What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge receives over 600 entries from 69 countries

Which idea will win the Refugee Challenge? Public and experts vote for shortlist.

AMSTERDAM. More than 600 designers and creative thinkers have entered their concepts for the What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge. Eight teams made up of IKEA co-workers entered the challenge, for which the open call for idea submissions ended on 20 May. Some of the most innovative ideas were presented at IKEA’s Democratic Design Day event in Älmhult, Sweden, along with the release of the retailer’s Life at Home report.

‘The great participation confirms that designers and creatives want to use their skills to create better everyday lives for refugee children and families, says Jonathan Spampinato of IKEA Foundation.

Corinne Gray, Acting Co-Lead of UNHCR’s Innovation Unit, said: ‘The largest refugee crisis since World War II requires new approaches. More than ever we need designers, entrepreneurs, and anyone with a commitment to change to work together with us to create the most dignified existence possible for those who are forcibly displaced. 

What Design Can Do initiator, Richard van der Laken, is equally bolstered by the result: ‘This response demonstrates a huge commitment of designers to urgent societal issues. Indifference and cynicism is not applicable to these people. They show us what design can do,’ he said. Refugee Challenge leader Dagan Cohen added: ‘The fact that we have received submissions from 69 countries proves that the Challenge really resonated with creative thinkers all over the world. He expects that selecting 20 to 30 concepts for a shortlist (published on 20 June) will be a ‘tough job’.

The five best concepts will be announced on 1 July by Minister of Foreign Affairs Bert Koenders, during What Design Can Do Live in Amsterdam.

A LinkedIn network for refugees, access to knowledge and work, a photo agency for pictures taken by refugees and a coat that turns into a tent. These are just a few of the avalanche of ideas submitted to the What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge. Between now and 20 June, everybody can vote for one of the 600 entries. And the entry that receives most public votes will automatically make it onto the shortlist for the final round, to be announced on 21 June.


The UNCHR has set up a special innovation platform where experts can view and discuss the entries over the coming weeks. What Design Can Do has invited over thirty experts from various disciplines to provide feedback to participants, so that their definitive concepts are as strong as possible when the selection phase starts.

Among those who have submitted work to the Refugee Challenge are designers, artists, entrepreneurs, students and staff from NGOs in 69 countries, including Ghana, Pakistan, Brazil, Turkey, Switzerland, Greece and Lebanon. The countries with the biggest number of submissions are the Netherlands, USA, Sweden, Germany, and Spain. A high number of ideas have focused on improving integration between refugees and host communities.

20 million refugees

The challenge focuses on the search for concepts that improve the standard of living among refugees waiting in urban areas for asylum or temporary accommodation. According to the UNHCR, they make up 60 percent of the 20 million people who have fled their country.

From the shortlist, the five best concepts will be chosen by a jury that includes Marcus Engman, Head of Design for IKEA, expert in Arab issues Petra Stienen, and Sonia Ben Ali, founder of Urban Refugees. The five winners will be presented with their prize by Bert Koenders during the two-day What Design Can Do Live conference in Amsterdam on 30 June and 1 July. The winners then have another half a year to make their concept work.

UNHCR Innovation Platform


About ‘What Design Can Do’

What Design Can Do (WDCD) is an Amsterdam-based design platform that advocates the social impact of design. WDCD raises awareness among professionals and the public for the potential of creativity and calls on designers to take responsibility and consider how their work can benefit society. It does so by showcasing best practices, raising discussions and fostering collaboration. Since its launch in 2011, WDCD has hosted six successful international design conferences in Amsterdam and São Paulo. Learn more atwww.whatdesigncando.com

 About IKEA Foundation

The IKEA Foundation (Stichting IKEA Foundation) is the philanthropic arm of INGKA Foundation, the owner of the IKEA Group of companies. We aim to improve opportunities for children and youth in some of the world’s poorest communities by funding holistic, long-term programmes that can create substantial, lasting change. The IKEA Foundation works with strong strategic partners applying innovative approaches to achieve large-scale results in four fundamental areas of a child’s life: a place to call home; a healthy start in life; a quality education; and a sustainable family income. Learn more at www.ikeafoundation.org and www.facebook.com/IKEAfoundation

About UNHCR and UNHCR Innovation
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established on December 14, 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and wellbeing of refugees. It strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country.

UNHCR Innovation is a multi-departmental unit established within UNHCR to work collaboratively with refugees, academia, and the private sector to creatively address challenges faced by uprooted or stateless people worldwide. UNHCR Innovation aims to empower staff to work together with refugee communities to design innovative solutions to the challenges they face. For more information about UNHCR Innovation and its work visit:innovation.unhcr.org

IKEA Foundation & UNHCR Partnership

Since 2010, IKEA Foundation has partnered with UNHCR to help create better lives for thousands of refugee families and children in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In 2015, the UNHCR, IKEA Foundation and BetterShelter.org launched the so-called “flat-pack refugee shelter”, a safer, more durable emergency shelter for refugee families, which has received much attention for its innovative design. Learn more at www.ikeafoundation.org

Media contact

In collaboration with
What Design Can Do

Media contact

In collaboration with
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency