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Product and Service Design in the Twin Cities: Looking at the Big Picture

April 27, 2017

By: Amber Morgan, a local writer based in Minneapolis

When it comes to product and service design in the Twin Cities, it’s big picture social inequities that drives the work. It’s disparities in access and affordability within large systems like health care, shelter, and food systems that are the focus of impact design work in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The rising cost of affordable housing—a crisis which plagues both the metro area and its suburbs—has prompted a health innovation center to consider homelessness to be a social determinant of health and to focus on ending it as a part of their proactive, long-term health care vision. A lack of reasonable accessibility to shelters in Minneapolis’ Hennepin County was the driver behind the county’s decision to use design principles to better serve the shelter system’s clientele. Local entrepreneurs in the food space have developed economic systems that support food access and non-profit donations and innovation hubs have teamed up to better equip the people doing socially-focused work in the Twin Cities to be more effective and connected.

Through exploring and highlighting select product and service design projects from the Twin Cities Wheel, it’s revealed that social justice and increased equality through access to essential resources are at the core of the design impact work happening in the Twin Cities.

Tackling Housing and Homelessness Through Design

Upstream Health Innovations tackles health care in an untraditional fashion as a result of their belief that health should be managed upstream: proactively within the community, rather than reactively within the healthcare system. This belief, as reflected in their name, is why their work is focused on social determinants of health like affordable housing and access to reliable public transportation. They believe that these areas are the most immediate health needs of their patients, and, once addressed, these determinants will serve as a foundation that can prevent other health problems from occurring.

Andrea Brown and Samantha Dempsey serve as the team’s human centered designers. Brown and Dempsey met while working at the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation in Rochester, Minnesota. At Mayo, Brown was a design researcher and service design intern who focused on Mayo’s Healthy Aging and Independent Living Initiative; Dempsey was a Maharam STEAM fellow who worked on visualizing patient narratives and developing new tools to promote visual thinking and storytelling. Upstream received a grant in spring 2015 to practice human centered design with vulnerable populations in the Twin Cities, and Brown joined the team in December 2016 under the agreement that she could hire her own design team that included Dempsey who would eventually join in 2016.

Upstream became the pair’s long awaited chance to focus on system-level, community health needs. They had never been given this opportunity before because innovation centers and human centered design are not typically associated with health institutions as they’re often still regarded as a luxury in public and nonprofit services. This is due partly to tight financial constraints or a demand for collaboration across sectors that haven’t traditionally collaborated, Dempsey explained.

Brown and Dempsey’s most recent project focuses on affordable housing and involves a board game created to facilitate conversations with stakeholders invested in ending homelessness. The pair’s goal is to ideate ways to further increase the number of sustainable financial streams available for affordable housing so that individuals currently in the shelter system can become housed and thus receive a greater opportunity to proactively manage their health.

product and service design in the Twin Cities

A close up of the game Dempsey and Brown designed. Image courtesy of Upstream Health Innovations.


Brown explained that the project is very systems-oriented and a fairly unique problem for a healthcare innovation center to be tackling because housing issues have not traditionally been considered the responsibility of the healthcare system despite housing being one of the most basic factors critical to one’s health. “While we are still early in the project, we believe this work will demonstrate that the methods and mindset of human-centered design are integral to overcoming complex systemic barriers to health,” Brown explained.

Historically, when homeless adults in the Twin Cities needed a single bed for the evening (there’s a separate, more efficient system for families), their options were waiting in lines from one shelter to the next or putting their names in lottery-style drawings and hoping for the best as David Hewitt, the Office to End Homelessness’ director explains. The organization believed that there had to be a better procedure to meet people’s needs.

When Danielle Werder was hired as the project manager for the Adult Shelter Connect (what the new system would become known as), design thinking principles had already become a part of the office’s approach and in January 2016 the planning and design phase for the Adult Shelter Connect program was launched. Each of the various shelters within the system came together to ideate smoother navigation and sign a formal agreement to commit to the new program as a single entity, which was expected to ease the process for the shelter’s end users. Further, the process and agreement were aided when Minnesota legislation passed to move to a statewide datashare in 2016, allowing different agencies to access the same records to better serve each individual. In July 2016 the discussions were wrapped, and the office began to hurdle through the logistical process that included educating their clients about the change and onboarding individuals into a collective database for restructure. October was the deadline for the new program’s launch.

The result of Adult Shelter Connect is a singular point of entry for single adults who needs beds. Now, each individual goes to the Adult Shelter Connect office in downtown Minneapolis, gets assessed, and is given a swipe card for the reservation process. If there’s availability within the collaborating shelters, a reservation is made. Once individuals are assessed and onboarded within the database and experience their first night, they are able to reserve a bed for the next night before they even leave the shelter in the morning. However, the single point of entry is only the first phase of the Adult Shelter Connect program. Currently, the user experience within the shelters and their ability to exit the shelter faster each day are being tackled by the office.

Hewitt said that the new system not only feels more efficient because it is less chaotic and uncertain, but that the new system also appears to be more secure and dignified for the shelter’s clientele. Hewitt has noticed that individuals have voiced support for the new system, recalling one woman who said she used to spend every day anxious and paralyzed about whether she’d receive a bed that night, impeding her job search each day. With the new system and the ability to reserve a bed each morning, both her productivity and her peace of mind is a bit more settled, Hewitt said. The office’s work seems to have made an impact, thanks to design thinking.

An Entrepreneurial Approach


Emily Torgrimson was a student in Boston when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, and she knew that she wanted to help support the communities affected, but didn’t have the funds to do so. When she stumbled upon a recipe for jambalaya in her search for a house meal, she posed a question to her roommates: What if we held a New Orleans-style meal and invited people to donate to the cause? Her roommates loved the idea, and each of them decided to invite everyone they knew in the area. What began as a dinner idea evolved into a party that welcomed both classmates and professors alike, and over 100 people came together, each donating a few bucks. The event was called Eat for Equity and donations were sent to Common Ground Relief to aid the New Orleans community.

Over ten years later, Eat for Equity is a social venture that is nationally-known for its mission to build a culture of generosity through sustainable community feasts. At community meals, suggested donations are funneled to nonprofits that work to address social issues and inequity. Since Eat for Equity began, over 150 community feasts have been held, almost $50,000 has been invested into local food, over 14,000 plates of food have been served, and more than $125,000 has been raised for causes.

product and service design in the Twin Cities

Emily Torgrimson at the Welcome Table for The Advocates for Human Rights in March, 2017. Image courtesy of Eat for Equity and taken by Lee Vue / Lumie Lumie.


Torgrimson moved to Minneapolis in fall of 2016, and a year later began to host community feasts in the area, partly to connect with her new community but also to continue the mission she had begun in Boston that seemed to resonate with people. The initiative flourished locally as people organically stepped up to support the cause. A board of directors was established that organized dinners, reviewed nominations for the benefiting organizations, and eventually began to oversee the larger organization as volunteers arose to organize the individual events.

Even though Eat for Equity is a farm-to-table outfit, something that usually comes with a steep price tag in the traditional restaurant industry, Torgrimson makes it work because she remains committed to values like access, affordability, and participation. The people of Minneapolis seem committed to these values as well as they continue to offer their time and resources whether they serve as volunteers within the events, or continue to help organize and direct funds.

product and service design in the Twin Cities

One of Eat for Equity’s cooks, Vilay, with her dish, laab, a Laotian herb and chicken salad. Image courtesy of Eat for Equity and taken by Lee Vue / Lumie Lumie.

Part of Eat for Equity’s financial sustainability comes from seeking alternative means of revenue in order to stay afloat, like the catering program that was started three years ago. Seeming like a natural complement to the community feasts, Eat for Equity’s catering arm sources from local, sustainable, producers who are women and/or minorities in order to provide meals for various events, like weddings, conferences, and cocktail hours.. Eat for Equity remains a 501(c)(3), and the money generated through the catering program goes back into the organization to mitigate production costs and overhead.

Another example of entrepreneurial design with social impact is exemplified with Impact Hub MSP. The local branch of the global network serves as part innovation lab, part coworking space, and part civic forum designed to bring the people who work towards social change in the Twin Cities together. The local branch launched after students, faculty and alum from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s university visited Impact Hub San Francisco repeatedly from 2012 to 2014, recognizing that ingredients that led to San Francisco’s branch could be found back home as well. “The Twin Cities has the capital and the doers to really look at how we can change the future of business,” said Danielle Steer, who serves as the local branch’s manager of operations and member experience. “The culture [here] is deeply rooted within the role of philanthropy,” she notes. The region has both a strong social sector supported by foundations investing in social change and an entrepreneurial community looking to create impact, Steer explained. Because of these ingredients the area was a prime location for an impact hub to be planted.

product and service design in the Twin Cities

An Impact Investing Ecosystem event held at Impact Hub MSP. Image courtesy of Impact Hub MSP.

A notable and unique strategic project for Impact Hub MSP is its recent collaboration with FINNovation Lab, a soon-to-be social business incubator and accelerator. The collaboration was initiated to bring various resources under one roof to better serve the needs of social entrepreneurs at different stages of development and to, ultimately, create a “world-class community and destination for impact entrepreneurs.” The two ventures will co-locate in a grand development project located on the east side of downtown Minneapolis that should be finalized before the city hosts the Super Bowl in 2018, according to Jacquie Berglund, CEO of the FINNovation Lab and Finnegans. In addition to hosting FINNovation Lab and Impact Hub MSP, the location will also host a 17-story apartment tower, a boutique hotel, and a Finnegan’s Brewery and Taproom. “There’s a vision of a lot of cross-pollination going on,” Berglund said.

“The humble Midwest is still working on its flyover status as a community, and the power of our organizations together in terms of the [collective] strengths of our work locally and what [Impact Hub Minneapolis brings] to the table as a globally connected organization, we have the power to not only [generate] change that’s locally-rooted, but to become a premier organization and demonstrate that social innovation happens in Minneapolis-St. Paul,” Steer notes.

Connecting the Dots

Despite the flyover status that Steer mentioned, Minneapolis and St. Paul are impact hubs of design. What each of these organizations and initiatives illustrates when it comes to product and service design in the Twin Cities is that, in order for products and services to actually enhance the quality of life for both individuals and various communities within a region, their designs need to be collaborative and systems-focused with an eye on things like the user experience of homeless shelters and how broad issues like housing affect health and healthcare. Of course, like many of the ambitious projects that impact designers take on, each of these values and intentions may be easier said than done, yet what’s clear and shared across all of these initiatives is their will to keep moving forward.

Amber Morgan is a writer and editor from Minnesota. Morgan’s work has taken her from the midwest to the east coast to Latin America through her explorations of both print and digital media production in addition to content strategy, visual media, and event design. She’s currently exploring social design in Minneapolis, particularly as it relates to public space and performance.

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