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The same creative and innovative thinking used to design skyscrapers can also deliver solutions at the microscale. In refugee camps for instance.

Cox Architecture designer and World Economic Forum Global Shaper HY William Chan recently demonstrated this with work in the Skaramagas and Eleonas refugee camps in Greece.

He recognised that the growing amount of plastic waste including takeaway food and drink containers was potentially a resource that could be utilised to create opportunities for STEM education and training for young people 

In partnership with local Greek architects and engineers, Chan and the team refined plastic waste from discarded plastic bottles to create 3D printing feedstock in the form of filaments. Young people from the camps engaged with the project then designed and fabricated items.

Chan told The Fifth Estate the potential of 3D printing for refugee camps has already been demonstrated by local architects working with refugees to produce useful building components including replacements for worn-out or damaged locks on temporary dwellings and structural connectors.

But the over-arching mission is to equip young refugees with training and education opportunities that will help them forge a future working life for themselves and to help deal with the twin issues of the circular economy in waste products and displaced, disenfranchised people.

Chan presented on the project at the United Nations General Assembly’s High Level Meeting on Social Business, Youth and Technology in New York in October this year, and is now gathering the support to see it scaled up across other refugee camp locations.

He says one of the things he is trying to do with his social design approach is to see how architectural technologies such as 3D printing can be made more accessible to vulnerable communities around the world.

One of the fundamental principles is that those involved in utilising the technology “take ownership” of what is designed and produced because local people will have the best understanding of what their needs are.

“What is printed should be useful or meaningful to their lives,” Chan says.

The value proposition of the project is unique, he explains, as it is not just about the material. It is also about understanding the STEM and design thinking curriculum, the emerging future skills of the digitally-literate workforce and problem-solving.

The 3D printers and associated technology can be created from an open-source process that explains how to build and operate the machine to extrude the plastics. By understanding this, and also analysing the process, the participating young people of the pilot project were part of the development of a suite of learning resources Chan and others are keen to see made more broadly available.

Refugee camps as innovation hubs: just add creative design, 3D printers and a desktop factory 
William Chan at the UN in New York

Refugee camps as hubs for innovation and the circular economy 

Refugees can be part of the “next generation of inventors and creatives”, Chan says.

“It would be great to see [refugee] camps as innovation hubs.”

Given the right tools, such as a desktop factory utilising 3D printing, they could adopt circular economy approaches to create their own materials and products.

(Clearly, this is a perspective that is worlds away from the Australian government’s approach to camps for refugees and asylum-seekers.)

The whole concept also showcases how the kind of skills and design thinking Chan learned in architecture and urban design can be applied elsewhere.

Chan undertook the project as an executive education and innovation Fellow of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE). He was also an Ambassador for UNICEF in 2014.

The next steps are already in progress, with an advisory group formed that has Sydney-based UNICEF forced migration and education experts as core partners. He is also collaborating with the Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University in New York in a research affiliate capacity.

Asked what is driving his work in helping the sphere of assisting the world’s most disadvantaged people – rather than dedicating his career entirely to the design of fabulous buildings – he says that being at United Nations events like the New York meeting made him see that architects do have an “outstanding role to play in sustainable development, particularly in championing resilient and inclusive cities through design”.

He says that while cities are becoming “critical assets” in combatting climate change in terms of improving sustainability and accessibility, the majority of architects are still focused on designing “pretty buildings.”

That is a massive disconnect, he says.

Through working with vulnerable communities including refugees and slum dwellers, he has come to an understanding of how valuable his skills are – and how transferrable they are to resolving social problems in an urban context.

“Settlements like slums and refugee camps face similar issues to any city such as affordable housing and infrastructure.

“Refugee camps around the world are not temporary settlements but are very much our future cities. Designing for dignity at the heart of these communities will build local capacity and empower refugee camps to become hubs of innovation.”

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