Electricity from cow manure. Pedal-powered grain mill or a backpack for water. Cooler that uses evaporation from wet fabric. An innovative idea at MIT saw tinkerers from 16 nations working on inventions to save the world
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.
MIT 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 MIT, slowly added a cow manure puree to a 5-gallon bucket holding charcoal made from corncobs. In the right configuration, the mix might generate enough electricity to charge a cell phone 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 MIT.
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 MIT.
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 percent of research and development dollars are spent on creating technologies that serve the wealthiest 10 percent of the world's population," Smith said. "The point of the design revolution is to switch that."
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, that they could be fixed easily and fit ways of living that have deep-rooted rhythms.
The workshop began in mid-July, with the arrival of nearly 50 visitors from Brazil, Ghana, Guatemala, Tanzania, Tibet and other countries.
The workshop began with a lecture by Paul Polak, a psychiatrist turned entrepreneur, who develops simple solutions for the problems of the poor. Polak, who has become something of a guru to the design revolution movement, railed against conventional charity and insisted that the route to prosperity lies in inventions that improve lives but mesh with existing lifestyles.
He laid out the principles of development from the bottom up, including the importance of first listening and watching, then following the old dictum "small is beautiful" with another, equally important one: "Cheap is beautiful."
The goal, he said, should be to improve a million lives, and to make technologies that can be sold and bought in increments -- like a drip-irrigating system that can expand as a farmer's income rises.
Ashley Thomas, an entering senior at MIT, explained the appeal of such work while struggling with a teetering metal frame for a cooler that uses evaporation from wet fabric instead of electrical components to draw heat from its contents. The idea was conceived with participants from Tibet, where meat must be stored for weeks in isolated rural areas, and India, where heat can quickly ruin a vendor's inventory.
"Imagine a fruit vendor in a rural area or the slums," explained Deepa Dubey, a partner of Thomas, who studies product design as a graduate student in Kanpur, India. "He comes with all his fruit and vegetables. At the end of the day he makes one dollar, and whatever is left he has to throw it away because he can't store it."
Thomas said, "Amy's class is about the hardest class to get into at MIT, including at the Sloan School, which is basically about how to make a million dollars after you graduate."
She added: "It's taking industrial design theory and applying it to where you can have the greatest impact. Here, $5 worth of angle iron and towels could mean a month's supply of food. To me, that's just worth so much more than spending that amount of time working on designing a slick new computer."
New York Times News Service