Low Technologies, High Aims

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Beneath the bustling ?infinite corridor? linking buildings at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 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.

M.I.T. has nurtured dozens of Nobel Prize winners in cerebral realms like astrophysics, economics and genetics. But lately, the institute 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.

Sham Tembo, an electrical engineer from Zambia, and Jessica Vechakul, an engineering graduate student at M.I.T., slowly added a cow manure puree to a five-gallon bucket holding charcoal made from corncobs. In the right configuration, the mix might generate enough electricity to charge a cellphone battery or a small flashlight for a year or more.

The summit (www.iddsummit.org) was the brainchild mainly of Amy Smith, a lecturer at M.I.T. 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 center and set of courses at M.I.T. devoted to devising cheap technologies that could have a big effect in impoverished communities. In homage to Ms. Smith?s passion for attacking poverty from the ground up, the lab is nicknamed ?Amy?s World.?

Typically, D-Lab sends students abroad in midwinter 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 M.I.T.

Throughout the workshop, Ms. Smith served as scoutmaster, cheerleader, cook and personal shopper (when work flowed deep into the night), and she provided periodic reality checks.

She seemed dazed at times, but never fazed. ?Everyone calls this an experiment,? Ms. 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,? Ms. Stupin yelled.

The workshop was developed over the last year by Ms. Smith, Dr. Pickar and others after a meeting to discuss a ?design revolution? ? a shift in focus among companies, universities, investors and scientists toward attacking problems that hamper development in the world?s poorest places.

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Source: New York Times (link opens in a new window)