12 December 2018

Plastic, Refugee Camps and 3D Printers

As part of Academic Impact’s START (Science and Technology Accelerating Rapid Transformation) series we had the chance to speak with Australian Urban Designer HY William Chan who spearheaded an initiative in Greece which combined the key issues of plastic waste, education, and refugee camps.

12 December 2018 - As William Chan arrived in the refugee camps of Athens in March his background in architecture allowed him to view the refugee crisis through the unique lens of design and urbanization. Chan realized that plastic waste was an immense issue at the camps, littered with enormous mountains of discarded lifejackets. While the camp did have recycling containers, what they didn’t have was the necessary infrastructure through which to sort the plastic waste, and the plastic was simply lumped together with the rest of the waste.

By working together with a local Greek architecture firm, they were able to set up a fabrication lab where they taught refugees how to design and use 3D printers. The educational lab focused on STEM education and soft skills, as it was important to Chan that the students were properly equipped with the necessary tools for the future labor market. While building the curriculum the team made sure to include local schools in the creation of the educational program. This idea of inclusion on the local level was a key part of the process, and the voices and ideas of the refugees themselves were integral in creating the program.

Young refugees in the camp told Chan how important it was to them to be treated with respect, and they felt like the project was helping them integrate into their host community of Athens, as well as providing them with a sense of dignity. It was important to Chan that the team understood the local needs and context of the camp, and it was vital that the community felt like they were truly being listened to; if the refugees weren’t interested in the project he knew there was no way to ensure they would participate and continue to be engaged.

In Chan’s eyes design can and should play an integral role in the future of sustainable urban environments, and refugee camps must not be neglected in this process. Today refugee camps are primarily seen as transient spaces, but experience has shown that these environments are, indeed, long term, and should be treated as such. Chan believes that with the proper allocation of resources, refugee camps can become innovation hubs in themselves – an idea that his project highlights. 

One of the key messages he would like others to take away from the project is the importance of including young people in the building of their future - the importance of youth being given the opportunity to be architects of their own lives and environments. For him, young people have showcased that they have the skills and potential to be changemakers in their communities, no matter where in the world they find themselves.