. They helped design the packaging, which features pictures of the community, with soaps that have scents that are naturally occuring in India, such as jasmine, lemongrass and mango. DI also helped form a marketing strategy to provide income for the community.

And if the process seems far-removed, think again. Starting Nov. 19, Paruva Kaalam, the soap created in Thiruchuli, will be sold at Park + Vine; a deal with Whole Foods is in the works. Aside from creating a sustainable product that makes highlights to value of biofuels, the income of the women who make the soap has increased by 220 percent since Design Impact helped create the plan.

Hanisian and Ford returned to Cincinnati, but their innovative process continues. The couple has outlined four steps for each of their initiatives: Immersion and Research, Transforming and Design, Implementing and Finalizing, and Fortifying and Measuring.

DI has developed a 10-month fellowship program that takes designers with education and industry experience and immerses them in community-led projects. Hanisian and Ford will travel back to India with six fellows, who come from around the world, Nov. 27. They will visit five new projects across India, from improving nutrition to supporting bicycle innovations that make everyday life healthier and easier.

DI partners with small local non-profits and uses a universal plan to help build up communities. The knowledge and experience Hanisian and Ford gained by working with ODAM allows them to train each fellow to integrate into the community, understand the community and ultimately leave the community with a concrete plan for improvements.

Once they have trained their first class of fellows, Hanisian and Ford will return to Cincinnati to work on new projects and recruit fellowship applicants for the next stages of each project.

While DI is a small company, Hanisian and Ford see its potential reach as anything but. By 2014, they plan to have 30 fellows living in India; by 2015, they hope to have helped 300,000 people through grassroots, community-building projects.

Follow Evan Wallis on Twitter

Photos by Scott Beseler and Design Impact
Signup for Email Alerts