An international design competition aimed at finding solutions to refugee issues yielded hundreds of entries. ‘The new generation of creative professionals mainly wants to contribute to society.’

The best idea came in last. Squeaking in three hours before the deadline of the What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge, a group of Swedish designers submitted a proposal titled The Welcome Card. This temporary ID card is for registered asylum-seekers; when inserted into a card reader at an asylum-seekers’ centre or an office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, it displays the status of the residence permit application on a screen. It gives refugees access to information about where they are currently at in the procedure; the lack of information is one of the biggest frustrations right now. The card also provides access to various public services, such as transport, language courses, cultural events and medical facilities. Just like the cultural or city cards currently offered in the Netherlands, this Welcome Card could also include partnerships with sports clubs, cafés, restaurants and retail. Since the information can be accessed electronically using a self-service card reader, it relieves the pressure on employees working at asylum-seekers’ centres and immigration offices. Moreover, the card is protected by a personal PIN code, offering a viable alternative for people who do not have access to a reliable smartphone. And it gives the asylum-seeker a symbolic position in an unfamiliar society, even if it’s only temporary.

Good ideas are easy to recognise: when you hear them, you ask yourself: why isn’t this already a thing?

It was one of the 631 ideas that flooded in from 70 countries after What Design Can Do, a Dutch organization, partnered with UNHCR and the IKEA Foundation in an appeal to the creative community worldwide at the end of February, calling for proposals that would alleviate issues that arise in relation to the arrival, living conditions and integration of refugees in big cities. The five finalists will be announced by Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Bert Koenders on 1 July at the What Design Can Do conference in Amsterdam. The winners will receive ten thousand euros and will be invited to the WDCD Accelerator: a mentor programme intended to develop the concepts into fully-fledged products and services.

The Welcome Card
Politically charged subjects

According to UNHCR figures, 65 million people are currently in refugee situations. The number of people fleeing their homes rose by 10% this year due to wars that have dragged on for years. 40 million have been displaced in their own countries, while over 20 million men, women and children are seeking shelter in other countries. Nearly 60% of those 20 million people live in big cities, either legally or illegally. There are huge problems related to shelter, housing, income, health and integration. The task at hand has grown to staggering proportions, exceeding the ability of government bodies and NGOs to address easily.

The complexity of the problems prompted the leaders of What Design Can Do to consult the expertise of the international community. ‘We have been working on What Design Can Do for five years now,’ said Richard van der Laken, creative director and founder of the organization, to Vrij Nederland in November. ‘Our intention was always to demonstrate and interrogate the societal significance that design can have. Now we want to take that one step farther, to activate it. It needs to be a solution that can be introduced on a larger scale, without getting bogged down in local laws and regulations or politically charged subjects.’

‘It would be a great design challenge simply to cut through the bureaucracy surrounding the entry and distribution of refugees,’ says Dagan Cohen, project leader for the challenge.

Effective recruitment

Headed by the STBY design research bureau, a workshop took place in Amsterdam in early February to identify the main obstacles that refugees face in cities. In the workshop, a varied assembly of asylum-seekers, resident permit holders, municipal policy officers, delegates from humanitarian organizations, migration experts and designers analysed the most urgent bottlenecks.

The result was a briefing comprising the following questions: How can refugee arrival and reception centres be improved? Can locations be designated for residential facilities that would also benefit the host community? How can asylum-seekers pursue personal development while waiting on their residence permit? How can refugees and host communities establish contact with each other more effectively? How do refugees access essential information? How might it be possible to make the most of the refugees’ presence?

Cohen and Van der Laken had hoped to receive 300 entries, but twice that number came in. Now that’s effective recruitment! Even just the content and appearance of the competition’s design is an impressive example of what design can do.

App: New Here

Entries were submitted by established architecture firms from the Netherlands and abroad, teams from technical universities, design firms, artists’ collectives, and independent professional designers. The multidisciplinary, ad-hoc collaborations are particularly striking. The New Here app that was the public’s favourite on the website for the design challenge aims to offer information about relevant locations to newcomers in all the big cities across the world, in every language. The locations would include medical clinics, meeting spots, halal food sources, legal aid, and football teams looking for drop-by players. The app is based on pictograms and interactive maps. This entry was submitted by an ad-hoc Austrian collective with eighteen members, including lawyers specializing in international humanitarian law, graphic designers, interaction designers, programmers and PR experts.

Eat & Meet, another shortlisted entry, came from an international collective of architecture students, interior designers and city planning experts. The idea is to turn city buses into mobile community centres, similar to food trucks, where refugees cook for visitors at various locations. You don’t have to be a Michelin chef to have one fantastic recipe that’s always a big hit, according to the Brazil-based group. A prototype staffed by Syrian refugees is apparently already driving around in Rio de Janeiro.


When June rolled around, a similarly multidisciplinary approach was vital in assembling the teams who had to select a shortlist of no more than 25 proposals from those hundreds of entries. The same mixture of designers, lawyers and relevant hands-on professionals was reflected in these teams. ‘Architects might be seduced by a beautiful design,’ Cohen said the day before the meeting, ‘but people from the UNHCR or the Red Cross can identify unworkable ideas fairly quickly.’

The project leader said on the phone that he was ‘overwhelmed’ by the combination of creativity and empathy. ‘To be successful in a creative profession, you have to have an incredible focus on yourself,’ he said. ‘You have to constantly assume that people are eager to hear your ideas. But that egocentric approach, that ambition isn’t apparently diametrically opposed to altruism.’ Cohen, who has been a project leader at various creative institutions and initiatives, observes that ‘ego is becoming less and less important in the arts’. When he was studying at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, everyone wanted to be famous and see their artworks in the municipal museum of modern art, he said. ‘The new generation of creative professionals mainly wants to contribute to society.’ ‘Impact’ is starting to become a key concept, Cohen says, related to the question: ‘What kind of positive impact does my work have on the rest of the world?’ During the WDCD conference, The Art of Impact, a fund established by Minister Bussemaker which brings together creative professionals and civil society organizations, will be giving a workshop on that concept.

Flatpack construction

The five finalists who will be announced this week during the conference will be developing their idea under expert guidance; by early 2017, at least one entry should have been implemented in practice. That does not mean that the other entries will be abandoned; the aim is to find applications and partners for all 25 ideas on the shortlist.


So what was the final selection? In the ‘shelter and housing’ category, a modular mezzanine system was shortlisted. These wooden interiors with a stacked upper floor can be assembled inside empty buildings, creating modular housing for families of various sizes. ‘Modular’ is a term frequently used in connection with refugee housing; it essentially means ‘flatpack constructions’: prefab plates and connecting systems that can be assembled quickly. The Australian designer behind MezzAHome primarily envisions their use in empty buildings along underutilised city squares, bringing a breath of fresh air to local shops, cafés and restaurants. An unoccupied hotel in Athens serves as the prototype.

Another idea nominated in this category is sustainable prefab housing (Agrishelter) with straw-based walls that can be built in a few hours on flat, unused spaces by volunteers, architecture students and refugees. The design envisions vegetable gardens in planter boxes around the houses, for use by the asylum-seekers and people living in the surrounding area. This concept combines small-scale, dignified housing, eco-friendly construction, self-sufficiency, skills training, and opportunities for integration. HEX house, from US-based firm Architects for Society, designed hexagonal prefab family homes that have multiple bedrooms and a small veranda. Each house has a rainwater reservoir linked to the toilet cistern.

To the cinema

The solutions for this category do not appear all that difficult in the design world. Designers also had lots of ideas for how refugees could access essential information. The shortlist includes an accessible app called Meshwar, from a team of Indian designers, that gives refugees access to a list of their rights and obligations in the various member states of the European Union. It also offers an assessment system for all European refugee centres, as well as a forum where refugees can ask questions. Several similar apps were submitted, such as the great-looking Asylum Advisor – conceived by a collective of social designers, a sociologist, an asylum lawyer and an app designer, it tells refugees about various asylum-seeking procedures in the EU before they leave their home country – but Meshwar was nominated due to its in-depth approach. Cohen: ‘One of the selection criteria was whether we were confident about the team behind the design. The winning idea has to be put into practice.’

It was more difficult to come up with good solutions for facilitating contact between refugees and locals. Cohen: ‘There are lots of small-scale initiatives in this area – volunteers who cook with refugees or go see a movie together – but they aren’t easy to scale up.’

Let them do tricks?

In the ‘bring refugees and host communities closer together’ category, architect Ben van Berkel from UN Studio, the firm responsible for such prominent works as Rotterdam’s Erasmus Bridge, came up with a modular community centre shaped like a flower. People living in a refugee centre could find relevant information, take language courses or workshops, contact family and friends back home, or cook meals. For the local community, it could offer an accessible spot for meeting people coming in from the centre, for instance by facilitating activities that appeal to both groups. The Make-A-Wish programme that Van Berkel includes in the concept would help Dutch people try to make dreams come true for refugees of all ages.

Another great initiative, ‘Interact’, came from six students from three different countries. The proposal focuses on combined student-refugee housing, in which specially trained students would help newcomers with language, orientation and administration in exchange for lower housing costs. The concept includes a training programme for the students and a digital learning platform.

A more controversial entry in this category is Refugees Got Talent, a TV show similar to Britain’s Got Talent, but then for local refugees. Cohen understands why this proposal could be a sensitive matter: should people who have already been through so much have to perform on TV, do tricks? On the other hand, he believes it could be a way to show the public at large, including people who allow their emotions to dictate their opinions, how much potential these refugees have, and how simply human this group actually is, rather than an anonymous, threatening mass. A delegation from UNHCR, which generally tries to avoid any whiff of controversy, proved surprisingly enthusiastic about this proposal.

One of the more radical plans is a concept called Desert Revival Grows Futures. Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal all have rural areas that are underpopulated; these areas have become infertile, sandy deserts due to erosion, a situation that is bad for the climate and worse for the food supply. Refugees who are stuck and frustrated in cities could sign up for temporary rural housing projects where they learn to redevelop the land and the region. Raising livestock, working the land, reforestation: these could be valuable skills for the refugees to take back home with them if and when their situation stabilises.

Cute animals

The most difficult issue of all is finding a systematic solution for the passive, echoing months of waiting for a residence permit. This should really be resolved in the political arena. Forcing asylum-seekers into inactivity leads to frustration and depression, but design solutions are dependent on the cooperation of many different well-intentioned groups and individuals. It’s easy for such solutions to fall apart.

An app by a Belgian industrial designer was nominated in this category; entitled Co.labor.aid, it allows refugees to use pictograms to show their skills and interests. They are matched with organizations and locals that are looking for a helping hand, or simply enjoy doing things together. Sailing. Building things. Playing football. A similar proposal that also made it onto the shortlist is the (H)ourbank, a peer-to-peer app that matches offered and requested skills, like haircuts or car repairs, and pays participants in ‘time credits’. Saeed comes to Marta’s office to repair her computer, and in exchange he gets the ‘time credits’ he needs to have Tim and his strong back help lift boxes in his upcoming move.


These types of solutions explicitly avoid seeing refugees as nothing more than a problem, instead viewing them as a source of knowledge and a valuable pool of skills. A network of workshops at various European universities has emerged (the Changing Futures European Network) where refugees, academics and interested parties from the host country study integration opportunities. Young, qualified refugees who are still waiting for their documents, and are therefore unable to study or work, are welcome in these ‘hubs’ to contribute their background, knowledge and experience on specific issues.

These are concepts that are harder to design than the nightlight (not on the shortlist) for frightened little refugees, which projects pivoting shadows of cute animals on the walls to scare the monsters away.

In tears

And then the 606 entries that were not nominated, which included so many wonderful ideas. Like the ‘cities for refugee resilience knowledge platform’: a digital knowledge platform with information about reception, housing and facilities for refugees from and for city councils all across the world. The Wearable Shelter by students from the Royal College of Art in London, which is a raincoat, sleeping bag and tent in one. A Travelling Bag by designer Jaroslaw Bikiewicz that serves as a backpack, baby carrier and bulletproof vest in one. Or the proposal from the Institute of Consumer Experience from Pondicherry, India, that offers an online training programme in cross-cultural interview techniques for professionals working with refugees.

Some solutions involve a confrontation with how closed the West European societies are to newcomers. In ‘In Our Own Backyard’, architect Jan van Hooff proposes accommodating refugees in the inner courtyards of existing apartment complexes, where newcomers and ‘oldtimers’ can come together in shared spaces like children’s playschools and communal living rooms. ‘The Dutch society is highly individualised and can be lonely even for locals,’ Van Hooff states. There is a poetic plan proposed by Joost Plattel entitled ‘Extended Family’, based on a novel by Kurt Vonnegut. Plattel’s proposal starts like this: ‘Imagine you wake up in the morning and receive an email that states that you’ve received a new name in addition to your own name – and it’s not just you. Everyone in the world has a new extra name. Yours is Daisy8. Five thousand other people have exactly the same new name. These people are your “extended family”. This automatically creates a sense of family that intersects all the layers of the world’s population.’ ‘Couldn’t we,’ the designer asks, ‘put this idea into practice among Dutch children and refugee children in Greece?’

A proposal that would be touching if it weren’t so sad was called ‘Break the Barrier’, by the Vanberlo design firm – a firm that already achieved a nomination with their game ‘Are We There Yet?’, which offers insights into the ordeals refugees go through as they flee. Break the Barrier is a plan to put a small tag in the mailboxes of people living around refugee centres, inviting them to donate a gift to the centre. By using a smartphone to scan the tag, which the local can attach to the gift, the refugee living in the centre will see the profile of the person who gave it, and vice versa – and then, just maybe, tadaaaa: an encounter! It’s almost enough to make you cry. Do we really need that to establish contact with each other?

When all the remaining ideas are listed in an accessible database, they read like a catalogue of hope.

WDCD Live, 30 June and 1 July, Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ Amsterdam