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Alumnus showcases plastic waste recycling concept for refugees at UN

26 October 2018
Environmental design-thinking for the refugee crisis
HY William Chan addresses High Level Meeting on Social Business, Youth and Technology at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

HY William Chan (BArch (Hons) '13 MArch '17) presented his innovative plastic upcycling project for youth in refugee camps at the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly earlier this month. William shared his social design initiative to an esteemed panel of global leaders including Nobel Peace Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus and MIT Professor of Practice, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Rajesh Nair.

The annual event brought together heads of state, thought leaders, civil society members, development professionals, and other industry personalities to discuss various critical issues affecting sustainable development. “It was truly humbling to be invited to the UN General Assembly and represent young innovators on the global stage. Having developed the social initiative in my spare time and being my first venture into entrepreneurship, it was extremely encouraging to meet world leaders who recognised the potential of the project, particularly the capacity of refugee youth to become future technologists and designers. Personally, it was important to understand that the UN was committed to supporting grassroots action and that the meetings were not just high level 'talk',” said William.

William’s initiative aims to build refugees’ capacity in life-shaping skills for the 21st Century, specifically in design-based problem solving and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. The project was developed while he was an executive education and innovation Fellow of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE).

“By advocating the use of design and emerging technologies, we can inspire and educate refugee communities to be innovative architects of their lives and their environment."

Co-created with youths at refugee camps in Greece, the project includes upcycling plastic waste material at the camps by refining and converting it into 3D-printed objects. In partnership with local Greek architects and engineers, the team successfully produced filament from discarded plastic bottles, which was identified as a serious problem by the inhabitants of the Eleonas and Skaramagas refugee camps in Athens.

The team also produced an accompanying educational curriculum toolkit, which assists the beneficiaries in integrating with the host community and in employment opportunities as they develop problem solving, entrepreneurship and digital literacy skills through the program.


William drew on past experiences working on sustainability and urban inclusion projects in informal settlements in South Africa, India and Colombia to inform the work. “I was exposed to co-creation practices and user experience design early on in my degree. My Honours dissertation gathered the feedback of the formerly homeless to determine whether the built environment of their new homes was designed effectively. These formative insights during my studies have influenced how I work with vulnerable communities to ensure their voices are heard and are active participants in the design process. Working directly with people and communities result in far greater design outcomes.”

He believes that, “Refugee camps around the world should no longer be viewed as temporary settlements but as our future cities. We need to design these communities with dignity at the core so that refugee camps become hubs of innovation.”

For William, this opportunity has further strengthened his leadership ambition to apply design thinking to solve the world's most wicked urban challenges. “Architects have a far greater role to play in our world than just designing buildings. We have a responsibility to ensure sustainable and equitable development in our cities, where people's needs and experiences are addressed. I look forward to taking continued action and advocacy towards this important global movement throughout my career.”

William will continue working with on-the-ground partners of architects, engineers and teachers to refine the initiative, as well as the UNICEF team who form their advisory group. “With the proof of concept completed successfully in Greece in June this year, the project will be scaled up to other refugee camps for further evaluation, followed by implementation subject to funding.”

William is currently working as an urban designer and planner with Cox Architecture, and is also a Research Affiliate at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University's Earth Institute.

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