Skip to content ↓

'Crazy minds, able hands'

MIT's problem-solving design summit moves to developing world
Ela Ben-Ur '97, SM '99, one of the International Development Design Summit organizers, pounds a mixture of plants to make a porridge called fufu, a local staple food, at a small farm in Ghana.
Ela Ben-Ur '97, SM '99, one of the International Development Design Summit organizers, pounds a mixture of plants to make a porridge called fufu, a local staple food, at a small farm in Ghana.
Photo courtesy / Laura Stupin

Most conferences feature a great deal of talk and little real-world action. But the MIT-organized International Design and Development Summit (IDDS), now in its third year, does things the other way around, concentrating on hands-on work to develop real solutions to developing-world problems - in an extremely limited amount of time. Lots of action, not so much talk.

As the summit gets underway, several participants from the past two years have returned, some of them as organizers this time. Two members of a team that worked on a system to charge batteries using an ordinary bicycle are back. So is Pastor George, minister of a village church in Ghana, who last year worked on developing educational software for a simple $12 computer that hooks up to an ordinary TV set. In the year since then, he has helped to set up a company to carry on the project, and developed working prototypes of the software that he has been testing with children in several nearby villages.

The five-week 2009 event, which began on July 8, has undergone some significant changes from its previous incarnations. It has more people, more projects, and, most importantly, for the first time is being held not on the MIT campus but halfway around the world in Kumasi, Ghana, where participants will have a chance to work directly with the people and communities that their projects are intended to help.

Spawned by MIT Senior Lecturer Amy Smith, who was one of the creators of the D-Lab series of courses on the design of technologies for the developing world, IDDS is an intensive project in which the participants form teams to tackle specific problems through simple technologies, generally using materials and manufacturing methods that can be easily obtained on-site at low cost in rural villages.

This year's summit is based on the campus of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. One key to success, organizers say, is involving the end-users of these technologies from the beginning, which will be greatly facilitated by having the summit located in a country such as Ghana. This year, some of the 70 participants and 20 organizers - who come from 21 different countries - will make multiple trips to 10 villages, sometimes staying for a night or two.

"It is critical that we get these villages fully on board and that they understand completely the mission and vision of IDDS," explains Niall Walsh, one of the organizers who is recording the progress of the summit in a blog (

To begin the process, the participants will select 12 projects to focus on from a list of 18 proposals. The suggestions include better methods for processing foodstuffs (shea nut oil extraction, groundnut threshing, cassava processing, de-stoning rice), manufacturing (bamboo matchsticks, latrines, energy storage systems, simple rechargeable lights), health aids (medicine storage, baby monitoring), as well as recycling, water chlorination, construction and transportation projects.

"IDDS prides itself on the spirit of co-creation," Walsh says. "This movement from the States to Africa is a crucial one in line with this vision. We've already found that there is a huge difference between a committee room in MIT and a rural village, for the prep organization work of the conference, and I can only imagine how beneficial it will be for participants to be working on such a regular basis with members of the local community."

The challenges associated with running such an intensive participatory conference in a faraway developing nation have been daunting, the organizers say. In a talk with the organizing group, Smith explained that in one year the conference has attempted to significantly cut operating costs, while increasing the number of participants and projects and moving to a foreign landscape and university.

Smith says that no other conferences of this type exist, because no one in their right mind would go ahead with something that contained so many potential organizational hazards. She told organizers that the summit would be an impossibility if there were not so many people there, and in the world, who share and understand the vision of IDDS, and who have the ability to accompany a "crazy mind with able hands."

Additional information about the IDDS, which is supported by MIT, Olin College, Cooper Perkins, the Rockefeller Foundation, and NCIIA, appears on its web site at

Related Links

Related Topics

More MIT News