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Every Step of the Journey: Richard van der Laken and the What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge

April 20, 2016

Dutch graphic designer Richard van der Laken co-founded What Design Can Do to push beyond the conventional bounds of the industry. Earlier this year, he and his colleagues laid down the social impact gauntlet with their What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge — a call to designers around the world to address the complex needs of refugees and their host nations. Van der Laken took some time recently to talk to Impact Design Hub about the challenge, as well as his hopes for what it might do for both refugees and the practice of design.


Impact Design Hub: Can you briefly tell us about What Design Can Do (WDCD) and why you decided to take on the issue of designing for refugees?

Richard van der Laken: I’m a designer myself and have always been proud of the design culture we have in The Netherlands. But despite having this strong culture, I felt that even here design is still often seen as something exclusive — as aesthetics. Design can be much more than that; it can have impact on our society, it can transform lives, it can break taboos. That’s why I started What Design Can Do with my business partner Pepijn Zurburg and some other Dutch designers. We wanted to get from inspiration to action, to show what design is capable of.

In the past five years we have organized five events in Amsterdam and one in São Paulo. We host a blog, we publish and communicate on all kinds of levels to get that message across. We developed the idea of the What Design Can Do Challenge to focus on big complex international issues. And one of the biggest issues of our times is without a doubt the refugee crisis.

IDH: This challenge is specifically for addressing the needs of refugees and their host communities in urban areas — can you explain why you decided on an urban focus?

Richard van der Laken: Currently more than 60% of all refugees live in urban areas and that was impossible for us to ignore. When one talks about refugees the image is always of people in tents in barren areas, yet a majority of the world’s refugees don’t live there. Also, by focusing on urban areas, we are hopefully tapping into the engagement of European citizens, designers, creatives in those cities. Because it goes without saying that the refugee crisis is an issue for them too, and we want them to own it.

IDH: Are there specific issues or themes, such as shelter or integration, that the challenge is designed to address?

Richard van der Laken: The refugee crisis is not a single problem — it’s very complex and has lots of dimensions. Beyond refugees, there are a variety of other stakeholders involved. There are all sorts of other problem owners like cities, governments and of course citizens of host countries that have a stake in these outcomes. This is why we’ve designed the challenge to focus on the refugee ‘journey’ — starting from the moment that a refugee enters his or her country of arrival.

It’s from this idea of a complete journey that we devised the five briefings that comprise the challenge: improving reception centres, fostering personal development while waiting, bringing refugees and host communities closer to each other, exchanging essential information with refugees, and maximizing the potential of refugees.

IDH: Do solutions have to come from a specific field or type of design, such as architecture or industrial design? How broad a definition of “design” do you apply to the challenge?

Richard van der Laken: From day one WDCD has approached design as an attitude, not as a discipline. We always encourage the self-initiating and cross-disciplinary thinking and doing of the contemporary designer. Architects, communication designers, interior designers, interaction designers, web designers, service designers — to list a few — can all contribute great ideas under any of the five briefings.

IDH: Do submissions have to be something physical, like a product or structure?

Richard van der Laken: No — physical solutions are very welcome, but we encourage creatives to come up with digital solutions like apps, web-based ideas, and so on. A great example is Refunite, designed to help refugees find each other again in their new countries. It’s beautiful, simple, and it works.

IDH: What’s the process for an applicant beyond submitting the application?

Richard van der Laken: Once the open call closes in May we, in conjunction with our partners and selected experts, will make a pre-selection. Approximately 25 entries will be submitted to an international jury of experts in the field of creative industry, design, humanitarian issues and immigration who will select five finalists. These finalists will be announced at our upcoming event in Amsterdam, on June 30th. Finalists receive 10,000 euros to develop their concept into a prototype, a businessplan, or anything that is needed. During this phase, the projects will be supported by UNHCR, IKEA Foundation and WDCD and at the end of the year they will present their developed ideas to a group of investors, NGO’s, and the UNHCR and IKEA Foundation. Then, one or more winners will get funding and mentorship to get their idea fully produced and implemented.

IDH: Are there limits to what design can do in this arena? Aren’t some of the fundamental problems with the refugee crisis political? Or do you think design can address those broader, more systemic issues?

Richard van der Laken: Design alone cannot solve the refugee crisis — let’s be clear about that. When it comes to the refugee crisis, there are a lot of issues that have to be addressed and solved by other parties. But throughout the whole chain of events that comprise the experiences and challenges of refugees there are so many moments where designers can step in. There are many design issues there that we can solve, but we have to be to be realistic — this is an issue on which governments, companies, citizens, NGO’s, and designers have to work together.

IDH: How do you see the challenge impacting the broader conversation on refugee issues? What impact do you hope to have beyond the direct effects of the winning projects?

Richard van der Laken: Of course I hope that we will find some killer ideas that also work well in the media because then it’s easy to explain what we’re doing and spread the word. But sometimes good ideas don’t make for great media eye candy. What I also hope is that our initiative will give refugees a face and an identity. Very often media and society talk about them as numbers, as populations, but they’re people — with children, mothers, fathers, fears, and frustrations. But also with hope for a better future, and hopefully this challenge can help create that future.


Images courtesy of Leo Veger and What Design Can Do. 

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