‘Let’s make no mistake; nor diplomacy, nor design can solve the gigantic humanitarian challenge in front of us,’ Dutch minister of Foreign Affairs Bert Koenders said in his speech at WDCD Live 2016 preluding the announcement of the Refugee Challenge finalists. But design can make things better, he continued. ‘That’s why I applaud the organisers of today’s event who came up with the Refugee Challenge, an initiative to pair design with one of today’s most difficult problems. Harnessing our work with morality and humanity, and harnessing the power of culture can be part of an effective response. Design can be a catalyst for new ideas and innovative solutions.’

Koenders stated that design has a pivotal role to play in the response to the urgent issues of our time and applauded the collaboration between public and private sector – UNHCR, WDCD, and IKEA Foundation – in the challenge. And he added he sees an important role for his ministry as well, stating: ‘I’d like to see a long term relationship between your world and mine, between design and diplomacy.’

Action for Hope

The announcement of the five winners of the Refugee Challenge was the culmination of another two incredible days filled with design brilliance, inspiring stories and surprising acts. Among these were several presentations that addressed the challenge’s topic, the refugee crisis. Like the one by Arabist, author, former diplomat, and current member of the Dutch Senate Petra Stienen, who stressed the importance of offering refugees access to culture.

Stienen remembered her days when she lived in Damascus, and regretted that today most of us don’t know Syria from before the war as the country with an age-old and highly developed cultural tradition.

In the same way she regretted that refugees are in many ways are dehumanized, for an important part because they are alienated from cultural influences. ‘Humanity is defined by being able to be the owner of your own life,’ Stienen said, stressing the importance of education and cultural expression. She recalled how Egyptian cultural activist Basma El Husseiny was shocked when she brought artists together in a refugee camp in Turkey and found out that all humanitarian aid was spent on shelter and food only. The camp had no books available, nothing cultural at all.

El Husseiny started Action for Hope, and organisation that provides cultural relief to distressed and displaced communities from the idea that when people are surrounded with beauty and culture they will be able to give direction to their lives.

Activist journalism

Next, journalist Eefje Blankevoort, co-founder of journalism production company Prospektor, raised the question whether journalism can be mixed with activism. Some think journalists should stick to objective reporting, and are not there to improve the world. But Blankevoort said: ‘It’s not only about what story you tell, but also how you tell it.’

Blankevoort first discussed the transmedia project Love Radio she set up together with photographer Anoek Steketee about the process of reconciliation after war. The project documented in film, text, audio, photography and online the popular Rwandan radio soap Musekewaya (New Dawn) and the everyday reality of its listeners.

In her most recent project, called the Asielzoekmachine (The Asylum Search Engine), Blankevoort and colleagues aimed to unravel the complexity of the asylum procedure in the Netherlands. The interactive multimedia documentary invited people to send in ideas for the improvement of the asylum policy, which yielded dozens of proposals. Reflecting on the activist side of the project, Blankevoort said: ‘We constantly must review our role as storytellers, but I prefer to contribute to society through constructive journalism.’

Reframing the problem

On Friday designer and assistant professor Social Design & Change Behaviour at TU Delft Nynke Tromp participated in a breakout session by Reframing Studio on What Design Can Do for Refugees. The workshop aimed to get some 80 participants acquainted with the reframing method developed at TU Delft by Paul Hekkert and Matthijs van Dijk to come up with (design) solutions for wicked problems. In small groups participants considered ways to phase out conflicts of interest among different stakeholders, to come up with ideas for refugees.

Earlier on the day on the main stage Tromp had made a convincing plea for the value of social design for systemic change and tackling issues like obesity, democratic dissatisfaction and mental healthcare. Tromp impressed the audience with a few intriguing concepts, including the idea to have people vote on their birthdays instead of all together once in four years. Thus politics gets rid of election campaigns, causing people to vote more according their true conviction.

Tromp also mentioned Temstem, the app she developed when she worked at Reframing Studio that helps people who hear voices to tune them down. First tests were so promising that the app will soon be tested in a randomized critical trial study. Tromp also mentioned that she is now working with eleven mental healthcare organisations to redesign the entire psychiatry system in the Netherlands.

Thorough research

The refugee topic was also dealt with by Geke van Dijk and Marie de Vos of STBY, the design research agency that participated in drafting the briefs for the WDCD Refugee Challenge. De Vos explained how these five briefs were based on desk research, interviews with refugees, collection their stories and thorough co-creation workshops to find the crucial points in the refugees’ journey where design potentially can make a change.

The extensive data pack of 50 pages that came out of the research phase has been crucial for the final outcome of the challenge, as challenge leader Dagan Cohen stressed later on the day, when he opened the announcement of the finalists. To quote him: ‘If you put shit in, you get shit out.’ In contrast, the WDCD Refugee Challenge received 631 high quality entries from 70 different countries.

The five winning entries now enter the next phase, in which they will work on the further development of their concepts into working prototypes. Both Corinne Gray, acting co-lead at UNHCR’s Innovation unit and Jonathan Spampinato, Head of Communications at IKEA Foundation, stated that their organizations will participate in this phase to get the best out of the five winning concepts.

Top image: The WDCD for Refugees theme culminated at the end of Day 2 with the announcement of the five winners of the WDCD Refugee Challenge by (f.l.t.r.) challenge leader Dagan Cohen, Corinne Gray (UNHCR), minister Bert Koenders, Jonathan Spampinato (IKEA Foundation) / all photo’s by Leo Veger