Designing the Future Now

Cynthia E. Smith

I stood at the entrance to a citizen-run refugee camp on Lesbos (Lesvos), a small Greek island of roughly one hundred thousand residents near Turkey. This did not look like a typical United Nations refugee camp, with row upon row of uniform white tents.[1] Several orange life jackets strung along a fence spelled out in large, black letters the hopeful message “SAFE PASSAGE.”

Life jackets spell out “SAFE PASSAGE,” a hopeful message to all who enter the Pipka solidarity refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, 2017. Credit: Cynthia E. Smith © Smithsonian Institution

These repurposed vests had been abandoned along with thousands of others by migrants who had successfully made the treacherous eight-mile (twelve-kilometer) voyage across the Aegean Sea from Turkey. Collected by island residents, they testify to the courage needed to leave one’s home—to flee conflict, persecution, and poverty—and embark on an uncertain journey in search of safety and a better future.

Beyond welcoming signage, I could see busy open-air workshops, people heading to medical and legal clinics, living quarters surrounded by gardens, gathering spaces with sheltering tree canopies, and buildings emblazoned with large murals. In 2012, when refugees began arriving—five thousand a day at the peak—local residents took over an empty former children’s summer camp called Pipka and established an open refugee camp in solidarity with the new arrivals.[2] Over the following eight years, it provided a dignified reception for the most vulnerable and offered medical and legal assistance along with language and job training for refugees and locals alike.[3]

The Pipka solidarity camp exemplifies the efforts of a growing global movement to counter mounting discord and uncertainty and envision and build a far more peaceful future. From neighborhoods to global networks, people are challenging institutions and structures forged through inequity, injustice, and dominance, and they are using the principles, strategies, and practices of design to do so.[4] They are researching and modeling another world, one with inclusive, participatory societies that value equity, justice, creativity, and mutual cooperation, that respect our interdependent living and nonliving ecosystems, that are free from danger, exclusion, violence, and fear, and that are accepting of different voices, behaviors, views, and cultural and gender expressions.

My previous research has resulted in a set of exhibitions, programs, and publications that explore how design—at every scale, in all parts of the world—can address some of our most vexing issues. In an era of growing uncertainty and chaos and escalating environmental damage and socioeconomic inequity, amplified by increasing extremism and nationalism, I began this current exploration by asking what might be possible if society were to design for peace.

The work of designing peace is being undertaken all around the world, and it is extremely diverse, as exemplified by the work gathered in this compilation.[5] Organized here by a series of questions about the potential of design to foster peace, the work ranges from theoretical explorations to practical solutions, reflecting the scale and scope of the practice across geographies and cultures. Separately, design and peacebuilding are dynamic processes that use engagement, trust building, communication, iteration, and an understanding of context to facilitate positive change. Combined, they offer matchless opportunities for the formulation and implementation of transformative responses to dire situations and unjust systems. As a whole, Designing Peace explores the ways in which we might collectively pool our creative forces to envision the future we want to live in—and to take action to create it.


Cynthia E. Smith

Cynthia E. Smith is Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s Curator of Socially Responsible Design. She integrates her training as an industrial designer with her advocacy on human rights and social justice issues, organizing a humanitarian-focused design exhibition and publication series, serving on international design juries, and lecturing widely on socially responsible design.

Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world. — Preamble, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948


[1] Currently, more than 26 million refugees (migrants who have been granted international protections because they can’t return to their home country due to threats of persecution) and 48 million internally displaced people (uprooted within their home countries) are living in semipermanent camps with limited access to work and education. Many of these camps, built quickly to serve an urgent need, host hundreds of thousands of people. Among the world’s largest refugee camps are the Kutupalong-Balukhali expansion site in Bangladesh; the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda; the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in Kenya; the Azraq and Za’atari refugee camps in Jordan; the Nyarugusu, Nduta, and Mtendeli refugee camps in Tanzania;and the Kebribeyah, Aw-barre, and Sheder refugee camps in Ethiopia. “Refugee Camps,” USA for UNHCR,

[2] The organizing group Lesvos Solidarity describes its model of solidarity as promoting “equality, trust, justice, respect for each other and for the environment, creativity, empowerment, and active participation.” “Vision,” Lesvos Solidarity,

[3] The camp was closed by the Greek government in October 2020. “Greece: Well-Run PIKPA Camp Evicted While Situation on Islands and Mainland Continue to Deteriorate,” ECRE Weekly Bulletin, November 6, 2020,

[4] Caroline Hill, Michelle Molitor, and Christine Ortiz of the Equity Design Collaborative assert that “racism and inequity are products of design. They can be redesigned.” In their article of that name, they write of “our moral imperative to live in the future we desire to create,” one of three foundational beliefs required to make such a transformation. The other two are “innovation’s need for inclusion and intentional design” and “the indistinguishable relationship between the past and the present.” Hill, Molitor, and Ortiz, “Racism and Inequity Are Products of Design. They Can Be Redesigned,” November 15, 2016,

[5] This publication is part of a larger project that includes the exhibition Designing Peace at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, June 10, 2022, through September 4, 2023.