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Making a difference in the developing world

International summit at MIT aims for real solutions
Amy Smith, one of the lead organizers of the International Development Design Summit
Amy Smith, one of the lead organizers of the International Development Design Summit
Photo / Donna Coveney

So many summits, conferences and high-powered meetings follow the same pattern: lots of talk, but not much in the way of concrete results.

This summer, organizers of the first International Development Design Summit at MIT are going to talk about problems in the developing world and then create real, workable solutions to them - all in the space of four weeks.

More than 50 people from 16 countries, many hailing from developing nations, will arrive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this weekend for the first-of-its-kind conference. Organizers hope that by including participants with a variety of technical backgrounds, the group can take an interdisciplinary approach that will yield hard results.

The summit realizes the vision of Amy Smith, who received a master's in engineering from MIT in 1995 and won a MacArthur 'genius' grant in 2004. Smith, one of the conference organizers, is dedicated to using technology to design simple yet efficient solutions for problems in the developing world.

"I believe very strongly that solutions to problems in the developing world are best created in collaboration with the people who will be using them," Smith said. "By bringing this group of people together, we get an incredibly broad range of backgrounds and experiences.

"We have a farmer from Ghana, a doctor from Pakistan, a carpenter from Haiti, a bicycle mechanic from Guatemala, and students from Brazil, Guatemala, India and the Democratic Republic of Congo," Smith continued. "With all these people working together to identify problems and create solutions to them, there is an extraordinary richness in the problem-solving teams."

She currently teaches MIT's D-Lab, a series of courses that focus on international development. The summit will further the mission of D-Lab by involving those who will use technologies in the developing world in the design process. The goal of the summit is for participants to adapt and implement the new technologies in their own communities when they return home.

"I'm often frustrated by conferences where the results are just presentations, posters and papers. The output of this conference will be real devices, things that people can use. Participants will be able to take prototypes home with them and start testing them," she said.

During the summit, participants will organize into design teams, identify a problem, and create a working solution. Taking part in all aspects of the design process -- from problem definition through manufacturing of prototypes -- the teams will receive training at machine shops, rapid prototyping facilities and workspaces at MIT and in the surrounding community. Coached by sector specialists and guest speakers, the teams will be peer reviewed throughout the design process. In the final stages, teams will develop business models and plans to implement their technologies.

Projects will be chosen based on the interests of the participants. Possible projects may include creating a low-cost coffee bean sorting system to raise the profits of rural farmers, evaluating uses for biogas from agricultural waste, and healthcare innovations.

The summit will take place from July 16 to Aug. 10 at MIT. Summit results will be displayed during a final presentation on Aug. 8. The California Institute of Technology and Olin College of Engineering co-organized the summit. To learn more about IDDS visit:

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