If you want to talk about those ‘wicked’ problems designers are so fond of, you need look no further than the plight of the world’s refugees. According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), nearly 60 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide. A third of these are refugees leaving their homes to find a better life in a foreign country. The obstacles they face, at every step, could fuel design challenges for decades.

We spoke to Dagan Cohen, leader of the Refugee Challenge, about What Design Can Do’s (WDCD) new initiative and how they hope to have a real impact.

Initially the team at WDCD looked at a few compelling issues. Climate change and renewable energy, childhood obesity, the negative effects of information overload… They presented multiple options at the conference in Amsterdam in May 2015, and with much subsequent research and analysis, they chose the topic of refugees.

Narrowing the focus
It was during this research and analysis phase of the potential topics that What Design Can Do started talking to the IKEA Foundation, which he had come in contact with initially some years earlier. At the time, both parties had been open to collaboration, and here was an opportunity to work together. Through the IKEA Foundation conversations also began with the UNHCR.

In workshops, both the UNHCR and refugees themselves identified the rapidly increasing numbers of urban refugees and their unique struggles as worthy of attention. The nature of camps makes individuals leave in search of prosperity, a prosperity that can ultimately be found more easily in economic hubs like Istanbul or Berlin. But once refugees disperse, it is harder for UNHCR and local NGOs to provide support and assistance.

They decided to focus the briefs on the reception and integration of urban refugees, which also provided interest to designers in the intersection of different cultures.

“We felt that our biggest chance for innovation, and engagement with a large audience was to focus on this part of the problem. Because everyone has an opinion and feeling about refugees in his or her home country,” says Cohen.

Five briefs
From ‘refugees’ the topic was narrowed down to ‘the reception and integration of urban refugees’, and even then the task appears monumental.

“As a designer or as a creative you want to work on a very precise brief. Originally we thought of creating one single brief. But then, which topic is the most urgent? Or the most important? It’s very hard to choose. What defines a problem is its complexity and the different facets that are interlinked. So we said it doesn’t do justice to the gravity of the problem to just pick one brief,” explains Cohen.

“The ‘big idea’ behind the five briefs is the urban refugee journey. What are the problems refugees—but also local NGOs and authorities—encounter every step of the way? From their arrival in a city, the application for asylum, the long waiting times, finding place to live, all the way to becoming a full member of society.”

The Challenge was launched in February 2016 and the creative community was asked to respond to five briefs, which was another way of making sure the door was open to all design disciplines.

Solid partnerships
Another key for Cohen was finding solid partners with which to go beyond simple idea generation. This is not just an ideas challenge. In fact, all three partners may be thinking more along the lines of finding the next Better Shelter, a project that saw the IKEA Foundation and the UNHCR collaborate with great results.

“You can see that this is an example of how a humanitarian organization, designers and a kind of enterprise-oriented organization such as IKEA Foundation can work together and succeed in creating innovation in the humanitarian sector,” says Cohen.

The UNHCR already does a lot of work on innovation. They founded the UNHCR Innovation Labs, they run challenges. But reaching out to the worldwide creative community is new. With both UNHCR and IKEA Foundation on board, Cohen is able to focus on what comes after the finalists are selected.

Above: Refugees using Better Shelter.

Designing an accelerator
The finalists of the Challenge will be announced on 1 July at the WDCD conference in Amsterdam. Each of the five projects will receive 10 000 Euros and enter an acceleration programme.

The 10 000 Euros is part designer’s fee, part production budget. But if a project is going to cost millions to develop, the idea is for the accelerator to help get the product or service to the point where it stands a chance. It’s where the hard work will happen.

The details of the accelerator’s location and format have yet to be revealed, but suffice to say Cohen is hard at work to make sure this supremely important phase of the Challenge achieves what it sets out to do, namely develop ideas into viable products and services.

Pilot project
The exciting news is that WDCD’s Refugee Challenge is a pilot project. How will the Challenge work? Is this the right model? In true designer fashion, the lessons learned this year will be fed back into the Challenge to make it better in the future. Which is not to say that they are going into this blindly.

“There are a lot of challenges out there. I studied them all. Obviously we’ll learn a lot, and we’ll probably change the model, but I’m sure that we’ll run a new challenge and I also think the accelerator is interesting.”

When asked what the submissions have been like so far, there is clearly enthusiasm in Cohen’s voice. There are entries dealing with digital services, events, programmes that aim to bring people together. But there are also “architectural entries”—shelters, modular homes, etc.

Further partnering with SingularityU, the University of Delft Industrial Design Department, and with Advertising Design Creativity the Netherlands (ADCN) has already helped bring in many interesting entries.

ADCN is the association for creativity in advertising and design in the Netherlands, and this year in order to win the prestigious young talent award, hopefuls had to submit an entry to the Refugee Challenge. Two projects have already been selected as ADCN winners and will be included in the pool of entries for the Challenge.

A challenge too big for governments and NGOs alone
Since we initially spoke to Cohen there has been criticism from certain circles implying that the Challenge poses a simplistic view of the issue. In his response, What Design Can Do founder Richard van der Laken concedes that designers are not about to solve the problems in the Middle East, but that the Challenge hopes to achieve “an improvement, however small, to the lives of millions of people.” He goes on to say that WDCD and the Challenge are “not about magic cures. It’s about an attitude.”

Cohen adds to this: “Of course designers are no magicians, but as ‘professional outsiders’ they can bring fresh ideas and unexpected solutions to table in a conversation with refugees, authorities, and humanitarian organizations. Our Challenge isn’t just a call for ideas, it’s a call for participation!”

The deadline to submit an idea to the Challenge is 20 May.

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