The refugee experience is indefinable; there are too many diverse experiences. The future for refugees is unknowable (at least, given our current geopolitical conditions). If the unknown is the constant variable in refugee camps then how do we design camps to go beyond meeting minimum standards that essential needs?
By designing the starting conditions for emergence, we do not need to predefine the refugee experience or refugee essential needs; instead, we are able to set up our solution so that meaningful activities to meet essential needs for each refugee emerge independently.
As a response to increase permanence, we proposed Placeholder: an iterative tool to facilitate activities that build communities and trust, and furthermore, a tool to create understanding and purpose. On the surface it looks like a truck with tools and instruments inside. However, the value of this proposition really comes to life when people start interacting with it. The truck itself does not solve the problem. Instead, it sets the starting conditions through which activities emerge in a complex system.
Tools for functional purposes: First and foremost, Placeholder offers refugees an array of tools and instruments to use as they wish. Moving beyond the minimum standards of food and shelter, Placeholder recognizes that in order to for refugee dignity to be restored, refugees must be able to live meaningful lives. Using these tools can help instill a sense of purpose in otherwise uncertain and temporary conditions.
Communities formed around tools: As people begin to use the different tools, communities start to form around the various tools. These are communities of purpose; they form around a central purpose or activity in an organic and emergent way.
Decision Making: Participatory governance and emergent change are central to Placeholder’s philosophy. As a result, Placeholder changes with the needs and desires of the communities it serves. When new tools need to be added to the truck, or when decisions need to be made regarding Placeholder’s current and future existence, the refugees who form Placeholder’s membership come together to vote on the outcomes.
Participatory governance: Finally, Placeholder exists to build skills in practical, applicable, experiential ways. In moving towards the second phase, and each phase after that, Placeholder members identify the ways in which the truck needs to change and adapt to fit their needs. As they begin to outline the resources that Placeholder needs, the original Placeholder team begins to help refugee members visualize the wider system of resources and partners that members must connect with in order to gain access to the resources they need.
The iterative approach to providing for refugee essential needs requires that it be receptive to feedback and user data. In order to build trust, Placeholder needs to be as much about listening as it is about acting.
In our research and in conversations with refugee camp volunteers, we learned that UNHCR and most NGOs have a very hard time collecting data and information about refugees. The power dynamics between refugees and camp organizations has left refugees distrustful of UNHCR and NGO representatives.
Listening is one part of an iterative process. Each iteration consists of four quadrants of action. The first quadrant, “Respond,” is where activities take place, where certain activities are suggested, and where space is left for emergent activities.
The second quadrant, “Listen,” takes place simultaneously alongside the first quadrant. As activities emerge, Placeholder staff observe and investigate shortcomings.
The third and the fourth quadrants, “Commit,” and “Prepare,” represent the stages where Placeholder staff take the necessary steps to acquire the newly voted tools.