Design for displacement

By Mia Marie Tarp, Head of Strategic Design at The Index Project

According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than 84 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide in the first half of 2021 — due to conflict, violence or human rights violations. Within the 84 million, two big groups are identified as either refugees or internally displaced people.

Around two-thirds of refugees today who were displaced across international borders come from just five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar. Out of the 84 million, 50.9 million people are internally displaced worldwide, including people who’ve been displaced by internal strife and natural disasters. Additionally, there’s a growing number of Ukrainian refugees due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February.

Adding to that (I promise I’m going to end with the heavy numbers in a couple of sentences), the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report from 2022 projects that by 2030 around 250 (!) million people may experience high water stress in Africa, leading to 700 million people being displaced as a result of this. That’s 700 million people (from one continent only) against the 84 million individuals who are forcibly displaced today.

The question is no longer if the number of forcibly displaced people will keep growing but rather how fast.”

Natural disasters stemming from climate change, internal strife, conflicts and wars come with unpredictability, adding to the uncertainty of designing for it because the context will constantly change. But one certain thing is that all individuals are at risk of being forcibly displaced — if not by war or violent conflicts, but due to natural disasters. The question is no longer if the number of forcibly displaced people will keep growing but rather how fast.

So if we are to imagine a future where different cultures, communities and institutional structures will have to co-exist in new places and as many individuals as possible live safe and healthy lives in meaning- and purposeful contexts, then what solutions are needed?

This wicked problem will never be fully solved since there’s no inherent logic connected to it. But instead, we can ask: what are the challenges individuals face when being forcibly displaced from their homes? And knowing more about those challenges, can we design for a future where solutions are ready to be implemented faster and at a larger scale while also being easily accessible to as many people as possible?

Throughout the long history of The Index Award, we’ve seen a lot of future-proofing solutions addressing these challenges — both for the short- and long term.

“The daily challenges of individuals who’ve been forcibly displaced can often seem overwhelming, but no-brainers for people who are already part of the new culture.”

An example could be what3words, an Index Award winner from 2017, with a revolutionary addressing system that has divided the world into 57 trillion 3x3m squares and assigned each with three unique words. It offers a solution to several challenges where conventional street addressing fails or does not exist (which is often the case in rural areas). what3words can provide people without a permanent address an accurate location they can easily share with their loved ones while fleeing from one location to another.

Another solution on how civilians could offer their help (and time) could be the technology behind the app Be My Eyes, which is an app that connects people with visual impairments to sighted people who can then lend their eyes to the blind in times of need. And yes, I know this solution is not the first thing that comes to mind when talking about displacement design but I can’t help but think that the concept of the app could, through a couple of iterations, be a valuable way for civilians to offer their assistance to newcomers to a new community.

The daily challenges of individuals who’ve been forcibly displaced can often seem overwhelming, but no-brainers for people who are already part of the new culture. So even though this concept was intended to help people with visual impairment, it could also work as a tool for helping forcibly displaced people envision a new future in a country far away!

I’m curious to hear more about the challenges The Index Community experience when it comes to forced displacement and how you experience it within your local communities and context. FYI, our Community Manager Ditte is currently spotting urgent challenges worldwide, so you are more than welcome to share them with us here).

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