The statistics are clear. According to an internal UNHCR report, “The average time refugees spend in camps is 17 years.” Let that number sink in a bit……Globally, millions of displaced people are waiting in these camps until they can either return home, be integrated into a host country, or ultimately be resettled.
In the case of refugees displaced due to regional conflicts, there is often no foreseeable end to decade long wars. And as richer nations turn their backs on these refugees, the world’s refugee population find themselves in a waiting pattern where temporary can seem permanent.
Lest we forget about people who are displaced from changing climate. Entire communities are suffering from the result of natural disasters and the consequences of climate change, destroying their communities and forcing them to leave their homes in search of new beginnings. In a most recent example, the unprecedented destruction caused by Hurricane Dorian, has left an estimated 14,000 people displaced in Grand Bahama and Abaco islands of the Bahamas. Between 2017-2018, California’s wildfires destroyed over 24,000 homes. What’s immediately glaring is the number of growing displaced persons is increasing faster than the world can respond.
British architect, Ian Davis, examines contemporary and historic experiences with providing shelter in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters in his 1976 book, Shelter After Disaster. Relief is crucial, but in the longer term, as Davis describes it, relief can be the enemy of reconstruction. The more resources that are poured into temporary arrangements, the less that are available for reconstruction.
Problems with temporary camps and fabrications
When people stay for so long, the bareness of camps, their lack of services, sanitation, and their segregation from the surrounding society become chronic problems. These transitory spaces have varying quality, efficiency and environmental conditions and present many challenges to residents and host countries. Camps have been known to present hazards to health through the transmission of disease and illnesses like Cholera. Issues around income, security, justice, as well as mental health, remain a constant factor in the daily lives of the displaced population.
There are beacons of success, such as the Kilis in Turkey or Kakuma Camp in Kenya, with qualities like modern container housing, monthly stipends, and sustainable farming practices, that create a much higher quality of life.
But given that camps are unlikely to be truly temporary, why do developed nations continue to fund them rather than allocate resources to more permanent solutions? Why isn’t the current approach toward aid designed for longer term solutions, which if managed well — has proven to benefit local economies and urban environments?
While the issues stated above have been prevalent for decades, what modern tech solutions can be utilized to create meaningful impact? Non-profits like New Story, a startup founded in 2014, work on the problem of building housing quickly, and are pioneering solutions to combat access to adequate shelters.
New Story partnered with construction technology company ICON and together have developed a 3D printer designed to print homes where they’re needed most. This year they’ve built, improved and modified their Vulcan 1 (the first 3D printer designed to print homes), and with the Vulcan 2, plan to print the world’s first 3D printed community. A single home can be built in 24hrs. Sounds crazy, right? New Story operates on the motto “Crazy until it’s not”.
Using in-house built mobile surveying software, New Story gathers data from the field to help us learn about the individuals and communities they are serving. The software is designed to be simple but effective, and functions with or without internet connectivity.
Side note: I’d love to learn more about the engineering of software for field data collection, as these techniques could be interesting when thinking about cases for software use offline or in rural areas without connectivity. One such case for field data software is in building out and modernizing contract tracing for the spread of infectious diseases, as mentioned in my previous article.
In addition to pioneering these modern housing solutions, New Story plans to share their knowledge base with other nonprofit organizations and governments, so collectively shelters can be built faster, better, and stronger.
Every year the statistics of displaced persons are growing at a faster rate. According to New Story, “an estimated 3 billion people will be living without access to adequate shelter by 2050 — a 200% increase over three decades.” The current solutions address the refugee and displaced persons crisis as a temporary issue, when in reality families could live an extended period of their lives in a displaced state. Considering deploying aid resources toward more innovative and permanent infrastructure is a starting point — since we know that these temporary settlements are not actually temporary.