A decade ago, in the early days of the innovative MIT classes and field trips known collectively as D-Lab, the project aimed to develop creative solutions to problems facing people in the world’s least-affluent countries — and then hoped those residents would embrace the solutions. But over the years, with the accumulation of on-the-ground experience, D-Lab’s philosophy has shifted toward fostering a spirit of innovation in the developing world, encouraging residents to devise solutions that fit their needs, circumstances and resources.
Now, thanks to a major new U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) grant to D-Lab and MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, D-Lab’s instructors and researchers will implement this strategy even more broadly — providing greater continuity to projects around the world, says D-Lab founder Amy Smith, a senior lecturer in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.
D-Lab began small, but has undergone explosive growth thanks to broad interest among MIT undergraduates. In its first year, D-Lab consisted of a single class, a single instructor and about 10 students. D-Lab’s first courses were held in a shared classroom at MIT’s Edgerton Center; its initial headquarters was a converted shipping and receiving room.
The program now employs about 20 people and encompasses 16 courses that reach about 400 students each year. Even though D-Lab does little to publicize its activities, staffers are increasingly hearing that this program was a major reason why participating students chose to attend MIT.
The growth has been “exciting and mind-boggling and challenging,” Smith says. Straddling several departments, labs and centers, D-Lab “is probably not like the structure of anything else at MIT. We’ve built ourselves up from a grassroots level.”
D-Lab’s early growth was helped by others who shared its vision, Smith says, including Kim Vandiver, head of the Edgerton Center, and Sally Susnowitz, head of MIT’s Public Service Center. “The level of collaboration has been very significant,” she says.
All of D-Lab’s classes assess the needs of people in less-privileged communities around the world, examining innovations in technology, education or communications that might address those needs. The classes then seek ways to spread word of these solutions — and in some cases, to spur the creation of organizations to help disseminate them. Specific projects have focused on improved wheelchairs and prosthetics; water and sanitation systems; and recycling waste to produce useful products, including charcoal fuel made from agricultural waste.
New classes are often added “just by trying to respond to student demand,” says Victor Grau Serrat, D-Lab’s co-director, an electrical engineer who started out as a volunteer.
Awareness of D-Lab has grown in recent years, thanks in part to some prominent mentions: a popular TED talk Smith gave in 2006 and Time magazine’s selection of her in 2010 as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.
In addition to its classes and field trips, the D-Lab staff and a large group of volunteers have, for the past six years, planned and coordinated a series of month-long workshops — the International Development Design Summit (IDDS) — hosted either at MIT or by partner universities in Colorado, Ghana and Brazil. While these events have produced ingenious ideas and inspired innovators, D-Lab has never had the resources to provide ongoing support.
Now, with the new USAID support, “we can harness the alumni of IDDS as a kind of an extremely diverse and dispersed design consultancy,” Smith says: After each summit, the D-Lab team would help participants establish ongoing “innovation hubs” to continue developing solutions to local needs. She also hopes to expand from a single IDDS each July to several annually.
The USAID grant will also make it possible to maintain projects that D-Lab students begin during their field trips to remote locations. While some students have already managed to turn class projects into ongoing organizations — building better water filters in Africa, bicycle-powered washing machines in Latin America, and wheelchairs in India, for instance — the new funding should enable more such activities, Smith says, by “incubating ventures and training entrepreneurs.”
“Creative capacity-building” — fostering local innovation by providing training, resources, information, tools and inspiration — has become a mantra of D-Lab. The new funding will also build a database of projects from D-Lab, the IDDS, the International Development Innovation Network and other groups worldwide.
“The emphasis has shifted,” Grau Serrat says, “more from designing for poor people to designing with poor people, or even design by poor people.” The key aim now, he says, is “to develop the local capacity, so that villagers themselves can develop their own technology. Instead of viewing them as needy and vulnerable, we view them as resourceful and creative.”