I’ve had the privilege of helping out a little in the Brussels refugee camp this summer. Although my tasks were very humble, I couldn’t help observing how the camp was a most fascinating, self-organising happening. My professional self believes businesses in the struggle for innovation can learn a lot from what happened there. So here’s what I learned.

The camp started with a soup stall and ended up giving shelter, medical services, food, education, clothing and things to do to more than 900 people. It went from 1 to 900 in three weeks time.

Communication substitutes structure.

Unlike what many people think; the Brussels refugee camp was not a centrally organised relief action. Instead a number of individuals and unrelated NGOs, appalled by the dreadful circumstances of newly arriving refugees, started offering first food then shelter. Day by day more volunteers arrived, NGOs started taking up tasks, each one focussing on a particular problem as their responsibility. All in ad hoc agreements, all by talking a lot to each other, reassessing the situation day by day. One organisation stood up and started ‘coordinating’ volunteers. They opened a tent, put a sign on top ‘volunteers register here’ and that was it. This didn’t mean the Volunteer stand had an overview of the work that needed to be done in the camp, it only meant they would inform arriving volunteers briefly, give them some supplies and tell them to walk around and ask where help was needed. In case of an urgent need, a particular service (the kitchen, the showers, the clothing tent etc) would come up to the Volunteers stand and let them know they needed people. Nothing more than constant communication assured the right flow of volunteers towards the tasks at hand.

Stumble upon your ‘user’.

Every day more refugees arrived in the camp and their waiting times increased, which meant a longer stay in the camp. The number of inhabitants was rising quickly. Since all the volunteers and all the refugees were in the same spot, a small park in the centre of Brussels, those trying to solve the evolving needs and problems in the camp were at all times close to those in need. The response and feedback from the refugees to the help offered would force the camp to reorganise/rethink repeatedly and to invent solutions to new problems. To give an example: it quickly became clear that many refugees had smartphones as their only way of communicating with their loved ones left behind. So some people invented the ‘charging tent’. A tent with lots of extension and charging cables, a sign that said ‘Charging Station’ at the entrance and there it was. Another problem solved. Not long after, this news arrived at the very nearby tower of Proximus and they offered to install free WIFI in the camp, which was  a blessing. All quick, pragmatic and effective solutions to real problems.

Continuous improvement

The camp lived in an apparent state of permanent chaos. Or at least that is what it looked like to outsiders. Instead new solutions were being invented and built alongside the existing ones, permanently. The camps school became too small and unfit for the weather conditions so while classes continued a new spot was chosen and a more robust tent was set up. The kitchen facilities soon ran out of space and capacity, so a number of volunteer architects and handymen were gathered and started building a new kitchen shed out of reclaimed wood. All the while normal activities in the camp continued in parallel. With both occupation and weather circumstances evolving quickly, the camp was in constant movement, there was not one day when the camp looked exactly like the day before.

The fuel of motivation

And to fuel all this activity, there was of course the tremendous energy, optimism and hard work of thousands of volunteers. Both people who would come to the camp and help as people donating things in the ad hoc warehouse. There were people of all backgrounds working as volunteers, of all ages, colours, mother tongues, professions etc. (I once found myself cooking with the chef-of-the-day being an Irakese ex-military, who didn’t speak a word of French, Dutch or English, he was assisted by a Belgian girl of Moroccan background who would translate his instructions to an even more diverse group of helpers). The one thing which kept everything together was their motivation to do something. To arrive at the camp and GET THINGS DONE.