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Xavier Magazine | March 29, 2017

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Changing the World by Design

Xavier University

Kate Hanisian was in her office the first time a goat walked in. The same with the chicken. They just meandered in off the street.

It definitely wasn’t typical, but then again nothing in her life at that particular moment was typical. In 2009, Hanisian left her job at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center in Cincinnati to move to Tamil Nadu, India, a rural town in the country’s southern-most state, in an effort to focus on starting a new nonprofit she and her husband created called Design Impact. The business’s mission: Find ways to use design to create social change.

Kate1“We were interested in embedded design,” Hanisian says. “What happens when you live and work with the community you’re designing for over time—not parachuting in, interviewing and going back to design in the comforts of a design studio.”

They were embedded to the point where goats and chickens interrupting the day became no big deal. But Hanisian knew that by working internationally she could make a bigger impact. And she did.

Local residents were suffering health problems because they were using wood and kerosene stoves to cook with—indoors. So she and her team set out to design a safer, less toxic alternative. But it wasn’t easy.

The “design studio” Hanisian worked in was an old stone building with a broken cement floor, across from an ancient temple. And something as simple as building a prototype took days instead of hours because the team had to rely on a shopkeeper in the nearest town to produce it.

brickette“The city was 90 minutes away,” Hanisian says, “and it took 10 days of going every day, sitting on a stoop in a dusty alley in the middle of the city, all day, in the heat.”

Hanisian calls that “great relationship-building time.” She was able to get to know people in the community and their needs, and in the midst of challenging conditions, her team successfully built a smokeless charcoal briquette stove to replace the wood-burning stoves. They also made it sustainable by designing a process to manufacture the briquettes locally, establishing distribution channels and training a group of women in producing and selling the product.

Watch Hanisian’s TedX talk about her experience in India.

katehvideo“We didn’t just design the stove,” Hanisian said. “We designed an entire social enterprise.”

The process took two years, and Design Impact has been making a difference ever since by sponsoring social design fellows and programs in locations from California to China. Now back in Cincinnati, Hanisian spends most of her time teaching others in the nonprofit and social sector new ways to tackle what she calls “big, hairy, complex social problems,” because, she says, “we’re passionate about getting other people passionate about this.”

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