MIT D-Lab recently welcomed new Executive Director Ana Pantelic to its team. Pantelic has worked at the confluence of systems change and social innovation and brings nearly 15 years of experience in policy and practice from Latin America, East Africa, and the Balkans.
“As we prepare to enter our third decade, we are excited to have Ana on board to guide our vision and help implement our goal to deepen and broaden D-Lab's impact at MIT and in the world,” says D-Lab Founding Director Amy Smith. “Her leadership skills and experience navigating complex projects in Colombia and Uganda make her an excellent choice as executive director, and we look forward to working with her.”
“I am excited to be here,” says Pantelic. “D-Lab is steering brilliant minds — at MIT and around the world — toward the challenges of global poverty.”
Paths shaped by curiosity and serendipity
Specializing in poverty reduction through the lens of finance, Pantelic’s experience includes working for UNICEF, where she launched Uganda’s first urban social protection program for adolescent girls, and Fundación Capital, where she founded a digital solution proven to increase the financial health of people living in poverty. She has been invited to share her insights at conferences in more than 20 countries and has authored several publications, is fluent in three languages, and holds a master’s degree in international relations from Boston University and a doctoral degree in political science from the University of Belgrade.
Of her career trajectory, Pantelic comments, “I’ve experienced geographic and thematic depth and breadth in my work over the years, and have intentionally sought diversity, using intellectual curiosity and a dose of serendipity to guide me.”
Sounds a lot like D-Lab: global, organic in its development, guided by curiosity, and grounded in expertise.
D-Lab was founded in 2002 by Amy Smith, as a single class working with a community partner in Haiti who identified a need for cooking-fuel alternatives to wood and wood-derived charcoal. As D-Lab added subjects to its academic roster, it also gained depth in research ranging from biomass fuels, evaporative cooling, and water purification to the study of local innovation and field research methods, and grew its cherished network of community partners around the world. Over the course of nearly two decades, MIT D-Lab’s programs have grown to include more than 15 interdisciplinary MIT classes; engineering and social science research groups; methodologies that guide technology design and development for, with, and by people living in poverty; and a network of community partners in two-dozen countries who work with D-Lab on a suite of international field programs.
“D-Lab plays a critical role at MIT and in international development,” Pantelic says. “More than 2,500 students have participated in a class or research opportunity with D-Lab, and they are overwhelmingly satisfied with their D-Lab experiences. A study showed that we are increasing their ability to understand global social issues, design solutions to problems, and integrate knowledge across disciplines; and we are influencing their career paths.”
A participatory approach to design and development
“Persistent poverty is a consequence of power imbalance,” says Pantelic, “and those experiencing it rarely have the opportunity to help design the policies and programs meant for them. Whether it is governments designing social safety net programs or nonprofits distributing water purification tablets, people living in poverty are usually defined as the ‘beneficiaries’ of a proposed solution, rather than as ‘customers’ or even ‘designers’ of that solution. D-Lab does a great job of challenging those power dynamics.”
D-Lab is known around the world for this approach to participatory design in resource-constrained settings. D-Lab students, researchers, and practitioners don’t design in a vacuum. Community partners identify needs, frame problems, and communicate cultural and material preferences, and D-Lab brings engineering, computing, and other knowledge and experience to the design table.
And this excites Pantelic. “I think that students are drawn to D-Lab because they want to have a positive impact on people and the planet,” she notes. “And along the way, they find that scarcity fuels creativity, and that solving engineering questions with the additional complexity of constraints within low-income communities provides a tremendous platform for learning.”
Hitting the ground running
There is a lot to learn and a lot to do as the new executive director, and Pantelic is impressing the D-Lab team as a quick study.
“Since her start at D-Lab just over a month ago, Ana has hit the ground running,” says Associate Dean of Engineering Maria Yang, who serves as academic faculty director at D-Lab. “She has absorbed an extraordinary amount of material about D-Lab’s history and operations and met with staff at D-Lab and across MIT. After a quiet August, she is now soaking up the very special atmosphere at D-Lab’s space in N51, with students pouring in for classes, the workshop humming, and researchers taking up their posts and their work on campus again. It is a pleasure to have her on board.”
This fall, D-Lab is offering six classes, and engaging in research and practice both remotely and in person. “D-Lab classes stand out at MIT for their ability to help students understand the complexity of social problems and develop global awareness,” says Pantelic. “Some students feel the weight of the world on their shoulders and are no longer satisfied with chasing profit over purpose. D-Lab provides students with a window to the world through experiential learning and participatory innovation, and invites them to connect to the MIT motto of 'mens et manus,' or 'mind and hand,' to design for a more equitable world.”
Gearing up for D-Lab’s 20th anniversary
In 2017, on the occasion of D-Lab’s 15th anniversary, MIT President L. Rafael Reif remarked in a letter of congratulations that “D-Lab has become a global laboratory, leveraging MIT’s strengths to design, create, build, and make a better world,” and that D-Lab “has evolved into one of MIT’s most popular and meaningful experiences.” Four years later, having deepened its work and expanded its impact, D-Lab is on the cusp of celebrating its first two decades.
“I joined D-Lab at a pivotal moment,” says Pantelic. “Next year we will be celebrating an important milestone, and this is a great opportunity to not only reflect on our trajectory but also to explore where we want to go next. I’ll be working closely with our staff, students, and community partners to define a strategy for D-Lab in which we do more of what we do well, while further integrating diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging into our organizational culture.”
Kate Trimble, senior associate dean and director of the Office for Experiential Learning, says of Pantelic: “It takes a special person to lead a complex organization like D-Lab that has such an important and expansive mission — educating MIT students, conducting research that produces actionable findings to address global poverty challenges, and catalyzing and supporting innovation in low- and middle-income communities around the world. Ana has the core values, global experience, leadership skills, and passion for building a better world that make her the right person for this moment in D-Lab’s nearly 20-year history.”