March 28, 2023

Service Design for refugee-led innovation

Innovation has long existed, before it ever became a formalised process; adopted and evolved by designers, engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs through academia and industry practice.

Innovation has long existed, before it ever became a formalised process; adopted and evolved by designers, engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs through academia and industry practice.

While process can help drive successful innovation, it is need, passion, and drive that give rise to new and innovative ideas. Therefore, when we think of innovation and innovators we must not limit it to those who simply follow a process; while innovation processes can be taught and transferred, passion and drive are unique to one’s own experience.

We had the chance to partner with a global organisation to create a holistic support system for innovators who live under extremely challenging circumstances and are not familiar with industry known innovation processes and best practices: refugees. This article follows our story of researching and designing interventions for innovation within the Forcibly Displaced People’s context.

An exciting brief

Finding and winning this piece of work with a global humanitarian NGO was a result of us, as a team following our passions for design innovation for social impact. We had worked hard to find the right opportunity to extend our work to the humanitarian sector.

The brief was to help redesign an innovation fund system which funds projects that improve refugees’ lives in camps and urban areas around the world. Whilst this innovation fund had been running for 2 years already and many lessons were learned, the shape of a more successful fund was yet to be found. In the duration of the 2 previous fun rounds, the fund was designed around (too) busy employees leading projects with local refugee teams. The fund was also managed with limited resources and the success metrics for projects and the fund as a whole were not clarified. The new design system would not only respond to these issues, but reimagine the service from vision to execution.

Responding to a complex service design challenge

During an intense, 2-month period of collaborative work, we got to co-design a new innovation funding service offered by our client. The principles behind this service are:

  • offering a hybrid and distributed support system for refugees leading innovation projects
  • utilising existing expertise and networks within the organisation and its local and global networks, including from people who’ve had experience securing funding before
  • responding to the different needs of project teams formulating and executing an innovative project in a wide variety of contexts
  • supporting all stages from idea generation and community engagement to execution and long term sustainability

The outcomes were detailed in a service blueprint that could be used to explain the service and align multiple audiences. For more rapid communication, we also created design scenarios and diagrams that illustrated the most important interactions with the service.

Innovation System Map

We also provided a process to pilot the new service, explaining the value of testing it “on the ground”, learning from the experience, and adapting before a full-scale launch. Instead of launching a full-on funding round with a large number of projects, the pilot would focus on a few varied projects, which represent a sample of different contexts.

5 personal and professional learnings

As much as we’re proud of the outcomes of the project, what was even more exciting for us was the learnings from tackling a complex project with highly dynamic components.

Here are our top learnings, some of which we’ll also explore in more detail in subsequent blog posts:

  1. It can be a natural outcome of research that the focus of a project is shifted, whether this is a client decision or a researcher’s. When this happens, a new approach has to be adopted, and further research may be needed to get us over the line. Do not rush this new phase of research, take your time to set a research plan that will allow you to do it in a meaningful way, so it doesn’t become a check-box exercise. In addition, you will find that the research that led you to the pivot will still provide you with some answers when creating an intervention that touches on all components of a system. All the hard work forms a golden circle in the end.
  2. Engagement with vulnerable groups comes with a specific list of considerations that researchers don’t often encounter. Make sure you’re aware of all the sensitive areas and ethically question your research methods. As design researchers, we have the responsibility of questioning our work to put our best foot forward, and to truly empathise with the people we engage with. Good intention alone is not enough, critical practice can be employed by asking the right set of questions.
  3. As designers, we have a responsibility to seek projects where we believe we can make an impact beyond mainstream commercial design projects. We have a skillset that can be applied to various contexts, and we have the responsibility in applying those skills towards imagining better systems for all. Design innovation and social design methods when implemented in the humanitarian sector can bring real change to the way things are done right now. Bottom-up strategies are often spoken of, but are not always truly implemented on the ground. This is where designers’ evolving role is needed: to create a continuity in engagement and to translate this into meaningful and thought-through interventions. Projects in such sectors may appear to be less profitable in the short term, but the long term benefit of such interventions on society ultimately touches everyone’s lives.
  4. When working in a small team of designers, ensure that you have skills or ways of thinking which compliment each other. As a team of two design researchers, we constantly questioned and built upon each other’s work and ideas. We also had a daily clear division of tasks. Additionally, when the team is small, activities may take longer, and this should be considered in the project plan, to avoid overworking and the risks that come with that to the team and the project itself. If having daily support from a project manager isn’t feasible, then their advice in critical stages of the project is crucial.
  5. With every project, we learn something new, not only about ourselves, but also the world around us. The lessons we learn will not only impact our practice, but the way we see and interact with the world around us. Choose projects that will enrich your experience as a designer, but also as a human.

The team that made it happen

Our enthusiasm for this piece of work comes from our backgrounds and lived experiences as people as well as designers.

I’m Yara AlHusaini, a Senior Experience Designer at Reason and have previously worked on social design innovation projects with Syrian refugees. During my Master’s studies at the Glasgow School of Art I worked with the ‘New Scots’ refugee integration programme led by the Moray Council in the Scottish Highlands. The project aimed to find better means for refugee integration with the local community, through a volunteering matching service. I am also originally Palestinian and have seen how being a refugee defines every aspect of one’s life.

My colleague Stefania Parousi who led on this project, is a passionate experience designer who found herself volunteering in Lesvos, at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, where 1.3 million Syrians sought asylum in Europe. As a Greek national she felt that Europe and Greece had failed in responding to the situation and protecting those who were in dire need of help as forcibly displaced people. After this experience, she wanted to explore how design can improve services in the humanitarian world, specifically emergency response, which she started doing in her Master’s thesis project.