WDCD Refugee Challenge

Refugees are keeping the design world busy these days: the Chief Government Architect in the Netherlands and the Central Organ for Asylum-seekers initiated the design competition A Home Away from Home, the IABR is organizing a salon entitled Refugees in the City, and WDCD has launched a Refugee Challenge that calls for ‘game-changing ideas’. They all sound like wonderful initiatives. In an Open Letter, Ed van Hinte, Krijn Christiaansen, Cathelijne Montens, Harry Bloch and Joris Landman explain why, in the end, they decided not to take up the ‘challenge’.

Better Shelter developed by Better Shelter, IKEA Foundation and UNHCR – photo ©Jonas Nyström

Dear WDCD,

We acknowledge the importance of the tragedies that are cur­rently taking place, and we appreciate that What Design Can Do is eager to make a difference by organizing its Refugee Challenge. That’s why we — five designers — have discussed a range of pro­positions and proposals which we might enter, to find a solution.


We define the conversations we had as an attempt to go beyond the boundaries of the Refugee Challenge, because we felt the brief is basically asking for the improvement of something which is unwanted in the first place. Nobody wants to be a refugee, or to be addressed as one, let alone to be part of an interesting target group for designers. What you want, when fleeing violence and lack of safety, is to find a quiet place — as quickly as possible — where you can pick yourself up again, start a social life, make a living.
We didn’t feel comfortable with the tone of the challenge. Despite its good intentions, the brief is patronizing towards people whose lives are in shreds. Furthermore, the challenge aims for ‘blunt and innovative solutions’, but those are not require­ments for a meaningful contribution. The main goal should be to offer fellow humans opportunities to take their lives back into their own hands. Headlines don’t matter.
Nevertheless, we genuinely tried to talk our way through examples and ideas which might somehow fit within one of the five themes, or which might be able to make a better point, in a different way.


Obviously, coming into contact with one another is crucial. In this respect, a refugee’s language may be a barrier, and their mental state impossible to enter into. People fleeing their homes are all different, just like you and us. There are excellent examples of efforts that deal with communication, such as that of Yasmin Alkhatib — a Syrian woman living in the Dutch village of Neerijnen — who cooked a meal for thirty of her new fellow villagers, in order to get acquainted. Dutch artist Manon van Hoeckel’s ‘In Limbo Embassy’ is another great project. What these activities have in common is genuine personal interest; that’s where it starts. Designed communication enforcement — an approach in which professional designers claim the ability to solve wicked problems — is destined to fail.
Communication is also a crucial factor in situations where people are actually on the run, and need to cross borders. In such situations, highly sophisticated networks develop fairly quickly. In Mexico and the US, a complicated and refined system exists to help people cross the border, with scouts travelling back and forth. It would be interesting to make such a network explicit and public. However, its functionality largely depends on its secrecy. For the same reason, architect Wim Cuyvers did not publish his research into gay cruising areas and the ideal conditions under which they occur.


Another key theme, in situations where people are forced to flee, is logistics. We consid­ered ways to clarify principles of logistics, and that maybe IKEA, one of the initiators of the Refugee Challenge, could be an example or a metaphor. After all, IKEA’s suc­cess is defined by its expert understanding and use of global transportation.
Of course, the company received a great deal of publicity for the development of its refugee dwelling. In general, the temporary dwelling has become an icon of emergency aid. It exists in many forms now, so we thought it would be pointless to come up with yet another version. Instead, we prefer to think in terms of urban planning and permanent housing. Civilization is very much out of balance in this respect. Entire cities have been built but remain empty, such as Ordos in China. Providing access, however, is a matter of diplomacy, politics and economics. Design can’t do that.


The most promising theme we addressed seemed to be that of archiving and disclosing information about migration episodes. Never before has it been so easy to collect and store all kinds of information: pictures, messages, media interpretations, scientific data and so on. Such material could be archived, and the resulting archive could be disclosed from different perspectives. The open archive could become a major resource in helping migrants find their way and understand what they may expect. It could show them the way to people and companies who might be able to help. It could also show the relative normality of the circum­stances in which refugees live, in the same way that a project by online newspaper De Correspondent is doing. In this, Iranians record their personal stories using a smart phone that blurs their face but still shows their facial expression. Indeed, such an archive could become a beacon of truth.
To demonstrate the urgency of communicating real information, just take this interesting fact: net migration has decreased in the last fifteen years, but in this same period the use of the term ‘mass migration’ has skyrocketed.
Bringing together this archive of forced migration would be a formidable task. Unfortunately, such a project is far too ambi­tious for the WDCD Challenge, given the available funds. It would have to be developed and tested in an ongoing process. Its developers would have to deal with interesting issues of privacy, security and legality — in themselves a source of valuable information. The project would require a great deal of communication between designers, politicians, former and current refugees, programmers and scientists, and many other roles might need to be engaged. In itself, this process would already be of inestimable value. Once realized, it would render equal all those involved, and refugees would become specialists.


That was yet another issue we discussed; how might we get rid of the ‘refugee’ label, and allow people — anonymously — to take their own decisions. We considered the mechanism of giving money. The development budget of 10,000 euros granted to each of the five winning designs could be divided between refugees, for instance through a lottery, for them to buy whatever they wanted from IKEA — with the added advan­tage that the latter would be able to sell at cost price. In the end, we got really corny, and jokingly spoke about starting a candy bar brand named ‘Fortune Seekers’. But those ideas are cold and cyni­cal, and we didn’t want that.

The best thing that could happen would be for stakeholders to come together and start a more normal discussion.

Our final decision was to send this letter, which is an honest account of our conversations.

Best regards,
Ed van Hinte
Krijn Christiaansen
Cathelijne Montens
Harry Bloch
Joris Landman