The Impact of Technology on World’s Most Vulnerable Populations

June 29, 2017 – Microdesk was introduced to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at Autodesk University in November 2016. In recent years, the UNHCR organization has been challenged with a rapidly growing refugee population, and were seeking to refine workflows to expand existing settlements and develop new settlements more efficiently.

Through a generous donation from the Autodesk Foundation, UNHCR procured 141 licenses of Infrastructure Design Suite Ultimate and InfraWorks 360. UNHCR then contracted Microdesk to provide workflows, software configuration and training for their Physical Site Planners (PSPs) – the planners, engineers and architects who are deployed to emergencies to construct or expand refugee settlements.

Unfortunately, UNHCR was experiencing errors in obtaining accurate site information, which led to site layouts that could not adapt to the existing topography; during plot layout and construction, many field changes were made, resulting in inconsistent spacing, reduction in available capacity, safety concerns and costly redesign and reconstruction. The delay in construction plots caused refugees – an average of 1,500 arriving per day – to remain in group housing longer than the recommended 72 hours.

In July, Microdesk began working to address these dilemmas, using the tools in IDSU 2017 and InfraWorks 360. The team analyzed a typical emergency scenario and focused on producing valuable outputs and limiting inputs within a short period of time. After a few weeks, the team evaluated a recently completed refugee settlement in Rwanda to test the workflows and identify opportunities for template creation and custom configurations. Microdesk reconvened with UNHCR in late August to finalize workflows and develop training agendas for the PSP training session the following month.

The PSPs arrived in Geneva, Switzerland from 17 different countries, each with varying roles, responsibilities and Autodesk software exposure. During the week-long training session, Microdesk was allotted two days to train the attendees on their new workflows. Then, the group was transported to Villars-sur-Ollon in the Suisse Alps to assess their emergency scenario: 12,000 refugees had arrived at a border village in distress and required food, shelter and medical attention. The attendees used the new workflows and software to strategize and produce their site analyses and conceptual designs, while Microdesk provided much-needed support.

Once the training concluded, every planner, architect and engineer requested access to the software so they could utilize it at their respective settlements and offices. They brainstormed additional ways they could use the software for analysis, detailed construction layout and collaboration with stakeholders and decision makers. As humanitarians, their goal was to serve people in need, and they overwhelmingly concluded that the workflows and tools Microdesk introduced them to would allow them to develop effective settlements more efficiently.

July 16, 2018 – More recently, through Microdesk’s continued relationship with the UNHCR, Jessica Chambers, Senior Consultant at Microdesk, has worked on implementing BIM technology at a massive scale in Bangladesh.

“We visited the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, an evolving settlement for more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar, to implement and train UNHCR site planners on how model-based workflows could be used to relocate over 100,000 shelters at risk for flooding and collapse during the upcoming rainy season. By using photogrammetry, we could model hundreds of acres of topography to perform flooding analysis, as well as identify landslide-prone areas to prioritize the refugees’ relocation.”

Jessica’s impact reaches further than the Kutupalong refugee camp. Her work in Bangladesh lays groundwork for future refugee camp improvements, through educating agencies like the UNHCR on BIM. This work not only teaches people about BIM, but it changes how we view modelling and city planning. We can use modelling to improve processes everywhere—not just cities. “Our ongoing consulting is providing more than 150 UNHCR site planners with the software tools and workflows necessary to provide accurate site assessments and detailed designs to plan, design, construct and operate settlements for more than 13.1 million refugees throughout the globe.”