Humanitarian Design

In: Humanitarianism: Keywords
Brita Fladvad Nielsen
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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. For example, a cooking stove designed for a refugee camp is a product that needs to take into account not only cultural appropriateness and the needs of the refugee, but also the services attached to the product, such as fuel production in the area. It should also consider the system realities of the humanitarian market, such as logistics, humanitarian budgets, and decision-making (Fladvad Nielsen, Sandvik, and Gabrielsen Jumbert 2016).

The occurrence of humanitarian crises, such as conflicts or natural and industrial disasters, triggers the response of multiple international stakeholders to provide different kinds of assistance to the affected populations. This international response generally implies the deployment of products and services that temporarily strengthen or even replace disrupted local activities (Fladvad Nielsen and Santos 2013). Humanitarian design aims to create strategies to improve the delivery of emergency aid and the efficiency/effectiveness of humanitarian action. It seeks to develop innovations for the humanitarian market, defined as the market that emerges in the aftermath of the crisis, heavily represented by international and national non-governmental organizations. It also includes donors, service providers, and enterprises that develop, purchase, and distribute goods such as food, shelter, medical equipment, and energy generating devices. To understand the goals of humanitarian design, one must understand the definitions and goals of humanitarian action and the Humanitarian Charter (Sphere 2018), which centers on dignity. Through the Humanitarian Charter, humanitarian action has committed itself to provide disaster-affected communities with essential physical goods and services in emergencies. The goal of dignity implies that the aim of humanitarian action is value based and human centered, as is design science (Cross 2007). This is where design and design thinking become relevant.

Design is a value-oriented activity in which the designer seeks to identify designs that bring improved well-being for those involved. Following this line of reasoning, “humanitarian design” should also refer to the application of “designerly” approaches that assist crisis-affected people in reaching a situation in which they can live with dignity. “Designerly ways” and design thinking offer the ability to make sense of how contributions can deliver impact within complex and multistakeholder landscapes, including actors within the humanitarian market. “Designerly ways” imply that designers arrive at the final products, services, and organizational/policy changes through a wide range of methods, tools, and processes that are combined with a mindset that reduce bias in their decision-making while solving problems. Humanitarian design and humanitarian innovation both aim at reaching the “end users” of humanitarian action. This is a complex goal, as humanitarian end users such as refugees, especially in the contexts of low income and least developed countries, are often vulnerable and marginalized, in the sense that they are most often deprived of rights such as free movement or workers’ and educational rights. In other settings they can have different legal rights; in other words, they do not form a homogeneous group yet are often the target of “one-size-fits-all” innovations. As in humanitarian innovation, humanitarian design involves thorough assessments and insight gathering; prototyping and testing in-field; follow-up and evaluation processes; and business models that take into account the local market, existing services, and power relations. However, while humanitarian designers emphasize contextual approaches by adapting or designing with end users (Green 2005), humanitarian innovation focuses more strongly on identifying theories of change (Sandvik 2017) and on the structural changes needed for humanitarian aid to deliver impact.


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  • Kellogg Institute for International Studies (2018) Humanitarian Corridor Initiative. University of Notre Dame.

  • Kukavica, J. , Plesnicar, M. (2016) The Humanitarian Corridor. Border Criminologies (blog).

  • Smirl, L. (2015) Spaces of Aid: How Cars, Compounds and Hotels Shape Humanitarianism. Zed Books.

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