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Joi Sears headshot

Ikea Partners with the UN to Provide Pop-up Shelters for Refugees

Words by Joi Sears

Every year, millions of people are forced to flee their homes due to war, famine or natural disasters. In search of safety, shelter, food and clean water, many seek refuge in humanitarian camps. Some stay for years, others for generations. For many children, these camps are the only home they’ve ever known.

The camps are dark, cramped and chaotic places. There is no electricity or running water. The tents do not provide adequate shelter from rain, wind or extreme temperatures. Without privacy, proper sanitation or a sense of security, many refugees are in dire need of safety, dignity and a better place to call home, however humble that home may be.

In an effort to provide better, safer and more durable homes for refugee children and their families, the Ikea Foundation in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) launched Better Shelter, a social enterprise committed to developing innovative housing solutions for people displaced by conflict and natural disasters. The UNHCR has recently placed an order for 10,000 flat-pack shelters from Ikea to improve the lives of thousands of refugee families around the world. The shelters are durable, affordable, sustainable, easy to transport and can be built on-site without any additional tools. On a mission to revolutionize the refugee camp, Better Shelter uses design, technology and social innovation to create a better home away from home for millions of displaced people.

The innovative Better Shelter structures represent a major milestone in humanitarian, human-centered design. A weatherproof and social temporary shelter, they offer a more dignified home for displaced people and a more cost-effective solution for humanitarian organizations. Like much of Ikea’s furniture products, the structures are flat-packed into cardboard boxes for easy shipping. They are logistically friendly and easy to build. They can be assembled in four hours and include solar panels that provide enough energy to power a light or charge a mobile phone.

The homes were designed with and for the refugees. “Putting refugee families and their needs at the heart of this project is a great example of how democratic design can be used for humanitarian value,” said Jonathan Spampinato, head of strategic planning and communications at the Ikea Foundation. “We’re incredibly proud that the Better Shelter is now available, so refugee families and children can have a safer place to call home.”

The Better Shelter modular refugee housing unit received an honorary award at the Swedish Design Awards last year. One of the judges, design critic Alice Rawsthorn, described the project as "an unusually sensitive and intelligent response that not only promises to provide sorely needed shelter for people in desperate circumstances, but also a robust and congenial place for them to live, possibly for several years, before moving on to permanent homes.” This housing unit offers the millions of children and families forced to flee their homes every year an alternative to traditional canvas ridge tents or more modern hoop tents, neither of which provide proper insulation or last more than a few months.

"Many of the current shelters used in refugee camps have a life span of approximately six months before the impact of sun, rain and wind means it needs to be replaced. Yet long-term refugee situations mean that, on average, refugees stay in camps for 12 years," according to Ikea. Designed to last up to three years, the Better Shelter is a shed-like structure made of lightweight polymer panels, laminated with thermal insulation, which clip onto a steel frame. And, unlike a sturdy-but-claustrophobic cargo container shelter, each Better Shelter unit includes windows, ventilation and “a door that actually locks” as Gizmodo noted.

This project is an example of how technology, collaboration and practical application can fuel social innovation. "The realization that the people who need design ingenuity the most, the poorest 90 percent of the global population, have historically been deprived of it, and the determination to address that, have been one of the most important design developments of the past decade," Rawsthorne said. Driven by the belief that sustainable design can make a difference to the humanitarian world, Better Shelter started as a small design and innovation project in the woods of Sweden before evolving into a groundbreaking collaboration with the UNHCR and the Ikea foundation. The ideas were transformed into prototypes, which were then tested and further developed together with refugees in Ethiopia and Iraq.

Better Shelter offers an innovative approach to an old problem, providing a better home away from home for millions of displaced people. As reported by IRIN news, the first of the 10,000 units ordered by the U.N. will be sent to house some of the 2.5 million people in Iraq who have been displaced over the past year.

The shelters which are currently being manufactured for summer 2015 dispersal, represent an exciting new development in humanitarian aid, and one that will greatly improve the lives of people living in crisis all over the world.

Photo Credits: 1) R. Cox 2) & 3) Better Shelter 

Joi Sears headshotJoi Sears

Joi M. Sears is the Founder and Creative Director of Free People International, a social enterprise which specializes in offering creative solutions to the world's biggest social, environmental and economic challenges through the arts, design thinking and social innovation.

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