Design for refugees – top five speakers at WDCD conference

Design is so much more than an aesthetic layer, design may have a huge social relevance – this is the message preached by organisers and speakers of the annual What Design Can Do conference. This year, one of the main themes at the event was the design for refugees. Here you can find quotations selected from the five most interesting speeches on this subject.

What Design Can Do 2016 conference that recently took place in Amsterdam was a memorable edition on such subjects as refugees, the desperation of Europe and, for the balance, the relatedness of design with music. Here you can find the selection of quotations from five best speakers and panelist who attended to the sixth WDCD live conference that run 30 June and 1 July 2016 in Amsterdam to focus on and talk about the most urgent issue that is designing an aid for refugees.


1. Floris Alkemade
Chief Government Architect of the Netherlands (Rijksbouwmeester)

Floris Alkemade WDCD credits TrendNomad

– In Europe, we have received 1,25 million people last year. It’s a lot, over one million, but at the same time, it is only one quantum of one percent of the European population [more than 700 million people – ed.]. In that sense the number [of refugees – ed.] is not that big.

How do we provide proper housing for these people? Once you do that you will not solve everything, but it is something at least that you can do to help. If you look what is happening now, this [kind of temporary buildings –ed. ] is often the answer. Born out of the necessity, there is an urge to build quick responses. The benefit is that they are flexible, you can put them anywhere, but the benefit is also the downfall of it. Because they are temporary, you invest a lot of money in temporary foundations, installations, you have to transport them, you have to store them when they are not needed.

A lot of money, I think almost two-third of the money, is going on effect that is temporary. They are not going into quality of houses. Try to go for more permanent houses.

In Holland, there are a lot of vacancies, a lot of abandon buildings. This is about 50 million square meters, and if you also have counted all kind of industrial buildings, old churches, schools, you end up with at about 100 million square meters in The Netherlands alone that are available. Part of providing cheaper dwellings can come up with a strategy to use the empty buildings. And we are not talking about empty vacant buildings somewhere at the highway, but about empty buildings in our city centres. If we use them for proper housing, then we can provide housing that stimulates integration at the same time.

Don’t look at asylum seekers as a group apart. Look at [them as the part of – ed.] the wider target group, as everybody who needs a flexible home. Once you use the urgency of this question to provide better dwellings, you not only provide the solution for asylum seekers, but also for the much wider group.

See them [refugees – ed.] as normal people who need a home, normal people with a very limited budget. We have a lot of people with a limited budget who need a home, so take that entire group.

Design can do something, even if the budget is so low, because, I think, low budget is never an excuse for a low quality. You can deal with it as a good designer.

One of the key things in Europe is no longer to talk about refugees crisis. If you have one-quarter of one percent of the population, the world crisis it totally obscene. See this [situation –ed.] as a kind of a new people entering the country that you deal with.


2. Dagan Cohen
Designer and leader of the What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge

Dagan Cohen and Marcus Fairs WDCD credits TrendNomad
(right) Dagan Cohen, the leader of What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge, with Marcus Fairs, founder and editor-in-chief of, in the role of a moderator of the panel discussion “What design can do for refugees”.

– I’m a big fan of [Evgeny – ed.] Morozov, who is a huge critic of the Silicon Valey’s philosophy of solutionism, the way of thinking: There is an app for that, and that the technology can solve everything. Neither technology neither design can solve everything. What is very important is that when you put designers at the table with NGOs, decision makers and end users, you might have a very interesting discussion.

We should not consider designers as magicians who wave their magic sticks to make something beautiful that makes everybody happy.

What Design Can Do has always been educating the social impact of design, basically through international conferences, publications, organising debates and workshops. After five years the feeling started to grow that we need to be more active. Richard [van der Laken, the founder of What Design Can Do – ed.] summed it up saying: We need to move from inspiration to activation.

Designers like [those gathered – ed.] here are very much representing a generation that is thinking that their role is not [a holder of – ed.] a magic stick and not to make beautiful things, but to collaborate [with other people – ed.] and within collaborations show that designers also create toolkits and programs to help others.


3. Ruben Pater
designer, researcher

Ruben Pater WDCD credits TrendNomad

– The law need to be changed, so refugees have these things that are [guaranteed – ed.] in human rights.

I don’t think refugees need designers. I don’t think they need stories. I don’t think they need a website. They just need a fucking good lawyer.

We should really be careful that designers are not used as a kind of excuse for our government not to do anything and to say: Look, designers come up with all those cute things, so we don’t have to provide actual housing.


4. Corinne Gray
Acting co-lead UNHCR Innovation

Corinne Gray WDCD credits TrendNomad

– We have more refugees, less money, political will is very hard to change. We realised that we needed to find better solutions to the program that we are doing.

As a unit we are not trying to create any solutions [by ourselves – ed.]. We think that the solutions already exist outside of our sector, so our role is about [finding – ed.] collaborative partnership connections.

We look for private sector solutions, solutions coming from other NGOs, academic institutions, and then we try to bring as many different actors together [as we can – ed.] to find the best possible solution for the best possible context. It is important to understand that not every refugee context is identical. In choosing solutions we look very much at what is appropriate for that specific context.


5. Petra Stienen
Arabist, publicist, independent advisor

Petra Stienen WDCD credits TrendNomad

– Humanity is about being able to be an owner of your own life at whatever circumstances you live. Being in the camp, being at a shanty tent [people need – ed.] to be able to design their own future, to have a hope for a better future.

I think that all of us [in The Netherlands – ed.] live in the cities or villages where refugees have arrived. As an individual, you can do much more thank one thing.

Look around you, maybe there are talented people from Syria, or maybe from other countries, that are designers, artists or singers. Give them a stage, give them an opportunity to develop their arts and creativity.

If you are in doubt or if you do not know what to do, there are many organisations [that may help – ed.]. Don’t hesitate to write me an email at, I’ll be happy to connect you to people I know, who are looking for networks. They can work with [refugees – ed.] to design their future in The Netherlands.

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