An app that explains the rights and duties of refugees in each country, direct democracy in the asylum seekers centre, a cosy bed for traumatized refugee children, and repopulation by refugees of eroded and declining regions in southern Europe. These are just some of the 25 innovative ideas selected for the shortlist of the What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge. With room for five finalists, the nominees have a 1 in 5 chance to receive 10,000 euros to further develop their projects.

The Refugee Challenge is a collaboration between What Design Can Do, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and IKEA Foundation. Over the past month designers, artists and creatives from 70 countries submitted 631 ideas aimed at improving the lives of refugees.

Service design

Challenge leader Dagan Cohen referred to the hundreds of entries as ‘few pretty products, plenty of smart services. The bulk of entries clearly focuses more on ethical and emphatic design and less on aesthetics, demonstrating that service design as a discipline is clearly on the rise’. ‘Remarkable,’ adds Richard van der Laken, founder of What Design Can Do: ‘I was struck by the absence of cynicism displayed by the participating designers. They are optimistic and ready for action.’

On 1 July, Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Bert Koenders will reveal the five finalists during What Design Can Do Live in Amsterdam, where all 25 concepts on the shortlist will be exhibited. The five best entries will each receive 10,000 euros and extensive coaching to develop their concepts further.

Public favourite

Over the past few weeks, the general public voted for their favourites among the 631 entries. The public winner, catapulted straight onto the shortlist, is New Here., a multilingual interactive map that serves as a travel guide for refugees to find their way in a new city of residence.


Among the entries on the shortlist are numerous ideas that focus on a seamless integration between refugees and citizens. A case in point is Integration starts with InterAct, a loyalty scheme where students can progressively earn reductions on the cost of housing by assisting refugees. But there are also more pragmatic ways of reaching out: The Working Refugees circumvents restrictive legislation in countries where refugees are prevented from working during their asylum application procedure by helping them to legally start an e-company in Estonia. Bloom, designed by Ben van Berkel’s UNStudio, is a flower-shaped modular pavilion designed for encounters, work and knowledge exchange.

There were also plenty of ideas that raise awareness of the conditions endured by refugees, for example the TV format Refugees Got Talent. An interactive video installation called In Your Shoes placed behind display windows scans and tracks the movement of passers-by. Instead of seeing their image reflected in the glass, observers see themselves transformed into the image of a refugee in a war-torn landscape.

International jury

The international jury consisting of Marcus Engman (head of design at IKEA group), Corinne Gray (UNHCR), Petra Stienen (Arabist & author), Bas van Abel (founder of Fairphone), Sonia Ben Ali (co-founder Urban Refugees) and others will deliberate on the shortlist over the next week and select the five finalists.

View the complete shortlist:

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