Community-led Innovation with UNHCR Portugal, the UN Refugee Agency

Ines Ramalhao
Written by
Inês Ramalhão
Service Designer
Feb 08, 2023 . 4 mins read
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If you have been following us for some time, you probably know that we preach how design is a powerful method to improve people’s lives. And we actively stand for it! 

Nonetheless, as designers, we do not see ourselves as the people who hold the answers but as the ones who foster and facilitate the process to reach them. If we reflect on our reality, it becomes clear that we, as a society, have failed to address issues of minorities and the underprivileged. 

There is a gap in improving the lives of people of different ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, socioeconomic statuses, etc. When it comes to these so-called ‘wicked problems’ on a social level, the key to delivering accurate and meaningful impact should come from these communities in vulnerable situations with multiple unaddressed needs. This is called Community-led Innovation – a process that prioritises and values the concept of innovation driven by the community’s perspective.

Design’s role in community-led innovation 

The challenge this method faces is that empathy has its limitations. Even if we want to roam away from our biases, it is impossible to do so, as they unconsciously structure our thoughts and decisions. Can we, as designers, really put ourselves into these communities’ shoes? Let’s take it further – should we even try putting ourselves in these communities’ shoes? Our biases as outsiders, standing far from their experiences, might guide us to solutions that do not address their real problems truthfully. This can lead to creating work that feels paternalistic or patronising and perpetuates systemic disparities. Shouldn’t these people be re-centred and protagonists of their own story and development? 

Designers, leaders and governments should acknowledge our responsibility and standpoint in society, using it to promote more equitable outcomes for others: supporting these communities in making these issues visible and guiding them through the innovation process.

But most importantly, to provide support in implementing the community-owned initiatives from our privileged standpoint.

The communities know their pains and needs better than anyone, so they are more likely to build culturally and contextually appropriate innovative solutions. 

Bearing this in mind, this is how we approached our pro-bono project with the Portuguese branch of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, a global organisation that protects refugees, forcibly displaced communities, and stateless people. 

Promoting innovative initiatives for refugee-led organisations through community co-creation 

When it comes to the case of refugees, a series of hardships and segregation are faced when seeking a place to rebuild their lives. Many refugees face extreme vulnerability, from communication barriers and cultural differences to discrimination and unstable financial situations. 

Koos and UNHCR Portugal joined hands for a great challenge – to support seven refugee-led organisations based in Portugal, coming from different parts of the world, to develop innovative initiatives and apply for UNHCR’s global Refugee-Led Innovation Fund. These projects should focus on new interventions to positively impact their communities. Thus, our approach consisted of a design masterclass followed by individual mentoring sessions, in which refugees could come into contact with the design process, the design tools we use, and how they could take advantage of this method to achieve meaningful and impactful solutions. As for us, we stayed in the “shadow”, letting the refugees own the process and the ideas. At the end of this process, teams became more conscious of the importance of contextual research, correctly stating their problems and target audiences, for only then trying to come up with innovative solutions. With that, submissions would become more grounded and increase their chances of going further in the investment process. 

In fact, one of the coached projects has now won the tender and has been awarded investment funds, which has the potential to impact hundreds of lives and the integration of refugees in Portugal.

We often associate innovation with technology breakthroughs and startups. Still, several opportunities exist in a much more local context, and these innovations may have a much higher impact on people with urgent problems. 

Throughout this process, we had the privilege to learn about and understand the impact many of these organisations already have on their communities. We learned about impressive projects focusing on Ukrainian refugees and their families when seeking peace abroad, helping Afghan refugees establish themselves in Portugal, and providing support for refugees to integrate themselves and understand foreign laws, languages and cultures. 

Often, people see the design process as held exclusively by designers, but does it have to be? We should place the people at the centre of decisions that affect their lives, empowering them to identify their own needs and design solutions that will positively impact them—bringing them along in the design walk and letting them lead the way.

At Koos, we continuously develop our tools and methods to serve our clients’ needs best. Want to know more? Get in touch!

Ines Ramalhao
Written by
Inês Ramalhão
Service Designer
Feb 08, 2023 . 4 mins read
Share this article