Refugees in Berlin: Can local startups find smart solutions?

by Tim Vogelsang

Sparked by recent humanitarian catastrophes in the Mediterranean Sea, media attention around the topics of refugees and asylum is possibly strong enough to force the European Union to introduce quotas between member states, lower the barrier of legal immigration and accept higher amounts of asylum seekers. But how can we as a society embrace asylum as a massive chance rather than a problem? Can smart, unconventional approaches be born under the roofs of small startup offices in Berlin? Can an online education platform such as iversity.org even help?

The airdome in Berlin-Wedding is a three-day home for up to 294 refugees in Berlin from all over the world. It is operated by over-pressure, which cannot be sensed by humans. I walk into this massive tent in order to join a so-called hold-up, organised by the young and sexy non-profit organisation MakeSense. A hold-up is explained to me as a very effective and fun form of brainstorming in order to solve very specific challenges. In this case: „How can we help new-to-the-neighbourhood refugee families find and use local playgrounds?“ To be honest, brainstorming with flipcharts and yellow sticky notes inside a refugee shelter feels inappropriate at first. But soon our ideas start flowing and a lot of the shelter’s guests join us and enjoy the entrepreneurial atmosphere.

Inspired by the creativity that originates from all these different cultures, I invite Mozamel and Guglielmo, two design thinkers from MakeSense, to the iversity office and ask them to facilitate a similar hold-up along with an open Facebook invitation for interested participants. Our challenge this time: „How can volunteers use iversity.org in order to create learning experiences together with refugees?“

20150615-refugees-iversity-1Brainstorming and presenting ideas. Images courtesy: Nezihe Birgul Ozdemir

Wow! It is amazing how many unconventional and unexpected ideas a bunch of creative people that barely know each other can generate from a well-structured brainstorming process. We pick the four best ideas and finally pitch complete concepts – all this in two hours! Here are the four winning ideas:

1. German MOOC: Create a massive open online course (MOOC) on learning German held by refugees, and using dances of the world to build connections and learn verbs and nouns around the human body.

2. Buddy System: Connect a refugee with a local buddy to take an (iversity) online course together.

3. Video Clips: Create short shareable video clips of mixed groups of refugees and locals interacting with (iversity) online courses in order to inspire other refugees to also benefit from free courses.

4. Study Groups: Start medium-sized local events, bringing together locals and refugees for activities like games or dances. The starting point is a new (iversity) online course.

The atmosphere after our final presentations is upbeat. We are all excited about the ideas we came up with. Unfortunately, we don’t have the capacity to realise all of them, but we would still love to see our ideas come to fruition. Maybe YOU want to jump on them and start a local project?

20150612-blogpost-refugees-iversity1Idea canvas of Idea 1. Image courtesy: Julia Hein.

Looking forward, online learning can easily be imagined as an opportunity to embrace asylum and perceive it as a massive chance instead of a problem. And when talking to some of the participants of our hold-up, I see that new ideas beyond iversity.org are already in the making. As a reaction to the two-hour-long hold-up, I was introduced to a whole Berlin ecosystem of companies and organisations that are developing very smart and agile approaches connected to the topic of refugees. In addition to MakeSense, there are Wings University (a university for refugees), Flüchtlinge Willkommen (a flat-share platform), Cucula (a working possibility), Serve the City (a volunteer event initiative) and „Über den Tellerrand kochen“ (a cooking initiative). And I am confident that many more will follow.

Do you want to know more about the ideas from our hold-up? Do you have your own ideas about collaborations with refugees in Berlin and want to get involved? Do you know other initiatives from other cities? Share this post and tell us your ideas! Or learn more about the related topic of „Worker’s’ Rights in a Global Economy” in our online course!


About the author

Tim Vogelsang is iversity’s director of business intelligence. He studied mathematics in Bonn and is now focussing on data analysis, algorithms and research in the context of online learning. His favourite research topics are group creation and peer grading. Follow Tim on Twitter: @timvogelsang