Engaging Volunteers Globally in Re-Imagining Humanitarian Futures


In 2017, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and human-computer interaction (HCI) research group, Open Lab, at Newcastle University came together to design an online game.The goal was to engage volunteers around the world to re-image different futures and propose what the IFRC needs to change over the next decade. We designed WhatFutures; a large-scale multiplayer game played entirely on WhatsApp. All the results of the game informed the IFRC’s global strategy for 2030.

The learnings from this project were published at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems 2019. Click here to read the research paper.

Design Motives

WhatFutures was a collaborative effort where programmers, researchers, and designers came together to create a friendly activity using one of the most popular and widely used messaging application – WhatsApp. We tapped into crowdsourcing, gamification, and accessibility principles to reach a distributed network of Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers in 120 countries.
Traditionally, international organisations have used top-down consultation processes, such as online surveys and face to face workshops, to engage their members for strategic purposes. These efforts may lead to low participation and a lack of diversity in the represented voices. Therefore, we decided to give local volunteers voice through a communication platform they use and understand. This effort resulted in over 3,000 volunteers signing up to this game and the creation of hundreds of multimedia artefacts that represent local concerns of what the organisation should address over the next ten years.

About WhatFutures

Players signed up to four different roles, formed small teams, and collaborated to solve two challenges. Participants chose an archetype that helped them approach the game stages from a unique perspective as 1) economists, 2) technologists, 3) environmental scientist, and 4) cultural expert. These characters allowed players to access customised content in separate WhatsApp groups and discuss with other players the challenges and opportunities for their fields. 

Players could sign up in teams or be allocated to a team upon registration. Teams were smaller WhatsApp groups (3-5 participants) where players with different roles crafted solutions and shared their responses as the game progressed. 

The two primary challenges of the game were: 1) producing a news story taking place in the year 2030, covering the biggest challenge facing players’ communities, and 2) imagining a disaster response in 2030, showcasing what the Red Cross / Red Crescent is doing differently.  


There are two personal takeaways from this digital deployment. Firstly, the power of ‘unplatforming’, seizing digital spaces that participants already use in their everyday lives. These platforms are often inexpensive and accessible, unlocking avenues for creative digital experiences to reach people at a larger scale. Designing with WhatsApp was a challenging yet rewarding experience because it required frequent monitoring and coordinated efforts to encourage participation. However, it allowed the research team to interact directly with participants and provide real-time support. Secondly, the use of role-playing principles to funnel engagement, whereby players created communities around topics of their interest. Some of these broader WhatsApp groups (e.g. environmental scientists) remain active despite many players not sharing the same geography. Here people keep discussing significant global challenges and what they mean for their local contexts. To conclude, WhatFutures started as a consultation tool, but it quickly became a community of young volunteers who probably would not have come together to discuss their local experiences otherwise.

2 responses to “Engaging Volunteers Globally in Re-Imagining Humanitarian Futures”

  1. […] The results of this project were published at the ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems 2020. Click here to read the research paper. […]

  2. […] people worldwide in the process of imagining multiple futures driven by their local realities. Read more about this engagement here. This research phase concluded with design workshops with members across IFRC’s membership, […]

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