As part of its annual roster of Breakthrough Awards for "life-changing innovations," Popular Mechanics magazine has awarded its top honors to MIT Senior Lecturer Amy B. Smith, creator of the D-Lab classes that foster clever low-tech solutions to pressing problems in developing nations.
Calling Smith "a visionary," the magazine gave her its Breakthrough Leadership award, the top honor out of the 20 awards in its annual list. The magazine cited her as "an inspiration to students and volunteers who dedicate their time to improve the standard of living in Haiti, Ghana, India and other countries. She is leading a movement to tackle complex problems with simple technology."
In addition to D-Lab, Smith runs the International Development Design Summit each summer, which brings dozens of people from around the world together for four weeks for intensive brainstorming and prototyping of solutions to local problems from different regions of the developing world. After being held at MIT for the last two years, next summer the summit will take place in Ghana, giving the participants more direct contact with the kinds of communities their inventions are intended to serve.
"It will be interactive in a way we haven't been able to do" at MIT, says Smith, whose work is still sustained in part by a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" she received four years ago. For participants who come from industrialized countries, she said, the summit in Ghana will enable "people who haven't had a chance to experience life in the developing world" to be immersed in that environment firsthand.
Even for those from other developing nations, she said, it's a chance "for people from Tibet to see what life is like in Ghana," for example. "People tend to lump the developing world together," she said, but the problems and potential vary widely from one country to another.
Meanwhile, D-Lab itself continues to grow, having doubled in size over the last year, she says. And it has helped to inspire a variety of other classes and projects that embody Smith's approach of addressing the basic, local needs of people around the world through small-scale engineering with simple tools and readily available materials.
"MIT students are incredibly lucky now," she says. "If they wanted to be involved in this kind of development work every single semester they're here, they could do that now. That didn't used to be the case."
The Popular Mechanics awards were presented at a banquet in New York on Oct. 15, with Smith as the keynote speaker.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 22, 2008 (download PDF).