Beneath the bustling “infinite corridor” linking buildings at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), just past a boiler room, an assemblage of tinkerers from 16 countries welded, stitched and hammered, working on rough-hewn inventions aimed at saving the world, one village at a time. Lately, MIT has turned its attention toward concrete thinking to improve the lives of the world’s bottom billion, those who live on a dollar a day or less and who often die young.
This summer, it played host to a four-week International Development Design Summit to identify problems, cobble together prototype solutions and winnow the results to see which might work in the real world. Mohamed Mashaal, a young British engineer headed for a job with BP on the North Sea this fall, poured water into a handcrafted plastic backpack worn by a design partner, Bernard Kiwia, who teaches bicycle repair in rural Tanzania and hopes to offer women there an easier way to tote the precious liquid for long distances.
The summit (www.iddsummit.org) was the brainchild mainly of Amy Smith, a lecturer at MIT who received her master’s there in 1995 and in 2004 won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, and Kenneth Pickar, an engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology. Faculty and students from Olin College, an engineering school near Boston, were also involved. The flurry of activity was taking place at D-Lab, a research centre and set of courses at MIT devoted to devising cheap technologies that could have a big effect in impoverished communities. In homage to Smith’s passion for attacking poverty from the ground up, the lab is nicknamed “Amy’s World”.
Typically, D-Lab sends students abroad in mid-winter breaks to work with people who are struggling with a lack of clean water, electricity, cooking fuels or mechanical power to turn crops into products. For four weeks, though, the real world had come to MIT. “Everyone calls this an experiment,” Smith said of the workshop, the first of its kind. “I call it the realization of a vision.” The work itself was often two steps back, not one step forward. As Lhamotso, a young woman from Tibet, and Laura Stupin, who just graduated from Olin, wrestled with a whirring Rube Goldberg mash-up of bicycle and grain mill, the chain slipped with a loud clang. “We have a real friction problem,” Stupin yelled.
“Nearly 90% of research and development dollars are spent on creating technologies that serve the wealthiest 10% of the world’s population,” Smith said. “The point of the design revolution is to switch that.” She added: “There are several different places where that revolution has to take place. We started thinking, “How do we train engineers so they might start thinking of this as a field of engineering they’d want to pursue?”’
Developing a pedal-powered grain mill or a backpack for water, as workshop participants did, was only a first step. The teams also had to be sure that their creations could be built of local materials cheaply enough to be bought by the world’s poorest people.
The workshop began mid-July, with the arrival of nearly 50 visitors from Brazil, Ghana, Guatemala, Tanzania, Tibet and other countries.