Calling Europe’s innovators: help refugees settle in

Social innovation is all about bringing new ideas to bear on complex social challenges. Bright ideas are in especially need in the refugee crisis – what some are calling the biggest social challenge of a generation.

Nesta is leading a consortium of partners precisely to bring in some new ideas in this space. Funded by DG Growth, the European Social Innovation Competition was launched on the 25th February to find social innovations to support the integration of migrants and refugees.

New ideas are vital across many areas:

  • What classroom tools could help newly arrived children catch up instead of getting shuffled into remedial classes?
  • How can we enlist communities in housing refugees and giving them a warm welcome?
  • How can we quickly get new arrivals into jobs they were trained for – even if they don’t have the exact qualifications or language fluency?

The scale and urgency of the refugee crisis makes it difficult to think beyond getting people safe and sheltered. But with politicians preoccupied with geopolitical manoeuvring, there’s an opportunity for Europe’s social entrepreneurs and innovators to apply their collective brains to what happens next : integration.

Three areas ripe for innovation

Here are three areas that need more innovation:

1. Education and Skills Development

Newly arrived children often get shuffled into remedial classes and fall behind. Could innovative uses of digital technologies – such as flipped learning or real time captioning software like Ai-Media help language learners keep up? How might digital making inspire children to collaborate across cultural and language barriers? It’s time to apply what we know about the best innovations in education to supporting newly arrived children.

But adults need education and training too. There are some exciting new programmes to help refugees gain in-demand skills quickly, such multilingual coding schools like Refugees on Rails or ReDI School of Digital Integration. But we need to help these spread and scale.

2. Employment and Entrepreneurship

“Brain waste” – where people can’t do the jobs they have trained for – is common among newly arrived immigrants. Sometimes people can’t get their qualifications recognised (this is especially common in middle-skilled work, or where countries have different systems). Others have lost paperwork in transit. Could what Beth Noveck calls “technologies of expertise” - such as microcredentialing and badges or LinkedIn recommendations - offer ways round this?

Another challenge is helping people find work quickly, especially if they lack basic language and literacy. There are a number of promising initiatives, such as Magdas Hotel (which employs refugees) or Mazi Mas (which employs migrant women as cooks). Could 'gig economy' tools like Task Rabbit and Slivers of Time give people swift access to a source of income, even while they are plugging gaps in their existing skills?

Setting up a business is another way to bridge this gap, but also one fraught with difficulty. Another untapped area is peer-to-peer lending and crowdfunding – could these help newcomers, who usually lack the credit history for traditional loans, fund start-ups?

3. Access to Housing and Health

The last year has seen a whirlwind of new tech tools to mitigate the immediate effects of the crisis. [1] These include apps to help access local services, such as tools to reunite with family members like Trace the Face, or smart ways to expand migrants’ access to wi-fi, such as MeshPoint.

Some of the most promising ideas provide refugees with housing in families – allowing them to meet their basic need for shelter while learning about local communities firsthand. Refugees Welcome, dubbed “Airbnb for refugees” has received a huge amount of coverage. But it’s still only matched 566 refugees to shared homes. Could existing networks to match older people with spare housing capacity with people in need of housing, such as Homeshare, be tapped to help communities support newly arrived refugees?

Other promising ideas include tools for identifying and navigating services, such as Welcome to Dresden (which gives people advice on health insurance and registering with local authorities).

Assistive and inclusive tech, such as sign language apps to help deaf people access services, could also be adapted for migrants.

Submit your idea

Nesta is working with the European Commission and a consortium of partners on the European Social Innovation Competition, which this year is seeking new and creative approaches to refugee integration. The three best entries will get €50,000 to develop their ideas into projects that achieve lasting change. Applications to the Competition are only open until Friday 8 April at 12:00 noon Central European Time.

Without better ideas, the ramifications – from social rifts to wasted talent - could outlast the crisis. It’s time for Europe’s social innovators to step up.

Follow Meghan on twitter @meghan_benton

[1] The Techfugees movement, set up by Techcrunch Editor at Large Mike Butcher, is helping support and organise these efforts – for instance through hackathons (the next two are in Paris and Melbourne), webinars, and digital platforms.

Listings image credit: 'Young Women Learn Computer Skills' - World Bank Photo Collection. Licence: Creative Commons. Attribution: NonCommercial 2.0 Generic


Meghan Benton

Meghan Benton

Meghan Benton

Senior Researcher

Meghan was a senior researcher in the Government Innovation team in Policy and Research. Her work focused on digital democracy, the future of local government, and innovations in refug…

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