"Design is more than perfume, aesthetics and trends"

Opinion: designers have a responsibility to help with the growing refugee crisis in Europe and beyond, says Richard van der Laken, founder of What Design Can Do.


Some time ago I was in Beirut with the DutchCulture organisation for a workshop on how to tackle 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 in 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 surrounding countries.

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 extra people.

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 Lebanon is not even the most extreme example.

European policies do nothing to remedy this situation, because the electoral interests of the various parties are simply too diverse. Recent discussions in the Netherlands concerning emergency accommodation for refugees whose asylum application has been rejected have been heated and divisive. The negative reactions of Great Britain, France and Hungary this month to a proposal from the European Union to share the burden of refugees equally throughout the continent, suggests that politicians are too afraid of anti-migrant sentiments in their own countries to offer real help.

But our society is in the grip of a technological revolution, giving us new tools and making it easier for us to work globally and with fewer physical resources. We are also more connected and aware as a result of our increasing access to information. Since the 2008 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. The refugee problem is too large and too urgent to leave to politicians.

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.

A growing number of Dutch civilians don't accept that refugees whose asylum application has been rejected have to live on the streets, and are supporting a group of refugees that call themselves We Are Here, who protest against political indifference to their plight.

There are other examples across Europe, like the German initiative, Flüchtelinge Willkommen, which takes a welcoming attitude to foreigners and tries to help them find a place of their own.

In the Netherlands, this issue is also increasingly becoming a focus for artists and designers. Artist Jan Rothuizen has been developing Refugee Republic, an interactive web documentary about a camp in Iraq, while fashion designer Bas Timmer has 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. The Ikea Foundation has teamed up with the UNHCR refugee organisation 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.

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 realise that design could play a role in improving 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 it is possible to make the lives of refugees less inhuman and more bearable.

Every self-respecting designer should do something. 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. His previous non-profit, Architecture for Humanity, worked under the slogan "design like you give a damn" and helped the international architecture community to become more closely involved in rebuilding efforts from post-Hurricane Sandy New York and New Jersey to Haiti and Japan. They provided opportunities to become involved in projects that were both worthy and professionally interesting.

His new organisation, the Department of Small Works, deploys design and advice through an open-source system in disaster areas and places of extreme poverty. His slogan remains the same, proving as relevant on a small scale as it does on larger projects.

This year our conference, What Design Can Do, is celebrating its fifth anniversary. We started as a platform for the discussion of design with a social impact.

Among the projects we've seen presented have been Fairphone, created by Dutch designer Bas van Abel, a serious product that should change our attitude to throwaway smartphones. Chineasy by Shaolan Hsueh showed us an easy way to learn a language. Kees Dorst came up with "designing against crime", a strategy to make our streets safer. These designers are among the many speakers we've heard from who have proven that design has a crucial role as a force for change, and change is badly needed right now.

So rather than having a party to celebrate our birthday, we are going to put our money where our mouth is and launch a challenge aimed at encouraging more designers to take action and make a difference.

We want to show what design can do. For nothing should prevent us, designers, from enhancing human dignity in any way we can.


Richard van der Laken is the founder and creative director of What Design Can Do, an annual conference held in Amsterdam that focuses on the social impact of design. This year's edition of the conference takes place from 21-22 May.