Over the past two days, 30 design strategists converged upon District Hall in Boston's Innovation District to tackle a single problem:
- How can we improve health by getting everyone to eat better?
The DxB360 Social Innovation Challenge is similar in concept to a hackathon. Multidisciplinary teams are formed from a diverse applicant pool, including designers, technologists, business strategists, and subject matter experts. The teams are given access to a real-world client to inform their research and ground their ideas in reality. DxB360 is one part of the inaugural Design Exchange Boston, a brand new conference that seeks to define the city as a hub for the design industry.
I had the pleasure of participating in this year's challenge for Haley House, a kickass nonprofit whose mission is to "use food as a vehicle to help alleviate suffering, build new skills and bring communities together." In addition to running a soup kitchen in the South End and managing 120 units of affordable housing, Haley House also has a Bakery Cafe in Dudley Square. If you've spent any time in that part of Roxbury, you know that it's a fixture in the community.
The bakery cafe is an exemplary model of social entrepreneurship: the food served is intentionally selected based on community input, the organization provides job training for the formerly incarcerated, and it provides a wonderfully social space in a neighborhood that desperately needed one. It's one of the few places in Boston that brings a true mixture of people together in a single place.
The problem is that Haley House is still not able to reach the lowest-income populations in Roxbury. Roughly three-quarters of the surrounding neighborhood is composed of subsidized housing developments such as Madison Park and Orchard Gardens, and residents are simply not frequenting the bakery cafe. Part of this is a matter of inaccessibility - because Haley House pays a living wage and uses quality ingredients, the price of a meal there is higher than nearby chain restaurants. But there are other factors at play, including the relative convenience of fast food and the persistent challenge of behavior change.
I had the privilege of competing in the challenge with a team whose portfolio includes industrial and graphic design, anthropology, financial analysis, business strategy, and (of course) urban planning. Over the course of a single day, we met with the client, conducted ethnographic research, mapped stakeholders, assembled a physical prototype, and developed a full proposal in the form of a seven-minute presentation. Not bad for a Saturday.
In the end, our team recognized a few important points when approaching the problem:
- Food matters not only for physical health, but also for the social and emotional dimensions
- Community health is a lifetime habit, requiring a long-term strategic outlook
- Above all else, Haley House is a place that offers a unique experience - there's no place that offers the same kind of nourishment for the body and soul
Those drivers led us to propose a "Homegrown Entrepreneurship Program" that would expand Haley House's existing workforce development initiatives to include business training and, eventually, micro-franchise businesses owned and operated by former employees of the Bakery Cafe. For example, Haley House could sell its 100% organic pizza dough to a micro-franchise that would add its own unique spin on the dish. Creating pathways to business ownership, we reasoned, would draw more people in from the community through social networks, and would be an important contribution to the ecosystem of community health.
My team didn't end up winning the challenge, but that's besides the point. This was a fantastic opportunity for me to practice and hone my skills as a designer, and I was thrilled to work with a team with such diversity of experience and expertise. Haley House received five full-fledged proposals that will give the organization fresh ideas as it considers how it will fulfill its mission. I'd call this a win-win.
It's an exciting time to be a design professional. Society is increasingly acknowledging how creative problem solving has applications outside of traditional disciplines. While strategic planning used to be dominated by data-driven approaches, the entry of design firms such as Continuum (which ran DxB360) into the field is a paradigm shift toward human-centered solutions. It's about time.