Kos: Material Witnesses

Making a difference with innovation and good design.

Kos: Material Witnesses

Making a difference with innovation and good design.
23 October 2019
Kos: Material Witness

The UNHCR Blanket+++ - creative thinking and minimal modifications can improve a product's usability for refugees.

Contact details

Name of submitter: Professor David Swann PhD(RCA), Professor in Design, Sheffield Hallam University

Email: [email protected]

Website: https://www.shu.ac.uk/ 

About the project

UNHCR Blanket+++ is an outcome of a larger research study- Kos: Material Witnesses. The latter was a three-year study that investigated the volunteer group Kos-Solidarity (K-S) and the operational challenges they faced and the improvised solutions they created to provide daily humanitarian care to <1000 refugees.

In 2015, the island of Kos became a frontline destination with 18,600 arriving in a six-month period; increasing the island’s population by 62%. With no official reception facilities in place at the time, volunteer groups such as K-S emerged to provide improvised frontline aid, food and clothing. Until this study, no study specifically related to the humanitarian response in Kos had been undertaken.

Fieldwork trips 2016-2018 documented abandoned refugee sites and resulted in the preservation of <90 refugee artefacts. Acting as material witnesses, objects-based interviews were conducted K-S volunteers to capture their oral testimonies. Findings steered a frugal innovation programme to conceive simple interventions that fulfilled the unmet needs of refugees and could be easily implemented.

The $4.85 UNHCR thermal fleece blanket has been impervious to innovation for 30 years. We propose to augment the existing blanket design using three buttons to humanize it, improve its usability and support the improvised practices of refugees. 



In 2016, Kos-Solidarity and its volunteers were nominated along with 16 other Greek volunteer groups for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their humanitarian work.

Boxes and grey blankets stacked

Conducting research and gathering information

A robust evidenced-based research study using a mixed method approach informed an iterative, human-centred design innovation project. Fieldwork trips recorded sites of refugee importance through photography, oral testimonies and the preservation of artefacts used by refugees. The preservation of these artefacts has grown in significance as successive fieldwork trips has observed the gradual disappearance of such evidence due to the local economy being driven by tourism. Today, little evidence survives. The work has preserved 90 artefacts. This collection was analysed using an archaeological methodology: formalised object construction and use sequence (FOCUS).

Acting as material witnesses, these artefacts were used to conducted a series of interviews and focus groups with K-S volunteers to capture their operational challenges. Transcriptions were analysed using Gilligan (2005) listening guide methodology that requires four procedural steps that tune into four different aspects of the person’s experience: listening for context; listening for ‘I’; listening related to the original research question and finally synthesis of the process.

Our findings led to series of re-imagined UNHCR products that adopts the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (2008) principles in relation to the minimum standards of health/ service delivery: availability, accessibility, acceptability and appropriateness.


UNHCR Blanket++ touches upon on SDG 10. We have recorded the spontaneous practices of refugees associated with this Core relief Item (CRI. When worn as a shawl, people intuitively clasp the blanket's hems together to provide effective insulation. However, many ordinary tasks require the use of both hands. So when worn, how do you hold and eat your meal? How can you hold the hands of both your children while walking? These practical considerations such as these have been neglected.

In response, we propose to augment the existing design; tiny changes that would make everyday activities a little more bearable for the millions of people that receive a thermal fleece blanket each year. By simply adding three buttons/ buttonholes improves its usability. Two buttonholes are intentionally reinforced to enable users to creatively hang it as a privacy screen, a curtain or a door.

The UNHCR Blanket+++ is a good example of creative thinking and the minimal modification of a proven product to increase its humanity and usability. Not all great ideas need to be new or groundbreaking products; imagination supported by an evidence base can improve well established products that we all take for granted.

Challenges in implementing the project and how they are being addressed

The thermal fleece blanket is already firmly embedded within UNHCR's procurement strategy as a Core Relief Item (CRI) for domestic use. We propose to augment this CRI that accounts for $42m of UNHCR procurement contracts and distributed to <9 million people/ 3 million families each year.

The primary purpose of the blanket is to provide effective protection against the loss of body temperature. Its performance requirements are described in two technical specifications (Item No 05786/Item No 05787). However, it has outgrown its primary purpose and no longer satisfies contemporary user-centric needs. Our speculative project seeks to make the UNHCR blanket fit for the 21st century.

However, we acknowledge that any small modification to a formal technical specification is likely encounter inertia. This has shaped a pragmatic approach to innovation; the addition of three solitary buttons/buttonholes minimises disruption to current suppliers/ production processes. Potentially, humanising the UNHCR fleece blanket for the 21st century for < $0.50.

We also acknowledge a sustainable dilemma this intervention may create. Three buttons x 9 million blankets = 27 million plastic buttons. We do not take this responsibility lightly, and therefore recommend the exploration of plant-based plastics sourced from sugar cane or sustainable non-plastic sustainable alternatives.