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Migrationlab – a co-design approach to problem solving

Laura Pana is the founder of MigrationLab, a foundation that addresses migration related issues, such as belonging, identity and integration. The foundation creates a context in which migrants and locals can work together to co-design and co-create ways to solve community issues.


Migrationlab was inspired by my own experiences as a Romanian woman migrant in Europe for seven years at the time, and my reflections about how we are perceived in the world based on certain labels and stereotypes that people apply to us and how that affects the way we relate to ourselves and each other. In the fall of 2014, freshly moved from Austria to The Netherlands, I created a blog called Migrationlab, whose main goal at the time was to function as an online laboratory for exploring and experimenting with migration issues such as identity, belonging, the notion of home, and documenting intercultural communication together with migrants, refugees and locals. At the time, this type of conversations was not very usual in the online sphere much less or even not at all in the public space. My own migration stories represented the starting point for a deeper and broaden conversation about how we acknowledge and communicate with each other. As more people joined the conversation, I started to think about how to bring these people and their stories together and initiate conversations in a physical space. This is how the “Welcome to the Living Room” concept came to life three months later, a safe welcoming inviting space where we can talk about who we are and where we come from. Soon, the blog migrated to a project and in 2016 to a foundation. Today, Migrationlab co-designs and co-creates together with communities and organizations across Europe new processes and safe spaces of encounter, where we explore together new ways to acknowledge, relate to and communicate with each other, as well as collaborate in daily multicultural contexts, be it in public space or at work.


I design processes with and for communities in different European contexts to find solutions to local issues about how to live our diversity in public space or at work, based on their needs, ideas, creativity and knowledge. This type of approach led me to discover an amazing pool of local resources scattered all over a city, a neighborhood, a community, an organization, which are usually not involved in the formulation and solution of a local issue. By local resources I mean the diversity of people who form a community, a neighborhood, a city, an organization; people’s skills and capabilities; people’s willingness to get involved and take part in solving a problem their community is facing; institutional support; community support etc. On one hand, I’m giving people the possibility to co-create spaces of encounter and publicly explore and design together new ways to communicate with and relate to each other. And on the other hand, I’m acting as a link between different organizations/institutions and communities and help them work together to explore, better understand and solve a particular socio-cultural issue or develop a particular project by tapping into their local resources.


Right from the start, I was interested in the relationship we develop with the space when it holds meaningful conversations between culturally diverse people. How can we design a (public) space with everything that it contains –people, objects, conversations, sounds, smells, colors, textures- in a way that it brings people together, helps them share and exchange life experiences as well as work together on issues that matter to them?

The selection of the Welcome to the Living Room project to Vienna Design Week in 2015 was a great start in this sense. We had an empty industrial space in Brotfabrik, a former bread factory, now a cultural center, in Favoriten, Vienna’s largest urban district with a predominant immigrant population, that we needed to transform into a cozy, welcoming and inviting Migrationlab public living room! Our living room functioned as an installation as well as an encounter space that hosted workshops, cultural events and performances on migration topics for 10 days. This has been an important work at a time when the refugee influx was at its pick in Austria. I worked together with Vienna based design curator Alice Stori Liechtenstein, artist and community manager Dominik Nostitz, UrbanNomadMixes as well as migrants, refugees, locals and travelers.

In 2016, during a Research and Development Grant awarded by European Cultural Foundation I also developed a co-design workshop together with the Migrationlab Research Team. The Migrationlab co-design workshop is a participatory design thinking process in which people who never met before think and work together on how to create their own spaces of encounter and everything that it contains under the form of a Migrationlab Living Room in their neighborhood or city.

Additionally, in 2017 I started to help organizations to think and work together with their communities/stakeholders in order to co-create solutions for issues they face in their local context, such as skills empowerment of refugees and asylum seekers; how to build more cohesive communities; how to use local resources to strengthen interaction between people. Migrationlab is currently working on expanding to more collaborations with actors in different industries and more news will be available on our website soon.


The way we communicate with and relate to each other in daily social contexts in public space or at work. It’s something that we usually overlook, underestimate and don’t put too much value on. But it’s about the way we react to people and events around us and in the world, that eventually impacts our own environment and shapes our society in the future. Together with local communities of migrants, refugees and locals in Europe I try to build a new way to look at each other and the world, a communication based on genuine curiosity and respect about each other, as opposed to judgement, prejudice, white privilege and superiority.


The greatest inspiration is being on the move and all the experiences this entails. I’m very mobile, I was lucky enough to have the possibility to move between cities and countries in the last ten years. Migrationlab is the result of one of the ways I experienced my mobility. I like the idea of living life as mobility, not being stuck but rather being always in between. In between worlds, places, languages…

The city: I take a lot of energy from the city I am at a given time. I love to walk and bike the city, read its walls, explore its different spaces and observe how people interact. To feel and live its vibes, colours and moods. The languages and the diversity within its walls.

All the people I meet and work with and everything we do together to bring a change in our local contexts.

My friends scattered over different countries and their amazing work.

Books, films, museums, art (in public space), pretty much everything. Everyday life.

Sometimes inspiration comes from a completely different field: I’m a huge fan of ceramist and author Edmund de Waal and its obsession with porcelain. I find myself travelling to different cities and countries to see him talk or experience his exhibitions.


There are many things. My focus is on how to create more impact every year a little bit more than a year before and how to adapt and remain flexible with my work to a society that is constantly changing, reinventing itself, sometimes in dangerous, aggressive ways and which is more and more polarizing. I’m working on making sure that Migrationlab gets to more communities in Europe and beyond. And ultimately, I hope that my work will influence the policy making one day.


I think that communicating and understanding each other’s sides, points of view, goals makes a good start for such a collaboration. Sometimes this means to learn each other’s “language” in order to be able to communicate. Clarity in expressing each other’s goals. Straightforwardness. Trust and respect for each other’s work. Listening. Enquiring. No guessing. Time.


That I’m not alone with my work, that there are so many people out there who work relentlessly to change the status quo of our socio-cultural-political environment, who are going through the same challenges, pains, successes as I do and that they always keep moving forward. I often meet some of them in different European networks I’m part of and these encounters inspire and motivate me a great deal. It makes me feel there’s hope with our world and not all is falling apart.


“Do not wait: the time will never be ‘just right.’ Start where you stand, and work whatever tools you may have at your command and better tools will be found as you go along.”

Few years ago, I stumbled upon this quote of Napoleon Hill, an American self-help author. It resonated so much with me, as it’s the story behind Migrationlab’s development as well. I think it applies in everything you want to achieve, a change within yourself or society.


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