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Migrants cross national borders – DSI must do the same

24th January 2018

Ben Mason from betterplace lab introduces DSI4EU's Migration and Integration cluster.

For the past two and a half years, we have been witnessing a phenomenon unique to the field of DSI. Starting in summer 2015, the arrival into Europe of hundreds of thousands of refugees, a large portion of them fleeing civil war in Syria, dominated news headlines and the political agenda for months. In response we saw dramatic engagement and mobilisation to help from across civil society and parts of the private sector. One strand of this was a surge in DSI projects aiming to support refugees, launched by people from a range of backgrounds and many of whom were completely new to DSI.

In two years, a lot has happened. For one thing, the desire to respond to the urgent needs of a specific group – what some referred to as “the refugee crisis” – has matured, and the challenges of migration and integration are now framed more broadly. Fewer and fewer people are artificially focussing on a narrow subgroup. There is little doubt that finding adequate integration and inclusion strategies in the face of mass forced migration will be one of the defining challenges for Europe this century.

But these DSI projects have not only changed how they frame the challenge they are trying to address. The DSI landscape in this area has also changed continuously and dynamically. Our research has traced the shift from explosion in late 2015 and early 2016, in which scores of new projects emerged, to different stages of consolidation since then, with increased focus on coordination and pooling efforts and resources.

Even in the past few weeks, there are signs that the scene is entering a new phase again, including two well-known projects, clarat and Workeer, announcing that they will be discontinued. One interpretation of this situation is that we are reaching a turning point, where we have a clear sense of which DSI projects in this space are producing social impact. At the same time, these projects are becoming established and professionalised so that they can form new partnerships and begin to scale their impact.

While this is promising, there is much work still to be done to catalyse this development and make sure that the great potential of DSI in this area is fulfilled. While projects have become more interconnected, there is still much room for improvement in terms of building a tight-knit cluster of practitioners, supporting and enriching each other’s efforts. Key actors are still often unaware of one another. One memorable moment in our field research was discovering that two DSI projects – with basically the same address, both situated on Oranienplatz, a square in Berlin – had never heard of one another.

This is also the right moment to promote international diffusion and collaboration in a space which until now has been strongly geographically concentrated. Our database of DSI projects we know in this area, when plotted geographically, divides into roughly equal thirds: around 60 projects in Berlin, around 60 in the rest of Germany combined, and about 60 in the rest of the world. Doubtless there is some bias in this data: as we’re based in Germany we’re more likely to hear about German projects. But this only accounts for part of the concentration we can see; it’s also clear that there is a strong cluster effect at work. And we believe that advances made and lessons learned in Germany these past two years are ripe to be exported to other European contexts grappling with similar challenges.

Indeed, we believe that now is the perfect moment to foster a more active exchange between practitioners on a pan-EU level. That’s why we’re so excited to be a part of this project, and over the coming months we will be creating resources and forums which we hope will consolidate the great work which has emerged so dramatically in this space since 2015.

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