What if Lab: Unhindered Participation!

A society on the move

The global Covid-19 pandemic is forcing us to overhaul the design of our (public) spaces to accommodate the demands of the 1.5-metre society. These measures force everyone in the Netherlands to behave in ways different from those we were used to, and we are all experiencing the inconvenience this is causing. This means that retailers are having to rethink how they can receive shoppers and guide them through their stores. How can we create safe environments that everyone can use efficiently?

Apart from the new Covid-19 situation, about 2 million people in the Netherlands with a visible or invisible disability have to manage as best they can every day, as shops are not always equipped and designed to accommodate them. The temporary inconvenience we are experiencing due to Covid-19, is unfortunately a daily reality for many people: they are anything but assisted by the design of urban environments, it prevents them from making use of facilities that, in all fairness, should be accessible to us all.

In this What if Lab we want to investigate how the creativity and mindset of designers, trying, doing and iterating in collaboration with partners from retail environments, can lead to inspiring models. We will develop and present ideas for shop accessibility that can be tested in practice and inspire a refreshing vision for an accessible retail environment. We will be doing this with a broad coalition of partners: InRetail, employers’ federation VNO-NCW and MKB-Nederland (SME) with the programme MKB-Toegankelijk (SME-Accessible), Ieder(In) and HEMA, to expand our vision and develop solutions that can be adopted in practice.

Unhindered participation

The programme initiated by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS) "Unhindered participation!"  is a response to the UN Convention on the rights of people with disabilities. Disabilities are personal and range from auditory, visual and physical disabilities to chronic diseases, mental vulnerability and neurodiversity. The programme harbours the ambition of facilitating the participation of people with disabilities in society in tune with their own wishes and abilities - just like everyone else. Because everyone is entitled to this.

And there is still a lot of ground to be won here! Unhindered participation! Increases awareness and stimulates the reduction of obstacles in society: both visible and invisible obstacles and both physical and digital. How can we strengthen this 'mindset' and stimulate the adoption of inclusive thinking and doing in society?

Good experiences for everyone

There are a lot of changes taking place in the Retail sector, affecting both shopkeepers and shoppers. Online shopping, for example, has sky-rocketed, with the expectation that this trend will continue to grow steadily in the coming years. This changes the shopping street experience. Shops are less and less 'small distribution centres, supplying goods', but instead they claim the role of the physical flagship for an 'omni-channel' retailer. The shopping environment as an experience, the human factor and personal contact are, according to the research 'Retail towards 2030: Retail Rules', by trade association InRetail, (even) more important factors to have organised properly. The importance shifts from what you buy to how you buy it.

So there is still much to be gained, because there is still a large group of customers, with a disability, who are regularly confronted with obstacles in retail environments. And these obstacles influence the shopping experience for customers. A positive shopping experience induces repeat visits and increased customer loyalty.

We will have to look at and consider things differently if we want to be able to design shops that are accessible and user-friendly for everyone. We need to look beyond the needs of the dominant majority and involve people with disabilities from the very beginning, in thinking and acting. This will provide space for receiving and serving a group of customers that is as inclusive as possible. After all, a shop ought to be a welcoming and friendly place for everyone.

Fortunately, there are already many insights, tools and tips to ensure good accessibility for everyone. Policy makers, experience experts, professional associations, interest groups, researchers and designers are all committed to developing 'inclusive' environments: environments where as many people as possible, regardless of matters such as age, disability or reading skills, are able to make full use of products, buildings and services.


An inclusive shopping environment that is accessible to a large group of customers, with or without disabilities, leads to a better shopping experience and generates a loyal group of customers who enjoy visiting the store regularly. Everyone benefits!

The design question

How can we remove obstacles that stand in the way of shopping for people with disabilities, and simultaneously contribute to a positive shopping experience for everyone?

We are looking for five designers/design studios that, together with experience experts, will identify the bottlenecks in shopping environments and subsequently develop the corresponding design questions and answers.

We are looking for practical solutions for retailers that remove obstacles and, in doing so, enhance the shopping experience: making shopping easier, simpler, more efficient or just more fun... for everyone. We are not looking for a comprehensive solution, but feasible solutions with impact. 

Solutions can therefore be physical and/or digital. It is important that we develop solutions to provide added value for a broad group of retailers. So we are not looking for an application that just works in a single store, but for concepts that can be deployed to improve accessibility (possibly with alterations) in multiple stores.

Who are we looking for? Design for inclusion

'Inclusive Design', 'Design for All', 'Universal Design' are design methods in which the focus is entirely on the user and the largest possible group of people can avail themselves of the solution. Design for All' / 'Universal Design' seeks solutions that serve the largest possible group of users, where 'Inclusive Design' offers solutions for a specific group and these are manifested in such a way that they become useful for the largest possible group of users.

In all these methods it is not the similarities between the largest group of users, but the diversity of the users that dictates direction. Which is why cooperation with the people you are designing for is so vital. Experience experts can draw the attention of designers to the accessibility obstacles that they encounter on a daily basis. So designing for inclusion is always about co-design: designing solutions with and for a diverse group of users.

In this What if Lab we are looking for designers and design studios that are keen to employ an inclusive design method, who want to get to work with users, and who do not shy away from boiling down a complex challenge into an applicable solution. Of course, you don't need to do this alone: our affiliated partners will support you with knowledge and skills, during a master class at the beginning of the What if Lab and during the process. The objective is to start a collaboration during the What if Lab in which the knowledge and skills of all parties are exchanged and deployed.


To be able to work on solutions that can actually be applied in a retail environment, the solutions will need to be tested for feasibility within the retail sector. The typically Dutch HEMA (Hollandsche Eenheidsprijzen Maatschappij Amsterdam) will be acting as a 'Launching customer' in the What if Lab.

Since its establishment in 1926, the essence of HEMA has been defined as: optimistic, unique, clear, reliable, accessible and typically Dutch. With more than 760 stores in ten countries and 19,000 employees serving more than six million visitors every week, HEMA is a global brand that acknowledges the increasing importance of smart design. HEMA's vision for the future is to make sustainable solutions for everyday life accessible for everyone.

Hema will act as a sparring partner during the What if Lab, to help shape the criteria for testing the concepts and it is eager to investigate how positive results, after a possible pilot, could have a real impact in the future.

At the same time, Hema is clear that the solutions are not seen as solely applicable within its own store concept. On the contrary, HEMA hopes that the concepts developed might have relevance for a large group of retailers and shoppers. Developed with HEMA, for everyone!


The concepts and design solutions will be appraised by the jury using the following criteria. The criteria also serve as a support for designers to be able to test ideas during the process and to come up with solutions that can have an impact when implemented.

  • Solutions are developed in consultation with experience experts.
  • Solutions have an added value for guests in the store and are as inclusive as possible, where at best they are solutions that support a certain group and also have added value for a larger group.
  • The solutions are sustainable, scalable and accessible to a broad group of retailers (not for one specific scenario or company). Various versions of the solutions can be created and/or shared as lessons learned with multiple retailers.
  • Solutions are economically realistic for retailers: there is no need for major adjustments or tailor-made solutions per store to achieve impact.
  • The solution contributes to awareness about the value of accessibility and acts as a statement: we want everyone to be able to participate.

Programme, selection and guidance

Following the deadline for registration on 9 August 2020, the commissioners will select a maximum of five designers (-studios) to work in this What if Lab. They will be invited to a masterclass, after which they will work independently developing a concept over the following eight weeks. During this period, meetings have been planned with the organisers to discuss progress and to check criteria, expectations and practical feasibility.

These five designers will present their concepts ('pitches') during Dutch Design Week 2020 to a selection panel comprising the commissioners and an external designer. On the basis of the presentations and the contact during the project, the selection panel will select which two concepts deserve continued development within the What if Lab.

The designers of the selected concepts continue the development to produce a final concept: a detailed design. An eight-week period has been allotted for this, with various interim meetings and test moments. This final concept will be presented to the selection panel on 17 December 2020.

After this What if Lab, the commissioners will consult with the designers to determine what the next steps might be in the continued development of the results and their use in practice.

The selection committee includes:

  • Frank Norbruis, Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, policy officer programme Unhindered Participation!
  • Daphne Heidenrijk, Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, policy officer programme Unhindered Participation!
  • Iris Schuitemaker, MKB-Toegankelijk, project leader MKB-NL and MKB-Toegankelijk
  • Femke den Hartog, INretail, senior policy advisor
  • Xandra Koster, Ieder(in), project leader Niets Over Ons Zonder Ons (Nothing About Us Without Us)
  • Niek van den Adel, entrepreneur, experience expert and representative MKB-Toegankelijk
  • Eva Ronhaar, HEMA, sustainability, innovation and HEMA Foundation
  • Jan Eeken, HEMA, portfolio manager Retail Operations
  • An external designer

Dries van Wagenberg (on behalf of DDF) will supervise the process.

Registration and procedure

Registrations are open until Sunday 9 August 2020 23:59 via this link and professional designers may apply.

In this application we request that designers provide references for 3 to 5 relevant, previously executed projects or designs and a motivation for participation in the What if Lab: Unhindered Participation in which you describe how this assignment fits you as a designer/design studio, your motivation for participating and where you see opportunities in this design brief (max. 800 words). It is not yet necessary to present design solutions.

A maximum of 5 designers will be selected from the registrations. The shortlisted designers will be notified on 17 August 2020.

The 'Terms of Participation What if Lab: Unhindered Participation apply. Registration is an automatic agreement with these terms. Click here to read the conditions of participations. The conditions have been drafted in Dutch, if you have any questions concerning the conditions please contact Lio de Bruin.

The working language is Dutch. The communication during the design process as well as the designers’ presentations may be in English if required. Documentation and notes need to be submitted in Dutch.


The maximum of five selected participants will each receive an amount of €750,- ex. VAT for attending the masterclass and any travel expenses.

Selected participants receive an amount of 2.500,- ex VAT for the development of a concept with accompanying interim meetings and a presentation (in addition to the 'live' presentation also to be shared as a PDF with the commissioners) during DDW (date TBA).

Two participants will then be selected to develop the concept into a design with detailed visualisation (for example in the form of a prototype, model, 3D animation or video) and an accompanying report on the process, analysis and the results in the form of a PDF/book. These participants will receive a fee of € 7.500 ex. VAT. This fee is to compensate for the hours worked, travel expenses, material costs and costs incurred for the elaborated visualisation, corresponding interim meetings and the presentation on 17 December 2020.


Throughout the process, consultation, feedback and support are possible for retail-specific topics through Daphne Heidenrijk from the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. Where necessary, she will involve colleagues from INretail, Ieder(in), MKB-Toegankelijk and HEMA.

25 August Masterclass
8 September Update interview 1
29 September Update interview 2
During Dutch Design Week (date TBA) Sketch and concept presentations | judging and selection of 2 design studios for further development // further elaboration of concept in collaboration with InRetail and Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport.
3 November Update interview 3
26 November Update interview 4
17 December Final presentation


In order to provide the What if Lab with a broad basis of support and to create the conditions for tapping into the knowledge and expertise of different organisations surrounding inclusion and retail, several organisations have been affiliated as partners. They will join the What if Lab: Unhindered Participation at different points, such as during the master class and selection. In addition, based on their knowledge and experience, they can act as sparring partners for the designers during the research process right up to the final presentation.

INretail / Representative retail and knowledge partner, network

INretail is for anyone who has a shop in retail non-food, such as interiors, fashion, footwear and sports. With the base of 5,100 members and 13,000 shops, ranging from SMEs to large chain stores, they are fighting for a strong retail store economy. INretail wants to make doing business easier and supports members with lobby activities, knowledge and advice.

INretail believes that shops should be welcoming for everyone. After all, shops and their owners are at the centre of our society. They see opportunities to raise entrepreneurs’ awareness of how they can improve the accessibility of their shop, so that every customer feels welcome.


Ieder(in) / Representative experience expert and knowledge partner

Ieder(in) is the umbrella organisation for people with a physical or mental disability or a chronic illness. With 230 affiliated organisations, Ieder(in) is the largest network of people with a disability in the Netherlands. Ieder(in) is committed to a society in which everyone can participate, and no one is excluded. Through lobbying at a national level, supporting local advocates, informing members and others and by involving experts in their activities.


MKB-Nederland / Representative retail and knowledge partner, network

MKB-Nederland is the initiator of the MKB-Toegankelijk programme. The ambition is to inform, stimulate and activate entrepreneurs to tackle accessibility within their own company. And also to make entrepreneurs aware of the advantages of accessible entrepreneurship. Via the website www.mkbtoegankelijk.nl, the MKB-Toegankelijk programme offers (simple and practical) tips and tools on how entrepreneurs can improve accessibility themselves.

MKB-Toegankelijk publishes personal accounts and best practices from entrepreneurs who have already initiated accessibility measures within their own business. The programme also offers accessibility checklists and tips on the (physical) structure of company environments.


HEMA / 'Launching customer' and knowledge partner

Since its establishment in 1926, HEMA has been a household name in Dutch shopping streets. HEMA is currently emerging as a global brand with an increasing focus on smart design. With more than 760 stores in 10 countries, its 19,000 employees welcome more than 6 million visitors every week. The majority of these stores, more than 500, are located in the Netherlands.

From day one, the essence of HEMA was defined as: optimistic, unique, clear, reliable, accessible and typically Dutch. HEMA is for everyone.


If you have any questions about this What if Lab, please contact Lab Manager Lio de Bruin, lio@dutchdesignfoundation.com