The permanence of refugee camps was never the intention. But in light of continued and growing refugee crises around the globe it has become a harsh reality. Frustrated with the status quo, a growing number of innovative thinkers argue that architecture and design are key in transforming camps into more meaningful and sustainable communities.

Amsterdam-based group What Design Can Do is an example of concerned citizens trying to build a bridge between fresh thinking from the outside and traditional aid structures.

The organization, founded six years ago, promotes the role of design as a source of untapped potential in finding new ways to approach the refugee crisis. “It was about what design can do beyond making things beautiful. Designers think in terms of solutions, and this could be sued for other things besides making something that was nice to look at,” explained spokesperson Bob Witman.

Describing the refugee crisis as “a challenge too big for governments and NGOs alone,” What Design Can Do came up with The Refugee Challenge, an invitation to designers, architects and thinkers to come up with creative solutions. In July, five finalists were selected, all of whom will receive financial and advisory support. Projects include Agrishelter, a temporary and ecological shelter that can be quickly built and integrated into urban spaces; Welcome Card, a streamlined identification card and pass for refugee seekers designed to give quick access to essential information; Eat & Meet, which transforms renovated city buses into food trucks run by refugees; Makers Unite, a project envisioned to unite makers and creative thinkers across refugee and local communities; and Reframe Refugees, a photo agency run by refugees.

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