Five years of What Design Can Do have shown what design is capable of in numerous ways. Design is a force for change, and change is badly needed right now. To celebrate our 5th edition, therefore, we are going to put our money where our mouth is and launch a challenge aimed at encouraging all of you to take action and make a difference.

By Richard van der Laken
General director of What Design Can Do

Some time ago I was in Beirut for a workshop where Lebanese designers tackled pressing social issues. The question was how Lebanese designers could help solve major humanitarian problems, most importantly the plight of refugees.

For decades the country and that incredible city on the Mediterranean coast have suffered from the turmoil of the Middle East. Now they face new challenges: with a population of 4 million, Lebanon has to cope with no fewer than 1.5 million (!!!) refugees from the region.

This is not the same context in which we, in the Netherlands and Europe, discuss the issue of refugees. Last year some 24,000 refugees arrived in the Netherlands. Compare that with the Lebanese situation and it would be as if this country had to provide shelter for 7 million refugees.

Tough policies

The policy advocated by the Netherlands is: ‘provide shelter in the region’, ‘facilitate deportation’ and ‘do not offer accommodation to persons whose asylum claim has been rejected’. This tough conservative stance is a far cry from the unbelievable, courageous and heartbreaking situation one encounters in Lebanon. And even that is a ‘safe’ country.

European policies do nothing to remedy this situation, because the electoral interests of the various parties are simply too diverse, as we saw in recent discussions in the Netherlands concerning emergency accommodation for refugees whose asylum application has been rejected. But our society is in the grip of a technological and communication revolution, and since the crisis a lot of people feel that words like ‘social’, ‘humanity’ and ‘engagement’ no longer concern just a few international relief agencies. They concern all of us. Indeed, the refugee problem is too large and too urgent to leave to politicians.

Do It Yourself

Two things happen when political ballast falls away: people become more adventurous and people start to tackle problems. Combine the two and something magical happens, something we call ‘socially responsible entrepreneurship’. In design circles it is often referred to as the Do It Yourself or Do It Together approach.

Dutch artist Jan Rothuizen does it in Refugee Republic, his interactive web documentary about a camp in Iraq. In We Are Here, a growing number of Dutch people help refugees whose asylum application has been rejected by providing a spare bed. Flüchtlinge Willkommen in Germany devises projects that assist foreigners in finding a place of their own. Dutch fashion designer Bas Timmer developed a ‘Shelter Suit’, a warm and rainproof sleeping bag that he wants to supply for free.

Socially responsible design and entrepreneurship is no longer the preserve of back-to-nature, sandal-wearing figures on the fringes. Nor is it a PR strategy aimed at promoting the right image. Fashion brand H&M is deeply involved in ecological clothing, and the IKEA Foundation has teamed up with the UNHCR refugee organization to develop Better Shelter. The latter is certainly a typical design solution, a house of amazing IKEA-like simplicity that can be deployed cheaply and quickly in areas hit by disaster.

Do something!

What contribution can designers, or rather creatives, all over the world make to such an elusive and complex tale of human misery that is the refugee problem? It would be incorrect to suggest that designers can solve the problem entirely, but they can achieve a lot. Just look at the long sequence of events and procedures that refugees must go through and you realize that designers could play a role at every stage of the process. From the provision of shelter in encampments to the acceptance and integration of refugees in a host country, at every single stage of the process it is possible to make the lives of refugees less inhuman, more bearable.

Let me therefore take this opportunity to call on every self-respecting designer to do ‘something’, no matter what. Come up with new ideas, dust down old ideas and place them in a new context. Silence the cynics. Let the politicians know that wheeling and dealing achieves little. Prove that actions speak louder than words. Demonstrate the power of design. Designers can do more than make things pretty. Design is more than perfume, aesthetics and trends.

Cameron Sinclair is an architect who shows the way with his organization, the Department of Small Works, which deploys design and advice through an open source system in disaster areas and places of extreme poverty. His slogan is: ‘design like you give a damn’. That can be done on both a large and small scale.

Does this concern you as a designer? As a human? Take part in the International Challenge that What Design Can Do is launching to mark its 5th anniversary. Show what design can do. For nothing at all can prevent us, designers, from enhancing human dignity in any way we can. Design like you give a damn.

Image: Re:Build school building for Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan by Department of Small Works

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