How Professionals are Using Design Thinking and Food to Connect Cincinnati’s Diverse Communities

August 23, 2018

Food is a language in and of itself – one we all share in common. Kaleidoscope Innovation’s New Business Development Manager Matt Suits, in an exciting program called The Shift, worked with his teammates to help develop Cincinnati’s Table. This initiative is dedicated to bridging people of varying cultures, backgrounds and languages in Cincinnati using the dinner table (and design thinking best practices).

Bringing together community around the dinner table drives conversations and increases our personal bonds with one another. At least, that’s a common assumption. We think about family dinners around the kitchen table, with moms asking about their kids’ days at school and parents sharing about their hectic work schedules or errands that day. They catch up on Jordan’s trombone lesson and reflect on Mandy’s soccer game the night before. They laugh, they joke and sometimes they talk about the hard stuff. Food – it would seem – brings people together.

But what about when the people who sit at the table are strangers? And on top of that, what if they don’t all speak the same language? Does getting together around the dinner table and sharing a meal together still have the same effect?

One group that participated in a social innovation challenge called The Shift used design thinking methods to challenge and test any assumptions they might have made about the dinner table. And through utilizing the design thinking process, this group – now called “Cincinnati’s Table” – aims to bring together diverse populations in Cincinnati. They plan to do it through – you guessed it – food.

The Assignment

The Shift was born out of a partnership between social innovation firm Design Impact (DI) and the United Way of Greater Cincinnati. The aim of this 12-week program is to give a “second chance,” in a sense, to ideas that have come from participants of Studio C (another program through DI and the United Way of Greater Cincinnati) or other related ventures. The ideas may not have previously entered into the prototyping phase for a number of reasons, such as financial roadblocks or the original groups pursuing a different idea instead. The Cincinnati’s Table initiative was part of the second year’s session; The Shift is now starting up its third session.

Shift Teaser from Design Impact on Vimeo.

The idea for Cincinnati’s Table, originally called “Comfort Food,” initially came from a group called Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio. As part of The Shift, the new group took the idea (with permission from Catholic Charities) to the next level of researching, testing, prototyping and iterating on the concept.

Two other groups besides Cincinnati’s Table participated in that round of The Shift, as well. One group created “Lights On! Walnut Hills” – a community-driven initiative to increase safety through light. (The focus being on installing art and light that is co-created by the neighborhood rather than for the neighborhood.) Another group focused on developing “Sidekick .Co” – a service that takes low wage employees living in urban areas to key employers in the suburbs, faster than the bus and more reliably than their current modes of transportation.

Upon entering The Shift program, the young professionals filled out an application form. The Shift leaders looked over the forms and sorted the participants into groups based on both their interests and their skillsets. Each of the groups consisted of about four or five people, and they each had a team leader from DI. Additionally, a facilitator from DI (Michelle Sucher, Social Innovation Specialist) and a facilitator from the United Way (Mike Baker, Community Impact Director) oversaw and led the program.

All of the groups were assigned one of the ideas / issues to solve. Their task was then to go out and do three runs of prototyping around the issue over the course of 12 weeks.

Participants in the Cincinnati’s Table group included team leader Daniela Vollmer (DI’s Social Innovation Associate), Matt Suits (Kaleidoscope Innovation’s Business Development Manager), Megan Auer (TechSolve), Jenn Dye (FirstStudent) and Scott Holzmann (Chase Public).

Bringing the Idea to Fruition – The Process

Design thinking aims to solve a problem, and so the Cincinnati’s Table group defined their problem and incorporated it into a “How Might We” statement focusing on the solution. Their HMW statement: “HOW MIGHT WE spark connections among immigrant families and other community members in order to cultivate their social capital through shared stories and food?”

They received funding to test their prototypes, so each time they received funding, they were able to test out a bigger version of the idea.

First Prototype

For the first prototype, they wanted to test an assumption. Vollmer explains that the project wouldn’t really work if a certain assumption was not true, that assumption being that people are willing and open to getting to know each other over food.

To do this, Cincinnati’s Table set up a tent at Findlay Market. As part of the setup, they had a plate of cookies and a mason jar with questions around food, community, etc. The prompt was, “Come over, grab a cookie and answer a question and interact with us and each other.” The whole idea was to test – in a very simple way – whether strangers interact over food.

Vollmer explains that people loved it, had a lot of fun and expressed curiosity. This, she says, helped affirm that that assumption was true.

Second Prototype

“The first time we didn’t really focus on the immigrant piece, so the second time we tried to do that a little more,” said Vollmer.

Cincinnati’s Table organized a potluck-style dinner with Price Hill residents who were also immigrant families. The prompt was for the residents to make and bring a food that has personal meaning to them, or that might evoke memories from their childhood or culture.

The event was all around storytelling, and they found that despite language barriers, people had a great time and were eager to share their stories and the food.

The group found this to be further validation that this is valuable and something through which people do feel connected.

Third Prototype

The third prototype was a small version of the whole concept. The team went back to Catholic Charities and asked them if they would be open to hosting an event where people could connect over food, and they agreed. So Cincinnati’s Table organized the lunch event and Catholic Charities invited many of the people they serve, many of whom originate from different places and speak different languages. Translators were present to assist with the process.

After the successful prototype, they considered how it could be replicated.

Between and Beyond the Prototypes

It is worth noting that Cincinnati’s Table completed a great deal of work in between these prototyping sessions that helped them refine and get to the next phase of the project.

They also considered how the idea could be replicated with different organizations, schools, churches and community centers.

“I also think it provides a nice roadmap and template for similar cities outside of Cincinnati,” said Suits. “I think if we can provide 80% of the right direction toward a Dayton or a Columbus or another city, that a lot of the program can be applied to that region.”

“Anyone can take this and try it out,” added Vollmer. “The way to do that is that we created a guide that went through some of the best practices and ideas around the ice breakers and so on, which helps the host create a welcoming environment for families of different backgrounds.”

Cincinnati’s Table researched, tested and prototyped a solution and developed a business plan.

The project was given funding by the United Way of Greater Cincinnati to further Cincinnati Table’s commitment to bringing together communities through food. Cincinnati’s Table has additionally brought on a strategic partner: the Welcome Project. With the funds from United Way of Greater Cincinnati, they will take on the coordination of the meals, setup of the dinners, community engagement and execution of the Cincinnati’s Table toolkit.

Benefits of The Shift and Cincinnati’s Table

Vollmer and Suits both agreed that the The Shift was a positive experience.

“After twelve weeks you see everyone has worked so hard and the learning curve has been crazy, and then you get to the end of prototype 3 and you see things happen exactly how you envisioned them,” said Vollmer. “It’s magical to see how powerful it is to test out these ideas in small ways and they actually become something that is transformative to the community. People had such a wonderful time. It was great to see exactly what we thought could happen actually happen.”

Suits agreed and added that he enjoyed meeting with like-minded people from different backgrounds. He found that the team members’ common ground was a desire for some type of social innovation for the City of Cincinnati, but that they came together with diverse thinking methods on how to approach the problem and different lenses on how to tackle Cincinnati’s Table.

“I also thought the project has been rewarding, from my personal perspective, because I sell design thinking with Kaleidoscope Innovation but in my specific role I am not on the teams implementing it for our clients,” said Suits. “So being able to implement design thinking on a personal level was pretty rewarding. It’s one of the things that I enjoyed most about The Shift.”

When asked about how having a deeper knowledge of the wants and needs of the local community can help both for-profit companies like Kaleidoscope Innovation and also non-profit organizations like Design Impact, Suits responded:

“Us taking our backgrounds and knowledge of Cincinnati, as well as our unique skillsets that were brought to the table, and applying it toward social innovation reflects back on the whole design thinking process. It’s really about understanding the users; you’re not designing or innovating for the sake of design and innovation – you’re trying to solve the problem. And so I think that at its highest level, applying design thinking methodologies to either for-profit or non-profit could really provide an insight into the user groups.”

Kaleidoscope Innovation Supports Design Impact

Kaleidoscope Innovation has a long history of supporting Design Impact and their mission to “design a better world.” Kaleidoscope has supported Design Impact since the group’s inception, and we have also had the opportunity to benefit from some of their community impact work, such as The Shift.

We thank DI for their commitment to bettering our local community and empowering people and organizations, using the design thinking process and social innovation strategies.

The Shift’s third round of participants recently started the program on August 22.

About the Interviewees

Matt Suits, Business Development Manager at Kaleidoscope Innovation

Matt has always loved interacting with clients to find solutions for their challenges. He was drawn to business development at Kaleidoscope Innovation because of the great potential he saw. After graduating from the Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati, he worked with two startups, a marketing consultancy, a financial services company and the non-profit 3CDC. He believes that listening is the most important part of sales. In his free time, Matt enjoys movies, trying new foods, traveling and the great outdoors.

Daniela Vollmer, Social Innovation Associate at Design Impact

Growing up in Venezuela, Daniela witnessed deep, systemic social and economic disparity firsthand. The only way to stop being part of the problem, she decided, was to be an active part of the solution. Her interest in social change, combined with a talent for drawing, landed her at Savannah College of Art and Design where she graduated with a degree in Industrial Design. As part of the Design Impact team, she’s used her skills as an industrial designer to push the boundaries of design as a tool for social change (speaking Spanish also doesn’t hurt). She is also the co-founder of Plan A, an award-winning tutoring platform in Venezuela based on the “buy one, give one” model.


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