The application of Strategic Design within complex social structures in humanitarian settings.

Humanitarian Design (1/2): Transforming core problems into a culture of innovation

Part 1 

Project Context and Framework

The challenges of the 21st century are intricate and multifaceted, often categorized as fourth-order issues caused by systemic or organizational factors. Notwithstanding their complexity, these challenges are the most pressing ones we must address to achieve social and environmental sustainability. We firmly believe that strategic design, with its human-centered approach that encompasses our natural environment, is the appropriate toolkit to tackle these challenges effectively.

When discussing complex problems within complex systems, it is essential to examine all the nodes where contributors and components intersect. This enables a thorough analysis of system malfunctions and identification of opportunities for improvement, leading to a collaborative exploration of potential solutions. Therefore, we strongly advocate for the use of strategic design as a valuable toolkit to address such complex contents. This toolkit remains largely underutilized, despite its potential to be a game-changer in these challenging situations. 

In the context of a recent project undertaken by our Iconstorm Social Design team, we will discuss how to identify the core issues and defects in current systems through strategic design and its underlying concepts of forming coalitions, while aligning the actors with a shared vision. 

The Iconstorm Social Design team was led by Thomas Jäger (Dipl. Des. specialized in the appliance and research of Strategic design in Humanitarian Settings), who assembled a low hierarchy team of strategic designers with various specializations.

The first post in this two-part blog series, will examine the project context and framework, as well as dive into the complexity of applying strategic design methods to humanitarian settings. The second post in this series will discuss the importance of collaboration, the challenges we experienced, and the creative solutions our strategic design team produced in these complex social contexts, and consider the powerful impact strategic design can have in humanitarian settings.

The Project

There are currently 18.587 displaced people in Greece. In most cases, they arrive at the islands, from which they are moved to the mainland and relocated to the bigger cities. On account of the Dublin conventions, the UN not considering Greece a humanitarian crisis any longer, and an increasingly hostile political situation, displaced people face a legal limbo. In 2015, Athens hosted 58% of displaced people arriving in Greece. People often end up homeless, without access to basic necessities. These challenges underscore the pressing need for strategic design to create a meaningful impact.


OneHappyFamily provides a community center offering diverse services to displayed people. Founded in 2017 on Lesvos Island as a grassroots initiative, they moved to Athens in 2022. They are mainly funded through private donations. Seven partner organizations operate the community center and provide services through their expertise. Community centres play a vital role as focal points for displaced individuals arriving in a new country. In these settings, organizations strive to provide the essential resources needed to live with dignity and, in many cases, to survive. Often, the services offered by these centers are not readily accessible or available outside these locations, making them crucial in the difficult journey towards legal and practical integration into a foreign society.


Drawing on our network – which includes ICO’s Social Design Lead, Thomas Jäger, who has extensive experience working in the Greek context of displacement for several years – we became aware of the needs and challenges faced by OnehappyFamily. They reached out to us to address several issues at their community center, including spatial limitations and iservice-related challenges with their use of the space. These challenges include inadequate storage spaces, which lead to clutter and undermines the intended calming atmosphere of the center. Our collaborative project with OneHappyFamily  – and their partners and clients – proved the need for strategic design in humanitarian and social innovation settings. 


Our aim was to help them improve catering to their community, i.e., people displaced from their native countries/communities. However, to do this, it was essential for us to help our partners clearly identify, frame, and align the problems they faced within their context, as well as providing them with the right tools to set them on a journey towards a successful, innovative culture. We further identified external partners with the aim to support the center’s efforts (such as RIX, Refugee Integration Experience, who provide employment for displaced people, and El Grecco, the Greek partner of the furniture brand Vitra). Our approach involved utilizing a variety of design methods, including tools that enabled us to create a shared vision, translate it into a strategy, and obtain high-quality feedback from users. Combining these design methods with knowledge transfer on how to co-create creates a mental safe space for all involved.


Researching the Context

Following an intensive reframing of the issue and contextual desk research, we conducted on-site user research and co-creation sessions with all stakeholders involved, including partner NGOs, external partners, and a representative group of users. This enabled us to create value propositions for each room and its function, which were then channeled into guidelines and proposals based on existing resources, making implementation and adaptation feasible for both the NGO and its users. We shared our methodologies throughout the entire process, empowering them to apply this knowledge themselves in the future.

Our design team effectively leveraged a combination of best practices and proprietary design methods to develop well-structured, mentally stimulating workshops. These workshops facilitated a shift in the mindset of the participants, fostering enriched discussions about solutions and problems. Identifying the right context of a problem, especially in the realm of social design, can be a challenge. Social problems can have many layers and perspectives and often, they can only be understood by tracing the lived experiences of people native to these contexts.

To gain a better understanding of the problem, our team of designers conducted numerous interviews, site observations, and workshop sessions together. These sessions generated a rather complex picture of the problems and the contexts in which they reside, often accompanied by a lot of opinionated statements.


Imbibing Complexity

Our team of designers ended up discovering a significantly new set of systemic problems while conducting workshops with our NGO partners. The workshops made use of customized methods to better understand the relationships within this complex system of actors. One key learning we derived while navigating through this influx of new data was to never consider the design brief as the final problem statement. Instead, the brief evolves with the discovery of new information. As strategic designers, our role is to facilitate the effective consumption and discussion of this new-found information by our clients and partners to help them make better decisions.

To be continued in Part 2