25 Smart Design Ideas That Could Help Ease The Refugee Crisis

The What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge has come up with an amazing variety of ideas that could help refugees on their journey–and once they reach Europe.


In 2016, another 3 million refugees and migrants are expected to arrive in Europe–a mass of people that the European Union doesn’t know how to handle. As politicians struggle, a new project tries to offer fresh ideas by reframing the refugee crisis as a design problem, and finding ways that design skills might improve the lives of the new arrivals in small but meaningful ways.


The What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge, part of a conference in Amsterdam, invited designers to create new solutions for shelter, and to help refugees while they wait for asylum, to connect them to host communities, to give essential information, and to leverage their potential. A team of 30 experts judged the ideas and narrowed them from more than 600 to a shortlist of 25 finalists. This Friday, five winners will each get expert guidance and 10,000 euros to help develop their ideas further.

Ke Tian Tay, Australia

This modular system is designed to fit into abandoned buildings in European cities, creating flexible apartments in a day out of mass-produced, flat-packed cabinets, lofts, beds, and stairs. Because most immigrants are Muslim, the design incorporates spaces for prayer and privacy between male and female family members. As the homes restore abandoned buildings, they can help bring life back to struggling neighborhoods.


Desert Revival
Luke Escobar, U.S.

As desertification spreads in North Africa and the Middle East, making it harder and harder to grow food, it creates another reason for people to flee their homes for Europe. But it’s also a problem in the places they’re fleeing to: Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. This program would give refugees training and jobs in fighting desertification through landscaping and other projects that can make land productive again. By housing refugees in rural areas, it would help reduce pressure on overcrowded cities. Eventually, refugees can take the skills they learn back to their home countries.

Changing Futures European Network
Cross Hands Architecture, Portugal


For refugees living in camps, who rarely meet anyone other than other refugees, it’s hard to connect with the new society they’re living in. This network of hubs in universities would help bring refugees together with students, academics, and the local community to help cocreate solutions for the refugee and migrant crisis, getting to know each other as they work together.

Giacomo Boffo, Oana Clitan, the Netherlands

Refugees fleeing war or totalitarian regimes often end up in camps where democracy is still limited. Refu.rendum, an app and online platform, would help give refugees more freedom of choice about their lives, voting on what a refugee camp needs–from more toilets to playgrounds for children. “The second goal of Refu.rendum is to affect the way locals view refugees, not as people with lots of needs, but as individuals with opinions capable of a shared effort to improve their community,” write the designers.


Nages Mofarahian, Italy

This simple straw-bale house, with a canvas roof, is designed to be built with local, fully biodegradable materials in a few hours, and can be taken apart just as easily. Rainwater is collected for the toilet and garden. The homes can be built on vacant lots in cities, rather than in segregated camps.

Reframe Refugees
Marie-Louise Diekema, Tim Olland, the Netherlands


Mainstream media photos of the refugee crisis all tend to look the same, showing the worst of the situation. This project invites refugees to share photos themselves, telling a more complete story of everyday life and their ambitions. Ninety percent of refugees in Europe have smartphones. The app would let them upload photos, which would be quality-checked and then sold to media companies, with payment going back to a nonprofit that helps refugees.

Eat and Meet
Jennifer Kinnunen, Marie Legleye, Camille Marshall, Elias Sougrati (Canada, France, Morocco)

A team of designers wants to turn old city buses into food trucks where refugees would cook food from their home countries, traveling around the city and sharing their culture and stories with the community while they earn a living. Part of the bus would become a meeting area for other refugees, where they can hang out and learn about their new city and their rights under local law and take language classes.


Working Refugees

When a group of advertising students talked with refugees in the Netherlands, they learned that they most felt guilty about accepting welfare–but under Dutch law, they can’t legally work for the first six months they live in the country. The students discovered a possible solution: Estonia offers a simple digital citizenship that anyone can obtain–if they have the right documents–online, in 20 minutes. With an e-citizenship, refugees can legally start their own companies, even while they’re waiting for their Dutch paperwork.

Dein Deutschland
Designing Exits, Germany


In 2015, more than a million refugees arrived in Germany–without knowing much about their new culture, and without the community knowing much about their own values and ambitions. This new app aims to connect both, asking questions in an online survey, and giving instant feedback about what other people think, seeing where opinions are shared between communities and where they differ. The goal: to help people better understand the truth and reduce prejudice.

Unstudio and Scape, the Netherlands

This modular, flexible social center is designed to quickly pop up in refugee camps or cities, offering a place to share meals, stories, learn languages, and meet with other people in the community. The walls and roof, made from smart textiles, can collect water. Solar cells on the roof can provide power to charge phones and a Wi-Fi network.


An Unexpected Journey
Emilie Sheehan, U.K.

This comic book, designed for children, tells the story of a refugee child as superhero, and their journey to a new country. On the reverse, the book tells about the adventure of a local child. Both stories end with the characters meeting in the middle; the stories are bilingual and designed to help both refugee and local children better understand each other. On a website, kids can create their own superhero, answer a few questions, and get a custom comic book telling their own stories.

Are We There Yet?
Vanberlo, the Netherlands


It’s 7 pm. You are enjoying the comfort and warmth of your home. Suddenly, an alarm goes off. You must flee, so you and your family grab the four most important things around you–passport, phone, some food and water–and leave.

That’s the beginning of a this board game–called “Are We There Yet?”–designed to make players face the same challenges as refugees do, and build empathy. The board game is supported by content on a smartphone or tablet and made for families or students to play.

In Your Shoes
Veejays, the Netherlands


Walking down a busy street, suddenly you see your reflection in a shop window–but the background is a bombed-out block in Syria or South Sudan. Then your image shifts, and you see that you’re looking at a refugee, moving and walking as you walk. That’s the concept of this video installation, which the designers hope to place in affluent shopping areas in Europe–to stop shoppers for a moment, and help them imagine living as a refugee.

Fien Vanderbeke, the Netherlands

This app is designed to help refugees avoid a gap on their resumes while they’re unable to work. Refugees can enter their skills and interests, get connected with local organizations that need volunteer or internship help, and then collect references for future job hunts.


Design Bridge, International Brand Design Agency, the Netherlands

This online platform lets both refugees and citizens list skills, and then exchange them on an hour-to-hour basis–letting people get help while avoiding bureaucracy or the need for money. If a refugee has IT skills and needs a haircut–or vice versa–they can give an hour of their time on the platform, and spend the credit with someone else.

The Welcome Card
The Green Card Team, Italy and Sweden


This temporary ID, using RFID technology, makes it easy for refugees to check on their asylum application by inserting the card into a reader and viewing their status on a screen. It also doubles as an ID for public transit and language classes.

Ishiyetaa Saxena, Jaivardhan Singh, India

This mobile app is designed as a simple way for refugees to understand their rights in a new country and local laws. A rating system lets them give feedback on the services they’re getting at asylum centers, so governments can better track what’s happening. In a forum, refugees can ask each other–and experts–questions about the new society or the asylum process.

Makers Unite
The Netherlands

This project, which has already launched in Amsterdam and Athens, brings refugees and European designers together to make products and host events–beginning by upcycling life jackets and boats from Greek shores. Sales will go back to refugees and the organizations that support them.

Lodewijk de Vries, Diederik Derkzen, the Netherlands

While memories of violence and war are hard for any refugee, they’re especially hard for young children–and especially at night, when kids are often afraid to sleep because they’re afraid of nightmares. This simple cover is designed to fit over beds in refugee camps, making them into safe spaces that look like elephants or castles; inside, kids can decorate the fabric and add drawings in pockets.

Lag Ihhoplock, Sweden

To help refugees more quickly become part of local communities, this project proposes housing them with students. By offering language lessons and other support, students can get cheaper rent. Apartment buildings would be supported by a digital platform with toolkits.

Refugees Got Talent
Brenda Waegemaekers, Michael Bien

Since the public often tends to see refugees as either victims or troublemakers, this project aims to tell a different story focused on individuals, not stereotypes. A new reality show, in the format of a talent contest, would air for a night or in a series, giving refugees the chance to share their stories and talent.

Co-Create Fellowship
Aaron Wong, U.S.

Inspired by Venture for America, this project would let European businesses sponsor refugees as fellows. Refugees would get basic training in the local language and interview skills, then get certified by local professionals in their field. Host organizations would provide mentorship as the refugee starts work on a social enterprise.

Connecting Cultures
Eva de Bruijn/Vanblend, the Netherlands

This toolkit guides refugees and the people from the host culture through a series of exercises designed to help understand cultural differences (and similarities). Simple exercises are icebreakers; as people get to know each other, more advanced exercises encourage people to exchange perspectives.

New Here

This interactive app shows simple pictograms of everyday needs on a map–where to buy halal food or clothing, find work, apply for asylum, or join a soccer team, for example. Short descriptions are available in multiple languages. A team of human rights experts, designers, and programmers built a prototype for Vienna and wants to make a platform that other cities can easily use without knowing how to code.

Hex House
Architects for Society, U.S.

These simple, six-sided shelters can be shipped anywhere in pieces and then easily assembled. One unit, a two-bedroom home, can be joined with others for more room; three homes fit inside a standard truck. The houses use passive cooling, harvest rainwater, and run on solar panels.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."