Co-design & making: Paving the Roads to Social Inclusion

By Thami Schweichler, Director & Maker, Makers Unite

Co-creativity has the power to bridge gaps in times of adversity. While opinions in a polarized society grow more and more apart, every moment of crisis is an opportunity for success.

In the past decades we have seen the growth of design to be used as a means to enable social inclusion. Inclusive design methods, such as Human Centered Design and Design Thinking have allowed communities and organizations to broaden the impact of sensible solutions for social innovation. Nowadays design terminologies and processes are applied in different contexts, from neighborhood markets to business development in large corporations. But what is the thing with design that makes it so powerful?

Shifting perspective: From design for people to design with people

One of the greatest lessons that design has taught us lately is the need for interaction with every stakeholder in a given situation. To understand the complexity of a certain issue, we must change our perspective from a top-down to an inclusive one, and start by listening instead of having something to say first.  This approach has deepened the ability of designers to understand problems by seeing how they are perceived by those who are really affected by them. If we are talking about a physically-manufactured product, for instance, a multidisciplinary design practice is going to seek input from the engineers and the producers to the complete other side of the supply chain; talking with business shop owners and, ultimately – but not last, the end-users.

It is often the case that there is usually not a ‘single problem’ but actually a context that needs to be solved. Being able to listen to every participant in a certain situation allow us to understand that there is not always a single solution for a problem, but a combination of possibilities that can be explored.  We come to realize, for instance, that a ‘better product’ is not always the solution to a problem or question, but very often there is a contextual solution that is needed instead.  Making use of (yes) physical products, but in combination with service products can change what we are used to doing and can also shape the way we approach new situations.

Refugee crisis, urban migration and the real stakeholders of the situation.

Since 2014, more then 1.5 million migrants entered Europe in search of safety and a better opportunity in life. The situation has been highlighted by the social-economical downsides and its political mismanagement ever since. In the best of cases, the refugee crisis has labeled as ‘inhuman’. To address the situation, What Design Can Do, UNCHR and Ikea Foundation by The Refugee Challenge, was launched in 2016 and brought us the following question: What can design do to solve the refugee crisis?

Well, naturally there is very little we could think that designers could do when the global political community and the largest humanitarian organizations were not able to cope with the problem. But here comes the power of design that we were just referring to: the shift in perspective.

It was based on the collective input of participants of the situation that Makers Unite proposed a winning solution for the Refugee Challenge: “Let’s sit together, co-create and make our way towards a more inclusive society”.

Co-Creation/service design session, 2016

Co-creativity has the ability to bridge gaps in society

We started by bringing together mixed groups of newcomers and locals, discussing the situation while working with the material of life-vests recovered from Greek shores.  In the very first sessions, we were able to perceive the talent and creativity of the newcomers in the group.  We saw their willingness to collaborate, to work together towards solutions that would make sense for the situation. At the same time, the group of locals was able to perceive the strength and the talent of these newcomers, which was up to that point, not widely communicated to the broader society .

We understood in co-creation that the social inclusion of refugees in The Netherlands faces two key issues: 1) governmental systemic solutions are unable to listen to newcomers’ real ambitions, and 2) the general Dutch society is not aware of the positive aspects of migration.

Re-Vest Life Campaign During Kingsday in Amsterdam, 2016

Application to Makers Unite: Turning problems into opportunities.

Together with newcomers and locals, we developed a Makers Program where participants come together for the making of sustainable products. While making these products in collaboration, we get to know each other and find ways to identify real opportunities for the application of the talents of newcomers in society. After a six-week talent development process, by growing their confidence and soft-skills, creative newcomers are able to build high-quality resumes, portfolios and video-presentations. This allows them to connect to companies and organizations in the creative sector for the provision of professional opportunities, such as training, internships and jobs.

The products we make together still use the material of the life-vests recovered from Greek shores. We transform them into trendy laptop sleeves, iPhone cases and wallets that are commercialized to the public. When bringing these products to society we are able to transmit our message of positivity for a more inclusive community; highlighting the talent and the opportunity that is discovered because of the situation. At the same time, revenue from the products sold helps sustain the social business model of Makers Unite.

Photo: Nichon Glerum Makers Unite session with participants co-creating products
Laptop Sleeve of Makers Unite

Making is the center of the creative process.

After being awarded a winning project of the Refugee Challenge amongst 630 entries from 70 different countries, Makers Unite have passed through several phases of development and concluded a pilot program at the end of 2016. The program is now focused on providing opportunities to discover and use the talent of creative newcomers in The Netherlands and has been structured in partnership with the Dutch Association of Designers (BNO). We are also setting collaborations with the Dutch Crafts Council and projects for the Amsterdam Fashion Week. Our products have recently been acquired by the Stedelijk Museum and are now part of the exhibition Design Refugee: Solution or Utopia, running until September 3, 2017.

What we have learned so far by listening to every participant of the problem we wanted to tackle is that the complexity of the situation exists only from a top down perspective. That actually when closely getting to know people, newcomers and locals, we understand that social inclusion should be made much more simple that what is thought of. If everyone would be given the right to make use of its talents, we would certainly not be in the same situation. This is the base of our mission at Makers Unite. Making sure that each individual can be heard, understood, and given an opportunity to grow and move forward.

Ultimately we believe that the co-creative making process applied to newcomers in The Netherlands can be adapted to any social context where basic needs are provided. Today we are exploring the possibilities of developing Makers Unite programs in other countries in Europe and abroad. We understand therefore that design has not only the power to bridge gaps in society, but is already proving its potential to pave the road to social inclusion in one of the world’s most complex issues.

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