Nº 267

Kann Design Leben retten?

Tackling the Refugee Crisis

What can design do for refugees? Can the creativity and problem-solving approaches of designers make a difference to people caught up in such a complex situation? The “What Design Can Do Challenge” was launched in February 2016 with the core premise that design holds special value when tackling these kinds of so-called wicked problems1, for example, problems containing so many unpredictable interdependencies and unknowns that they resist solutions using any single model or traditional sequential approach. We see this in the rise of disciplines like service design, social design, and design thinking.

The Complexity of the Refugee Crisis


The refugee crisis is certainly one of those complex problems. First, there is the vast number of people involved (in 2015 there were nearly 60 million forcefully displaced people worldwide, according to the UNHCR). Then there are the opposing opinions, with enormous volunteer and citizen initiatives on the one hand, but concern about the impact of mass immigration on the other. The crisis also entails serious economic burdens. And these are only some of its many facets. Caught between showing solidarity and acknowledging public anti-immigrant sentiments, governments are struggling to find answers. It is here that one of design’s main strengths comes into play: the ability to facilitate dialogue and co-creation between different stakeholders.


Five Briefs to Inspire


The challenge aims to activate designers and creatives from all over the world to come up with daring and innovative ideas to help refugees and urban societies adapt to each other. The first task was to create a clear understanding of the core problems to be addressed. How do you do justice to the differences amongst the refugees, their personal experiences, and stories? And how do you communicate this in a way that inspires and empowers designers?

Before the challenge could kick off, much energy was put into the creation of the design brief and associated data packs. We took a holistic, bottom-up approach in order to enable the redefining and reframing of the problem and make new solutions possible. As in most design research projects, empathy was central, both with refugees and other stakeholders. By collecting personal stories and anecdotes, we could get a rich understanding of what was most important to refugees, but also of the interests and needs of other stakeholders directly or indirectly involved.


One thing that quickly became apparent, is that several briefs were needed; it didn’t do justice to the magnitude and complexity of the topic to pick only one subject as the most important. We also decided to focus on refugees living in cities as over half the world’s 20 million refugees live in urban areas, and that figure is expected to rise. After several iterations, five briefs were determined. For each brief, a one-page document summarised the context of the problem and the opportunity from a design perspective. Additionally, each brief was also accompanied with a selection of powerful quotes and stories from refugees, citizens, social workers, policy makers, and many others involved, that were collected during the research. As such, designers entering the challenge could select a brief and data pack and immerse themselves and derive inspiration, or use them as a starting point for their own, additional research.


From Ideation to Impact


The response to the challenge was overwhelming; 631 entries from 70 different countries were received, clearly a sign that the creative community felt prompted to get involved. The ideas were very diverse and many design disciplines were represented. The best ideas, in addition to adding value to the lives of the refugees, make clever use of existing structures or stakeholders, are adaptable to different situations and take into account potential restrictions. The key was to find a win-win situation for refugees, the local communities, and other stakeholders involved.

But we’re not there yet! For a design to have real impact, ideas must go beyond the concept phase. That’s why the challenge didn’t stop here. There’s a need for designers to stay involved during implementation: to create prototypes, iterate, and find the stakeholders needed to scale up solutions. From the 631 entries, five finalists were selected: all projects that use a fresh approach, can make a difference, and are scalable and achievable. Teams also had to display the energy and commitment to bring their ideas to the next level. Because, in the end, it’s this commitment that is needed to go from ideation to impact.


1 Horst Wilhelm Jakob Rittel, Melvin M. Webber, Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Policy Sciences, volume 4, issue 2, June 1973, p. 155–169.


Marie de Vos has been working as a design researcher at STBY’s Amsterdam office since 2010. Over the years she has worked for a variety of clients designing and delivering design research projects in the industry and public sector. In 2012 de Vos co-founded the Dutch chapter of the Service Design Network, a network aimed at defining the strategy and development of service design in the Netherlands. She holds a master in media technology from the University of Leiden. For the “What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge”, STBY was the research partner and de Vos co-ordinated the design research.


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