The Future of Humanitarian Design

War. Refugee flows. Forced displacement. Death. The challenges facing humanitarian action are worsening. Contemporary conflicts are more frequent and protracted, refugee flows are rapidly destabilizing geopolitical structures, and humanitarian actors are under growing threat. In light of these dilemmas, the Future of Humanitarian Design (HUD) is a research project exploring how emerging technologies, processes of aesthetic design, and engineering insights can be combined with knowledge from political science to tackle the crisis facing humanitarianism. To do so, the project is constructed around a form of experimental action research in which political scientists will collaboratively lead the co-design of three technological innovations designed to improve humanitarian practice and conditions. In this, the goal is to 1) explore how we might better integrate ‘high theoretical’ and ‘critical’ social scientific concepts and theories into the world of practice (humanitarian and beyond), 2) to see how social science can be more closely ‘bridged’ with engineering, architectural, and design practice and knowledge, and 3) therein, take up the urgent task – especially in the light of recent geopolitical events – of working collaboratively across the sciences to improve the conditions of some of the most vulnerable populations in the world.

To  achieve this, the project is a collaboration between the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen, the Geneva Graduate Institute, the Art and Design School in Geneva, and the EssentialTech Lab at EPFL Lausanne. It also  integrates high-level policy practitioners as project partners, including the President of Médecins sans frontières (doctors without borders) and Vice President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, alongside partnerships with research institutions in Colombia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Summary of HUD’s methodological principles: the ‘MAPS’ approach.

Project Details

As a project, HUD follows-up on my previous work leading the Violence Prevention Initiative (with Riccardo Bocco, Anna Leander, and Keith Krause). It also draws strongly on my collaborative work with Anna Leander developing an International Political Design research programme, as well as my earlier focus on materiality and ergonomics therein.

Principal Investigators:

  • Jonathan Luke Austin (University of Copenhagen)
  • Anna Leander (Geneva Graduate Institute)
  • Javier Fernandez Contreras (Haute école d’art et de design Genève)


HUD’s core team is complemented by an array of research and practitioner partners. To bring-in expertise in development engineering this includes Klaus Schönenberger, Gregoire Castella, and Mariazel Maqueda López at the EPFL EssentialTech centre. Additionally, we have partnered at leading research institutions in Colombia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as high-level practitioners at The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Médecins Sans Frontières, and Terre des Hommes.


HUD is funded by a 3.2 million EUR SNSF Sinergia grant (213546).


You can read a one-page summary of HUD and its objectives below.