Columbus region leaders gave been participating in virtual "Designing for Social Systems" workshops through Stanford's human-centered design program.

In early August, 40 leaders from Central Ohio’s nonprofit, philanthropy, government and social impact fields got together virtually to do something that’s never been done before. For five days they participated in a human-centered design program that had never before left the campus at Stanford University. 

The workshops took place amid a global pandemic, economic uncertainty and racial unrest. The goal was stronger outcomes and equity for area residents. The leaders learned how to solve problems by going straight to the source to gain insight from the people they are trying to help. That means if a nonprofit leader involved in helping the homeless wants to solve a challenge for that population, people who actually are homeless would have to have a say in and be a part of how the solution is created.

“Designing for Social Systems” was brought to the Central Ohio leaders by the Columbus Foundation. Heather Tsavaris, who serves as the principal consultant for Human:Kind at the nonprofit – where she leads community well-being initiatives – was both a student and a coach at the The process of giving target populations an equitable seat at the table, and then engaging and learning from them, creates more viable solutions, she says. 

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The workshops were well received and the foundation decided to keep the momentum going by running four of what it calls “design sprints” three weeks later that included the coaches from Stanford. One involved Columbus City Schools, which wanted to find out why students weren’t logging onto their online educational responsibilities during Covid-19. The Columbus Metropolitan Library got wind of the project and became a partner. 

Project investigators wondered whether kids weren’t getting online during the pandemic because of technology deficiencies. But, by using the human-centered design approach and talking to the children, they found the kids weren’t motivated to get engaged because they felt isolated from their peers and teachers and anxious about the disruption. 

“We heard just this real disconnection and untethering,” Tsavaris says. “From there, what are the ideas that solve that so kids are able to be more present this fall?”

Donna Zuiderweg, chief community engagement officer at the library, said discovering that online learning was about more than the digital divide allowed a solution to be created beyond technology. “There was a desire and need for a sense of engagement,” she says. 

The result is a new program called the “crew” that the library is testing. It involves grops of one mentor and five students. 

“What if there was a 30-minute check-in call every day where the mentor asks, ‘What are you doing with your brain today? What are you doing for your body today?’ ”Tsavaris says. “During the design sprint they went deep – How long are the calls? What’s the best mentor-to-student ratio? Who do the kids want to interact with? Who should lead the calls? They also spent a lot of time trying to understand what was actually helping them not feel alone and what would help them feel connected and have a sense of belonging.”

They found out the kids wanted to talk just once a week. They wanted an adult involved and didn’t care who he or she was or what background the person came from. They cared about having connections, even with kids from other schools, and wanted to feel like somebody cared about them. The intention is this new effort will be implemented sooner rather than later, Tsavaris says.

Zuiderweg says while the library has always valued feedback from its members about the services it provides, the human-centered design process allows it to invite community members in to be a part of the co-design process. Using human-centered design to solve problems is expected to continue in force across the region, both collaboratively and within individual organizations, now that 40 local leaders have been through the training. 

“The foundation has created this community of leaders and professionals who have learned this process and understand the value of it,” Zuiderweg says. “It’s such a great opportunity for Columbus.”

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.