Opportunity Space Festival


    More than a million refugees and migrants entered Europe in 2015, highlighting one of the toughest challenges that cities around the world will face for decades to come: In an era of great uncertainty, how and where can people find opportunity?


    The Opportunity Space Festival, held August 22 — September 2, 2017, brought together refugees, asylum seekers, and established residents in Malmö, Sweden for twelve days of free programs to support social and economic inclusion.

    Van Alen worked with more than 30 NGOs, government agencies, and businesses to organize the festival and offer programs. More than 1,300 people visited the festival for shared meals and dance performances; CV-writing workshops and job interviews; and other activities to help people meet each other, learn new skills, exchange ideas, and prepare to enter the job market.

    The festival took place in a custom-designed temporary pavilion selected from Van Alen Institute’s 2016 Opportunity Space design competition.

    Lessons Learned

    Social inclusion is a two-way street

    Cities can offer many different resources (language classes, job readiness programs, counseling, etc.) to help marginalized groups establish a place in society. But it’s not enough to ask people in these groups to adapt. Inclusion also means changing perceptions and practices among established residents, business leaders, and other stakeholders. For example, employers may not know that they can find exceptional talent in unconventional candidates; or, migration officials may need to relax language requirements that prevent recent immigrants from finding work.

    The job training program Good Malmö works with many companies in the Malmö region to connect them to young people ages 18-30 who are entering the job market for the first time. Good Malmö offers job seekers training on writing a CV, navigating the job market, and other skills needed to find work. But just as important is Good Malmö’s work with HR directors to help them see the talents they’re looking for in candidates they might otherwise overlook.

    Take your time

    In many cities and communities dealing with rapid demographic change, there’s an urgent need to encourage social inclusion. But it takes time to establish trust among strangers, or to understand deeply ingrained ways of thinking or unconscious biases in people from very different backgrounds. To make real, lasting impacts, city officials, philanthropies, civic organizations all need to plan for long horizons and sustained engagement, as well as short-term progress.

    For the Opportunity Space Festival, the design firm Meshworks worked with a group of job-seeking and newly arrived designers to create temporary benches for festival visitors. The project began five months before the festival opened, with members of the group meeting with established mentors and local stakeholders to learn about the park where the festival was being held, and develop and refine their design ideas. This process allowed the group time to establish professional networks (all of the newly arrived participants found jobs or internships), and gain confidence in completing a complex, multifaceted project. The benches the group produced were wildly popular, but the process to create them produced the bigger long-term impact.

    Make the process of inclusion visible

    Hate groups, fake news outlets, and other entities that demonize marginalized groups have become increasingly prominent online and in public. Meanwhile, the hard to work to create more socially inclusive cities mostly takes place out of sight, in countless church basements, classrooms, and employment agencies. Bringing social inclusion activities out into public space, and giving them highly visible platforms such as the Opportunity Space Festival’s temporary pavilion, achieves multiple goals. For instance, greater visibility makes it easier to attract people to participate.

    Researchers have found that to change people’s behavior, their perceptions of social norms are more important than their personal beliefs. If city government is prominently involved in creating public spaces that promote social inclusion, it can send a clear message to everyone about that city’s values and priorities.

    To foster social inclusion, look to the mundane

    Social inclusion is not a mysterious process; it can start with participating in simple, everyday activities and rituals. For instance, the Red Cross in Sweden offers a Biking School class to recent immigrants of any age, providing a bike and helmet, and safe places to learn to ride.

    What makes riding a bike important for social inclusion? In Sweden, where bicycling is considered a birthright, many recent immigrants come from places where bicycles are much less part of everyday culture; these new arrivals may not own a bicycle or know how to ride. Learning this skill is not simply about making it easier to get around, but about becoming part of a shared culture that established residents take for granted.


    Job seekers waiting to meet employers at a job fair hosted by the private nonprofit Good Malmö

    The City

    Malmö was an ideal place to explore this question. A rapidly growing and diversifying gateway city to Scandinavia, Malmö was also the point of arrival for the vast majority of refugees and asylum seekers (or “new arrivals”) settling in Sweden – up to 10,000 a week in 2015. Analysts estimate that the average age at which people in Sweden find their first “real” job (one that allows them to qualify for a mortgage, for example) is 29, and that it takes new arrivals up to seven years before they are gainfully employed.

    Conceptual rendering of the pavilion exterior

    The Pavilion

    In October 2016, Van Alen Institute launched an international design competition for the temporary pavilion. A distinguished panel of jurors selected the Folkets House team, which drew its inspiration from Swedish labor union buildings that originated in the 19th century as venues for public meetings and cultural activities. Skanska donated the labor to build the pavilion.

    On any given day at the festival, multiple programs took place at the same time, creating a “one-stop shop” for people to find job training programs, language classes, and social services under the same roof.

    The Park

    The Malmö we saw during Opportunity Space was a city in transition: growing rapidly, the site of major development projects and initiatives tasked with accommodating the city’s large number of new arrivals.

    Enskifteshagen Park stood at the heart of many of these changes, with a new commuter rail station set to open in 2018, and ambitious long-range plans for new housing in the area. The park is located between Malmö’s Möllevången and Rosengård neighborhoods, well-known immigrant hubs with some of the city’s most diverse populations. Directly adjacent to the south is the Sofielunds Industrial Park, which is home to a wide range of small businesses and other uses.


    Design Team