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Improving people's lives, one device at a time

International workshop looks for simple solutions to big problems
A team from the International Development Design Summit at MIT created a cable-car-like ropeway to transport goods uphill.
A team from the International Development Design Summit at MIT created a cable-car-like ropeway to transport goods uphill.
Photo: David Chandler

Using a bicycle wheel to thresh millet, making LEGO-like bricks from dirt, or hooking up an electric generator to an irrigation pump may not save the world, but such simple projects could go a long way toward improving the lives of millions of people living in the world's developing countries. That's the guiding principle behind a month-long summer workshop at MIT that wrapped up today. Its goal was to develop simple, inexpensive devices that can make a real difference for people and communities.

A video overview of the 2008 International Development Design Summit held at MIT.
Video: MIT News Office/AMPS

Sixty people from more than 20 nations gathered on campus to find solutions to very specific problems faced by people around the world, with the help of mentors and volunteers from MIT, Olin College, and various companies and campuses. They split up into 10 teams, each focused on addressing a specific need, and presented the results of their intensive work at a public session at MIT this week.

The workshop, called the International Development Design Summit (IDDS), was initiated by Amy Smith, senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at MIT. This was its second year; several of the participants from last year returned to help out as organizers.

Most members of the teams had never met before the summit began, many had never left their home countries before, and some spoke no English, so just learning to communicate and work together was challenging. At least two of the teams included members from four different continents among their six participants. And they all had fewer than four weeks to complete their projects, from initial brainstorming through the construction of working prototypes.

"The idea of IDDS is to find simple solutions to big problems," said Suprio Das, from Kolkata, India, who worked on a team designing a way to charge batteries while pumping water with a treadle pump, a type of simple irrigation device widely used in many developing countries. The idea is to take advantage of work that people are already doing anyway, to enable them to use electric lights at night instead of the kerosene lamps they currently use. "People will be able to generate electricity as they are doing their usual daily work," said Oswin Chibinga, a professor of agriculture at the University of Zambia who was a member of that team.

"To me, this has been really interesting, working with different cultures and different languages, people working together in harmony," said Kenneth Mubuyaeta, from Lusaka, Zambia, who runs a wheelchair manufacturing company there and who also worked on the power-generation team.

Among the other projects:
  • A device for grinding charcoal made from corncobs, so that it could then be pressed into briquettes and used for cooking, avoiding the carbon-monoxide emissions produced when the cobs are burned whole.
  • A cable-car-like ropeway to transport goods up a hill from a small village factory in India to a road where they could be loaded onto trucks to be sold in a nearby city.
  • A simple incubator that could be used to nurture premature babies in remote villages far from hospitals, designed to be easily built and repaired using locally available materials.
  • A system for making interlocking blocks for building construction, using rammed earth in a simple mold. Some of the bricks were designed with a LEGO-like pattern so that they would snap together into a very stable wall.
  • A way of using a modified bicycle as a way of threshing millet -- a staple crop in many parts of Africa and Asia -- far more efficiently than current mortar-and-pestle methods.
As interesting and innovative as the many design solutions were, Smith said that there is much more to the process than that. "It's not just about the products, but the creative process behind them," she said. Part of what all the participants will take home with them is the attitudes and approaches they learned here, about working together to take new concepts and bring them into reality.

As Zambian participant Chibinga put it, "Any kind of idea you can think of, you can put into practice. This has been a groundbreaking experience for me."

Next summer, the third IDDS will be held in Ghana instead of at MIT, to give participants even more opportunities to interact and get feedback from the people who may actually end up using their inventions.

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