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Using design to support the integration of refugee newcomers: a human-centred approach

Social Innovation Community is a Horizon 2020 Programme-funded project designed to strengthen, connect and grow existing social innovation communities across Europe. 

Omar Alshafai arrived in Berlin in 2015, after the Syrian conflict forced him to leave his life and work in Damascus. Like many encountering unfamiliar public systems, one of the first things he was struck by was how difficult it was to understand and navigate the labyrinthine German bureaucracy. It took two weeks of queueing just to receive the permit and state funding necessary to be able to stay in an apartment or hotel, and even longer to work out the local regulations and available services around long-term housing, healthcare and banking.

Through a coding and entrepreneurship training programme at Berlin’s ReDI school of digital integration, Omar met others who had experienced similar challenges. A small team subsequently started collaborating to build a web-based platform and mobile app designed to give practical guidance and support to newcomers relating to bureaucratic issues. In developing Bureaucrazy, Omar and his colleagues are drawing on the principles of human-centred design - broadly defined as a creative process which engages directly with the people being designed for, and which tests and iterates different approaches to end up with a solution tailored to their needs.

“If you want to find the solution to the problems of refugees, you have to talk to refugees, not talk about refugees.” - Omar Alshafai (Nesta/Migration Hub Network workshop participant, Berlin, 9 March 2017)

Design for policy

Human-centred design (HCD) is not a radically new approach. Few big corporations would roll out a new product without doing extensive market testing and taking the needs and interests of users into account in the R&D process. While these approaches are fairly new to the public sector, design for policy approaches are increasingly being adopted and explored in the context of government policymaking. For example, in 2014 the UK government set up Policy Lab as a creative space where teams from different government departments can develop the knowledge and skills to make policy in a more open, data-driven, digital and user-centred way.

As part of Nesta’s policy work programme for SIC, we have been championing a vision for social innovation policy that rests on the premise that many public policy issues have become too complex for governments to solve alone. We see the principles, methods and tools of social innovation presenting a great opportunity for policymakers and others to tackle policy challenges in new and potentially more effective ways. And have therefore presented HCD as a key principle of social innovation policy. To this end, we were in Berlin last month to organise a workshop in partnership with the Migration Hub Network on how human-centred design could be applied to the question of refugee integration.

Using social innovation to better support newcomers

The recent arrival of large numbers of refugees in Europe has captured the imagination of many social innovators. Over the past two years, new digital tools and resources have been developed to assist refugees along every stage of their journey. Competitions have also been run to generate solutions for problems that refugees are facing in settling into new communities (see for example the 2016 European Social Innovation Competition, which Nesta helped to design and deliver). However, comparatively little has been done to involve refugees directly in the co-design of policies and services that can empower them socially, economically and politically in destination countries over the longer term.

Our workshop was designed to explore this overarching question in a very hands-on way, bringing together researchers, policymakers, service providers, social innovators, and refugees to:

  • share and learn from others using social innovation for refugees
  • explore when and where human-centred design approaches could be used, and experiment directly with some HCD tools
  • look at practical ways of involving refugees in the design of policies and services
  • identify priorities for policy related to this topic.

What difference could a more human-centred approach make?

Over the course of the day, participants used a variety of interactive exercises and tools to start exploring some of the main benefits, challenges and opportunities that might result from taking a more human-centred design approach to the issue of refugee integration.

Chief among the benefits identified by participants was the potential to generate more and better quality data as a result of engaging directly with those who will be affected by new policies and services (including both newcomers and the communities that receive them). With its focus on prototyping and iteration, HCD also offers a process that allows for testing and proving concepts before jumping straight to implementation of a large-scale policy or programme. In turn, this can create more tailored solutions that respond to the real (rather than assumed) needs of users, and that have more legitimacy as a result.

However, participants also noted that policies or services designed in this way would not automatically have complete buy-in. Political and other factors mean that the needs and objectives of policymakers and service providers are not always aligned with those of newcomers and the social innovators that support them. Questions were raised about which ‘human’ should be at the centre of HCD and the difficulties of creating bespoke solutions for large and diverse groups of individuals and organisations. Human-centred design was also seen as being potentially time-consuming and resource intensive, requiring policymakers, service providers and others to work in new and unfamiliar ways.

Yet the key potentials associated with human-centred design - namely, the opportunities to widen participation in decisionmaking and policy design processes, and to build empathy and create a better understanding of the experiences, needs and assets of those who experience these policies - were seen as very strong reasons for encouraging greater use of these techniques within government.

Priorities for policy

We didn’t expect to come up with the solutions to all of these issues over the course of a single day. However, the workshop did surface some interesting ideas and priorities for those thinking about and being directly impacted by policy and service design relating to refugee integration.

  1. Policymakers should experiment more with simple and low-cost ways of using human-centred design approaches in the design of policies and services that support refugee integration. Although there is a perception that these techniques require specialist expertise or high levels of resource, our workshop demonstrated that there are easy ways to start testing out these approaches even just in one day and with very little in the way of equipment or tools. What is required is more of a mindset shift, so that human-centred policy design is the default rather than an exception to the rule.

  2. The assets and experiences of newcomers should be drawn on in a much more systematic way during the process of designing policies, services and platforms or products that support them. To date, the focus has been much more on responding to the needs of these individuals (which are often assumed rather than clearly identified through a process of interviews and direct engagement). However, the workshop discussion reinforced the fact that there is a wealth of experience, knowledge and skills that refugees and newcomers bring, which could be utilised much more extensively by policymakers and service providers than is currently the case.

  3. There should be sustained effort to build a community of social innovators, researchers, service providers, policymakers and individuals who understand and can advocate for the use of human-centred design. One of the top priorities for workshop participants was to share and learn from each other about how social innovation could be used to support the integration of refugees, and it was clear that deeper connections need to be built between innovators in this space. These networks should be active in facilitating the use of HCD in the design of policies, services and products that support refugees.

What we learned

In the spirit of human-centred design, we are keen to adapt and iterate the approach we took in this workshop to help policymakers and others apply these approaches to the different kinds of public challenges they encounter. It felt appropriate to be experimenting directly with HCD techniques with participants, although we recognise that we could have spent more time explicitly describing how they work and how the data they generate could be analysed. As an immediate follow up, we’ve created an open shared document to collect useful practical resources on human-centred design, and would welcome your contributions and links.

How can social innovation respond to these integration needs?

Involving newcomers as workshop participants was also essential - it helped us to challenge our own assumptions about what these individuals might need and could offer in order to settle more easily in destination countries. Interestingly, needs such as love, trust, friendship and an ability to share their own culture were described as being as important as ‘fundamental’ needs such as housing, language skills and training. The workshop would have benefited from having more of this kind of input, as well as greater representation from those with responsibility for designing policies and services around refugee integration.

As a next step, SIC will be running a series of social innovation policy masterclasses in a number of locations across Europe in the coming months. We are open to hearing from different local and city authorities that are interested in experimenting with new social innovation approaches to help tackle the public challenges they face. Please join in the wider conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #socinnpolicy to share your own experience applying HCD or other social innovation approaches to policy, or get in touch with us directly if you are interested in collaborating with us on a policy workshop.


Alex Glennie

Alex Glennie

Alex Glennie

Senior Policy Manager

Alex is a Senior Policy Manager in the Innovation Growth Lab (IGL).

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Sophie Reynolds

Sophie Reynolds

Sophie Reynolds

Former Senior Researcher - Public and Social Innovation

Sophie was a Senior Researcher in Nesta’s Policy and Research unit. She is now Director of Sophie Reynolds Research & Consultancy.

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