The Asylum Crisis: encouraging refugees to co-create innovations related to their future

Unleashing the creative power of asylum-seekers and involving them in decision-making processes related to their delicate situation

The world is facing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced by the end of 2014, with 38.2 million displaced within their countries, 19.5 million refugees and 1.8 million asylum-seekers — in other words, one in 122 people in the globe was displaced by war, persecution or violence by then.

Stifled by the influx of millions of migrants, countries, mostly in Europe and the Middle East, are struggling to cope with the situation. The problem is relatively mitigated by the amazing work of non-profit and charitable organizations. They provide social and psychological support to refugees, attempting to fill gaps not covered by national governments.

Unfortunately, refugees and asylum-seekers often fail to integrate with local communities. As a result, they face difficulties in bonding with locals and vice-versa due to cultural, religious and social differences. And institutions (governmental or not) rarely provide mechanisms were those individuals can suggest implementations of policies and activities that can address their condition.

An academic, but hands-on activity

A study conducted by the Global Education Project of the Keio University Graduate School of Media Design (KMD) investigated how service design sprints could unleash the creative potential of refugees and asylum-seekers.

From September 2015 to April 2016, the researcher conducted, in Brazil and Germany, seven workshops with 64 individuals, mainly Syrians (49). The research counted with the support of two NGOs that primarily assist refugees and asylum-seekers: Adus (in São Paulo), and Gemeindediakonie Lübeck (in Lübeck). Such organizations helped to recruit participants and provided rooms and materials to conduct the activities.

An attractive theme for the participants

Technology was the central theme of all workshops conducted. They proposed the creation of an online platform or software that could help refugees to meet locals in their host country, and the participants were encouraged to suggest ideas of functions the solution should have.

Social networks and applications are essential tools in refugees and asylum-seeker journeys: to share information on Whatsapp and Facebook groups; to find Mecca (the holiest site in Islam’s religion) with the digital compass and pray facing it; to locate themselves with the GPS and to translate information.

The ideas collected over the course of all workshops were used to develop a smartphone application that can connect refugees with residents of a host country. The project is still under development, searching for sponsors.

Applying service design sprints in a social context

The seven workshops showed that such activities are capable of channeling the refugees and asylum-seekers’ life experiences to generate relevant solutions. The research also pointed to the possibility of considering the further application of service design sprints in a social context.

“The activities showed us that we can bring solutions by connecting our ideas with organizations.”

Kamal, Syrian refugee in São Paulo


  • Although inserted in a very complex social context, refugees fully assisted with basic needs like shelter, healthcare, study or work are capable of generating fruitful ideas.
  • Refugees want to be heard and are interested in participating in decision-making processes related to their future. And sprints can be used to bridge the communication between them and organizations (governmental or not).
  • Such creative activities can also make them feel more included. Cultural differences are a challenge, but they can be addressed with the participation of translators and NGO members.