OCADU, 2016
Collaborators: Samhita Misra, Jaime Calayo


The Process


Problem Defining

The Problem

When describing their state of being, refugees often use terms such as: ‘in limbo’, ‘frozen’, “in-between,’ ‘paralyzed’ ‘uncertain,’ and ‘living in transit”. Understandably, this prolonged ‘temporary’ phase can negatively impact refugees’ well-being. Their descriptions illustrate how the uncertain future and the impermanent present interact to increase refugee vulnerability in camps.


The Expectation


The Reality

Research Question: how does “open-ended waiting” affect the identity formation and mental health of refugees in temporary settlements?


Problem Framing

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Temporary Permanence

Our central design paradox involved designing for uncertain conditions, rather than designing to solve uncertain conditions. We wanted to develop a response to the problem of uncertainty, without finding the answers to refugee uncertainties.

Journey Map and Relation to Entry Points

Journey Map and Relation to Entry Points

Representation of Different Refugees' Experience of Time Based on Different Stories and The Desirable Result

Representation of Different Refugees' Experience of Time Based on Different Stories and The Desirable Result

Revised Research Question: How can we reduce the experience of impermanence in refugee camps by leveraging community networks and “best practices” for refugee funding to improve refugee mental health?


Resolving the Design Paradox:
Designing for Emergence

If we aren’t able to define the refugee experience, how do we design meaningful permanent structures? As refugees begin to pursue longer-term projects, they begin to see their own future as it is tied to the future of their project. Consequently, their living conditions begin to feel less temporary and more permanent.

Our theory of change revolves around the concept of emergence and social complexity. By designing the starting conditions for emergence, we do not need to define 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 separately.



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. These activities, led by refugees, move their communities towards a deeper sense of permanence.

Because of its mobile nature, a truck offers many qualities that make it appropriate for the job. It is adjustable and has the flexibility to adapt to different circumstances. It can assess where it is most effective and enhance its presence accordingly.

Placeholder is designed for uncertain conditions. It does not prescribe activities, but instead, it serves to enable them. It acts as a facilitator to help refugees pursue what they find meaningful in refugee camps, moving beyond the minimum standards for survival to meet refugees’ essential needs. However, like any participatory tools designed for social complexity, it must begin with starting conditions that encourage emergent behaviour.

In the beginning, each truck is equipped with a large array of tools and instruments. These tools are categorized and purchased by type rather than purpose, to avoid prescribing how the tools will be used. Every three months, a quarter of these tools are sold in order to make room for new tools. The new tools are chosen in partnership with refugees, responding to the needs they had communicated through Placeholder’s different mechanisms of engagement and collecting feedback.


A Day in The Life Of

Potential Uses


  1. Tools for functional purposes 
    Using these tools can help instill a sense of purpose in otherwise uncertain and temporary conditions.
  2. 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.
  3. Decision Making 
    Participatory governance and emergent change are central to Placeholder’s philosophy. In using a participatory decision-making structure, the Placeholder team is able to create relationships of trust with the refugee communities they interact with.
  4. Participatory governance
    Finally, Placeholder exists to build skills in practical, applicable, experiential ways. 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. As a result of this structure, refugees build skills and capacities through experiential and project-based learning.

An Iterative Tool for Feedback

Placeholder is as much about gaining insight and understanding into refugee needs, as it is about the activities that emerge around it.

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. We drew two important points from this insight:

  1. By creating effective mechanisms to listen to and collect insights on refugee experiences, as well as incorporating a structure of participatory governance, we can move towards building trust with refugee communities.
  2. There is a great need, on the part of UNHCR and NGOs, for feedback and insight into refugee needs. By providing them with research and refugee insights, we are able to ask for funding and gain revenue.

Each iteration consists of four quadrants of action:

  1. Respond: is where activities take place, where certain activities are suggested, and where space is left for emergent activities.
  2. Listen: takes place simultaneously alongside the first quadrant. As activities emerge, Placeholder staff observe and investigate shortcomings. Through different feedback mechanisms, Placeholder staff gain insights into the chosen activities, tools, necessities, and user behaviour.
  3. & 4. Commit and Prepare: represent the stages where Placeholder staff take the necessary steps to acquire the newly voted tools, and sell the unwanted.

Business Model


Refugees, are drawn to Placeholder because of the offer of space and tools and the activities that are associated with them. However, the wider offer, and what ultimately causes refugees to become attached to the outcome of the truck, is the community-building around the tools.


The UNHCR is committed to fulfilling their mandate to protect refugees. In order to do so, they must understand more about the needs of refugees (research and evaluation). Placeholder offers the UNHCR insight into refugee needs, and mechanisms that encourage refugees to stay in refugee camps instead of illegally resettling within the host country.

Host Country

Jordan’s investment in refugee camps come in part from their need for refugees to stay within the camp. Placeholder offers the Jordanian government a mechanism that will encourage refugees to stay within Azraq and prevent illegal resettlement. The Jordanian government will fund one of Placeholder’s revenue streams in exchange for Placeholder’s value in increasing Azraq’s population and keeping refugees within the camp.

Tools manufacturers

Refugees using these tools in more extreme conditions can serve as lead users and offer insight into product design for manufacturers. Manufacturers are also offered socially conscious public relations exposure by demonstrating the value of their tools in bringing refugee communities together. In exchange for refugee customer insights and PR material, tools manufacturers fund a fourth revenue stream and either donate or loan their tools to be used by Placeholder membership.