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2 August 2022

Identifying Humanitarian Design-opportunities


by Georg-Christof Bertsch

Text by Georg-Christof Bertsch and Thomas Jäger
This text was developed in a continuous discussion with the core-team of Leading across cultures VII: Lea Bernhard, Morgana Hohenstein, Julia Christian Schütze


We are dealing with the Katsikas refugee camp which has a simple but dramatic problem with washing machines that do not work. The inmates of the camp, women, children, men are suffering. Mimi Hapig of, who works at the camp, served as a bridge to the people in the camp, whom we could not interact with. Humanitarian Designers gave us incredibly valuable insights into the methodology of Humanitarian Design. The project was a live-experiment on how you can help to design without the people concerned. A common wisdom in social design is, that we do design with people instead of for people. Here in this utterly restricted project we could not even get access to the people we wished to work with because they were caught in the refugee camp. That's how we came up with a massive number of opportunities instead of "solutions". Opportunities give people in such a situation the chance to choose under their specific living conditions.

Katsikas should be a headache for all of us

The location has a particularly high degree of complexity because it is practically inaccessible from the outside. We were dealing with the Katsikas refugee camp on the municipal land of the municipality of Katsikas (Greek: Κατσικάς), which is the largest village of bo- rough of Pamvotida, in the Ioannina regional, Epirus, northern Greece. This area is among the poorest in Greece, with a BIP far below the Greek average per capita income. GDP/per capita in Greece $17,600 (Germany: $42,900, numbers from 2021). Greece is a member state of the European Union, whose maritime borders are shielded by the European Boun- dary Force Frontex.

Mimi Hapig of

As a quick impression here are the issues that were identified by our local project partner Mimi Hapig as particularly critical and were included in the briefing to the IPPO team: Machines: Washing machines exist but are operated by the staff of the SMS (site management support). Drying and Smell: The is not access to machines to dry the clothes. It takes days for clothes to dry on the air. Clothes smell bad Access: When many people live in the camp, every family has access to the machine only once a week. Reliability: Staff doesnʼt care about peopleʼs clothes the same way they do? Often they are late for shift. No soap available: People have to invest in their own soap. Without money this is almost impossible? Too public: Women in the camp will not hand their underwear over to other people. Strong cultural and religious reasons. Hygiene : The machines donʼt work properly. Hundreds of people hand in their dirty laundry. The clothes donʼt come out clean. Re-washing & time: Re-washing by hand. This process takes a lot of time. Health: People get rashes and skin problems.
In this list and in the systems map the high complexity of the seemingly simple question of laundry-management becomes clear, because here are not only technical questions about the functioning of the machines, but questions of the process-management, the practice of washing, the religiously conditioned shame, the interaction of service personnel us inmates included. The technical questions alone include topics like fresh-water-supply, grey water / sewage system, grey water recycling, power-supply. What materials are available? Are there chemicals we can use in order to produce soap? Is there empty space, like for hanging and drying clothes? Are there free rooms, that could be made to be a washery? Are there bags or stuff to carry more laundry? Then there are administrative processes with questions like: What can we order from outside? Through which paper-work? What can be build if we can build anything at all?

The Katsikas dilemma as a Humanitarian DESIGN project

Since the project is a design project, the question of the specific work-practice of design teams is relevant here. We work according to the IPPO principles for working in design teams Design teams can and should be multidisciplinary in humanitarian contexts. In this specific case, we are working with professional graphic designer Sofie Böhm. The other team members on the IPPO side have a consistent industrial design perspective, as students of industrial design, as graduate product designers. In accordance with IPPO principles, the rule must always be followed that design discussions are conducted by everyone, but the decision is made by the person who is most competent in the opinion of the team, not by office and diploma.

Humanitarian Design project are typically run by groups of several institutions and organisations. This makes open communication and open source work mandatory

A typical characteristic of humanitarian design projects is a large number of parties involved. This was also the case in our project. In order to get going you need a lot of input, on-site-knowledge, curiosity, different viewpoint. A further characteristic is, that the same individuals act in different roles a representatives of different organisations in the same project. In our case these were:


Why “Opportunities” instead of “solutions for”?

If we go back to the questions or “problems” we encountered we had to accept the fact that we could not directly interact with Mimi Hapig and the people in the camp. The solution here was to create vast number of opportunities instead of “solutions”. Opportunities in a humanitarian project are, according to us, the options that people in situ can choose and further adapt to their local conditions. Which means that we can only give orientation which could contribute more that a so called “solution”, which might not fit into the local context. A Some of the following opportunities might seem banal, others too complex. But: Out task here is not to decide from outside what might fit best. Our task and responsibility lies in the provision of a big number of ideas that can be discussed in different contexts, which could be developed further here or in situ. This also helps NGOs in situ to counter questions such as: “What do you really want, make a proposal!” A question like that might come benevolently or malevolently from regional governments, NGOs or others.

Different stages of a humanitarian project:
a) Emergency aid, b) Rehabilitation, c) Development cooperation

Looking at complex processes like this one it is relevant to differentiate between the three stages of a humanitarian project. a) Emergency aid, b) Rehabilitation, c) Development cooperation. Humanitarian designers must always be aware in which phase they find themselves involved. Each stage implies its own specific restrictions, co-operations with governmental and non-governmental organizations. Time, funding, and social interaction vary enormously, as does media attention. You will find the attribution to these three phases in the systems map. Emergency aid is always dependent on courage, fast decisions, in-situ medical supply, fast command chains. It is virtually a life-or-death scenario, which implies specific training from the point of view of humanitarian design. Rehabilitation deals with a deeper involvement of local communities, cultural codings are getting more important. Negotiation about funding, politics, site-management come into the play, while Development cooperation involves political negotiation, long-term perspectives, scenario techniques and the likes. It is evident that not every humanitarian designer is equally equipped to deal with every of these three stages. Team-set-ups and resource-management must take into account that teams must be assessed according to their qualifications ex- periences and their will and physical constitution to serve in one of these phases. Cultural obstacles, as describes in this text, must also be taken very serious, as they could make activities hard to unfold, if not impossible.

Humanitarian Paradigms

The specificity of this task requires a basis in a clear definition of the humanitarian aspects. We follow the definition for humanitarian types and styles, given the fact that humanitarian design does always deal with people in crisis situations. This concept of innovation is a conglomerate of technologies, work processes, new partnerships and new ideas on how to deal with crises.
Humanitarian design definition: “Humanitarian design is a term that can be used to describe the process of designing products, services, or systems for populations affected by natural and/ or human-made disasters.” // Innovation types: "product innovation ...

... is the development of new products for the sector // position innovation

... is the adaptation of products and services into other contexts // process innovation

... is the design of processes based on services, products or a combination of both. // paradigm innovation

... is the design of the sector-internal Context Perception.”
Innovation styles; who and how?: “ // open innovation ... is the development of new products for the sector // indigenous innovation ... is the adaptation of products and services into other contexts // reverse innovation ... is the design of processes based on services, products or a combination of both. // user innovation ... is the design of the sector- internal.” // the need for innovation in humanitarian settings: increasing efficiency and cost reduction meeting the needs of the affected population sustainability.

Frustration not to be able to interact directly as a common factor

In the groupʼs introspection, the most exciting moment is probably the realization that we cannot work with classical design methods, but rather with qualitative questions, i.e. that under these conditions we cannot go beyond the level of design research. This self-reflection would be worth a separate text, but can only be mentioned here.

Principle of equal rights for all participants in an IPPO-project

The basic premise of IPPO projects, namely the equality of teachers and learners under the motto students can be teachers, teachers can be students, was exemplified in this project. On the one hand, the professor was confronted with a new subject area in the project, which he could theoretically derive from reading the social design literature and into which he could bring experience and methodology from his projects on design and water. On the other hand, the experience and knowledge of the students meant that numerous subject areas were competently represented that were relevant here.
Moreover, besides the professor, two of the team members on the IPPO side, Madita and Thomas had extensive experience in humanitarian design, in working with NGOs and in social design. Finally, the Humanitarian Designers and the other guests brought extensive knowledge from their own projects and contexts. Thus, the lectures, which were held in a principally hybrid way, were a source of immense factual and methodological knowledge for everyone. This functioned in an exemplary manner.

This text is a short version of a pdf with lots of insights, diagrams, maps and docucumentation which you can download under this link:

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