Metoder The UNHCR Workshop

UNHCR Innovation works with Design Thinking

The UNHCR Workshop


UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency): work to ensure that everybody has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge, having fled violence, persecution, war or disaster at home.

On May 20 Transformator Design are hosting a workshop together with UNHCR Innovation and UNHCR Northern Europe. In this post Corinne Gray, Innovation Engagement Officer at UNHCR Innovation, shares her thoughts regarding innovation, design methods and the design competition; What Design Can Do – The Refugee Challenge. 

Corinne Gray is a Fulbright Scholar from Trinidad and Tobago who now works at the forefront of the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) innovation initiatives. She is based at UNHCR’s Headquarters in Geneva, but travels to the field regularly, connecting with UNHCR employees working on innovations, and documenting those innovations to foster agency-wide knowledge-sharing of innovation methodologies in action. 

What is UNHCR Innovation and what do you do? 

– UNHCR Innovation is a recently established unit within UNHCR that works collaboratively with refugees, academia, and the private sector to creatively address challenges faced by displaced people worldwide. Whether it’s co-developing mobile tracking technology for distributing supplies with UPS, or applying IKEA’s flat-pack principles to designing shelter, UNHCR Innovation looks for more efficient, more sustainable ways to address refugees’ complex challenges. We believes that innovation already exists within UNHCR so our focus is on looking for innovations that already exist within the organization and amplifying and expanding them.

We also connect “innovative” colleagues to one another, to training opportunities, and to external resources for support. We also look for innovations that exist outside of UNHCR and think of ways we can adapt them to the refugee context. Our work is really about facilitating, capturing, and rewarding the innovation mindset within UNHCR, and the broader humanitarian community. Innovation for us is more than technology; it’s really about improving the way UNHCR works, and empowering refugees to become their own problem-solvers.

What methods are you working with? Have you tried service design? 

– We primarily use a “design thinking” approach which borrows from Human Centered Design methodology. We haven’t worked with service design. This year we are looking at fostering bottom up innovation among refugee communities. We are teaching them innovation tools and techniques in manufacturing their own appropriate technologies. This is in partnership with MIT D Lab, and we use their Creative Capacity Building approach.

We have a five-step process:

  • Define the challenge
  • Identify solutions (these might already exist within UNHCR)
  • Test solutions
  • Refine solutions
  • Scale solutions

The process is cyclical and even though a solution is found, we don’t consider it complete, as we seek to continually iterate.

Tell me about the design competition What Design Can Do and the refugee challenge? 

– By partnering with What Design Can Do and the IKEA Foundation to explore innovative ideas, UNHCR hopes to identify solutions that will make real impact within communities. The What Design Can Do Challenge is a global competition that calls on the creative community to come up with game-changing ideas for accommodating, connecting, integrating and helping the personal development of refugees, especially those living in urban areas. The Challenge was framed based on the feedback and needs of refugees and former refugees across Europe.

UNHCR particularly wants to incorporate their voices into the process – from defining the Challenge briefs to selecting the final solutions for prototyping; we believe this is essential for a successful solution. The top five finalists will not only receive a grant of up to 10,000 euros, but will also join an accelerator programme, which includes design labs in different European cities and master classes with renowned designers and humanitarian experts. This programme is designed to insure the winning ideas are developed into feasible and scalable solutions supported by prototypes and business plans. We have received nearly 150 ideas from all over the world to date, and we’re extremely hopeful that these ideas will make a real difference for refugee communities.

On May 20 Transformator Design will host a workshop focusing on the refugee challenge together UNHCR Innovation and UNHCR Northern Europe. Please follow the event on social media by using #RefugeeChallenge.

Corinne Gray, Innovation Engagement Officer at UNHCR Innovation
UNHCR Innovation – UNHCR’s unit primarily tasked with facilitating innovation throughout UNHCR worldwide
UNHCR Northern Europe – UNHCR’s regional representation for Northern Europe
UNHCR Sweden – UNHCR’s country representation for Sweden