The Refugee Challenge

The dramatic challenge of the refugees was at the centre of the latest edition of “What Design Can Do”. Among the key projects was AGRIshelter, dwellings in hardwearing biodegradable materials.

Launched last year from the stage of the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam, when the humanitarian and political emergency had yet to reach its current scale, the Refugee Challenge was undoubtedly the element that most defined last edition of “What Design Can Do”, the Dutch festival on the impact of design.
Refugee Challenge
Top and above: Makers Unite connects refugees and EU locals by co-designing engaging products and narratives, starting with upcycling life vests and boats collected on Greek shores
It all began with one of the more interesting projects presented: the Flatpack Shelter, a collaboration between the Ikea Foundation and the UN agency for refugees. A modular living system conceived to provide a dwelling that is easily transportable and at the same time customisable, addressing environmental necessities and a tight budget without compromising the dignity of the spaces for the occupiers. The affinity with Ikea’s concept of democratic design is not difficult to spot in the project, but the involvement of the foundation in the current challenge – which received 631 proposals from 70 nations – implies an expansion of the concept and a redefinition of the relationship between the company, the foundation and the design community.
Refugee Challenge
AGRIshelter is a solution for the shortage of refugee shelters that considers social, urban, environmental and economic factors

“We are hoping to be able to take it to the next level,” says Jonathan Spampinato, head of communication and strategic planning for the foundation.

“We will work in close contact with the winners to see which of these ideas can really become plausible solutions for refugee families.” The finalists will receive a budget of 10,000 euro each and coaching from the foundation itself, in such a way that the respective teams can transform their proposals into a prototype and a business-plan.

Refugee Challenge
AGRIshelter is built of biodegradable, zero-km materials, which are durable, provide good insulation and are readily available in every city. The whole 35-m2 unit can be erected in a few hours by people with minimum skills
Coming then to the selection, the range was quite a varied but not without its trends. In terms of human diversity, “Reframing Refugees” is for example a digital platform where refugees can upload their stories with photos taken using smartphones, while “Eat and Meet” converts buses into food-trucks in order to enable food and culture to be shared in a social way. Another two projects concentrate on housing and circular economics, exploiting local resources. “AGRIshelter” builds dwellings in wood and hardwearing materials but biodegradable and km 0, while “Makers Unite” involves new arrivals and European citizens in the co-design of products and narratives, for example via up-cycling life-jackets and boats left on the Greek coasts. Finally the “Welcome Card” exploits RFID technology to enable asylum seekers to check their status.
Refugee Challenge
Eat & Meet uses food to foster relationships and warm hearts, presenting refugees as an indispensable part of modernity
As well as representing the climax of the conference – the finalists were announced at the end – the challenge was the real leitmotif of the event. There was an interesting and lively break-out session moderated by Marcus Fairs, where organiser Dagan Cohen and the spokespeople for the organisations involved met with some critical voices, such as Ruben Pater. Generating controversy was above all a way of communicating the challenge, that some have interpreted as too focused on design as a solution to economical-political problems that should be addressed by European governments rather than the creative community. Another criticism regarded the representation of refugees as a homogenous entity and “other” rather than as a varied group that will inevitably become part of the social fabric in the long term. Some of the perplexities (on the framing of the refugees for example) have found answers in the final selection but aside from the opinions expressed, the dialogue added a bit of substance to a conference that has traditionally celebratory tones.
Refugee Challenge
The Welcome Card is issued to everybody who applies for asylum in a EU country. Radio-frequency identification technology (RFID) enables refugees to check their application status when the card is paired to a reader
I asked Spampinato what he thought about the criticisms of the competition. “There is neither a private or government solution at the moment, the problem is too big to be addressed by one sector alone,” he explains. “Obviously there is a need for participation from other agents. I agree with the fact that these are serious problems but I don't think that there is only one group designated to deal with them. I think that the story of philanthropy and business is progressing in innovative ways at the moment to move away from its own structure.”
Refugee Challenge
The digital platform Reframe Refugees helps the world realize that refugees are people with the same dreams and ambitions as everybody else

On the matter of structure, I ask him if there are ways – as well as challenges like that of WDCD – in which a brand like Ikea can exploit its own weight and its own international presence to bypass these institutional barriers. He offers an example of a programme in Switzerland where the company offers internships to refugees to facilitate integration into society, where it would be otherwise difficult to find work without experience. “Part of the problem is conceptual, it goes from the international legal structure to the local one. It is a challenge but we want to improve people’s lives and we can’t work in the abstract realm and say that it would be better if things were different. This is why we like to work with designers, they are realists.”

In this Spampinato is with the optimistic spirit of WDCD: “We are all presently concentrating on the most worrying data, but this doesn’t help. We have to look for where there is a ray of light and go in that direction”.

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