When can I visit D-Lab?

D-Lab hosts an open hour every Tuesday when MIT classes are in session from 12 noon to 1pm. Feel free to stop by, chat with D-Lab staff, and tour our spaces. Just fill out this form to request a tour.

Big Ideas: Little Packages

Can good design save the world? It just might, one novel idea at a time. Sparked by programs like the Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability course at Stanford University's Institute of Design, designers are creating products to meet the needs of communities in developing countries. It turns out that even the most pressing problems, from health care to potable water, can have affordable—and beautifully designed—solutions. —Margaret G. Zackowitz, National Geographic

Sugarcane Charcoal

 Burning wood and dung, the main fuel sources for many in the developing world, has contributed to deforestation and respiratory ailments. Not only do briquettes made from crushed sugarcane stalks make use of an abundant local resource, they burn more cleanly and allow residents to start a charcoal business for less than $50.

Developed by: MIT D-Lab
Website: d-lab.mit.edu/resources
Launch Country: Haiti


Read more at National Geographic

Amy, one of World's Most Influential People

TIME announces today in its annual TIME 100 issue the name of the people who most affect our world:

It's fine to help the developing world, but first you have to know what it needs. Amy Smith does.

An engineer and the founder of MIT's innovative D-Lab, Smith, 47, is a former Peace Corps volunteer who spent parts of her childhood in India and Botswana. She's the creator of a hammer mill that converts grain to flour and an incubator that does not require electricity. Her design philosophy is elegant: create simple machines that meet particular needs and then build them locally.

Smith is also a teacher, taking kids to Haiti and Africa, where they design pumps, bicycle parts and other gear people need. Her machines are one of her gifts to the world; the students she trains will be an even more enduring one.


View the full list for "The 2010 TIME 100"

Amy Smith, one of Most Influential Designers

BusinessWeek released on February 1st, 2010, its list of the World's Most Influential Designers: from design thinkers to hands-on design doers in industries from graphics to industrial to auto design, [...] a diverse cross-section of design disciplines. They are in some way responsible for shaping the world around us. Among the 27 chosen designers, there is Amy Smith:


Amy Smith
Smith's philosophy: Low-cost, low-tech solutions made locally can help communities in developing countries address crippling problems. The MIT engineer and professor spent time in India as a child and in Botswana as a Peace Corps volunteer, where she saw the devastation of poverty firsthand. Her inventions include a hammermill to convert grain to flour as well as an incubator that requires no electricity. Smith, 47, was awarded the MacArthur "genius" grant in 2004, and she runs the popular and influential D-Lab class at MIT to teach international development and technology in the developing world.


Design for the Global Household

Environment Magazine publishes a column on its January/February issue about design for sustainability by George Clark, environmental research librarian at the Harvard College Library. The article provides a compilation of links and resources on the topic of design for development, and highlights the approach that D-Lab takes on the issue. You can read the full article on the Environment Magazine website, or right here:

Design for the Global Household

Design for sustainability is a confounding concept. On the one hand, there is much good information about how to make the products that we buy and use more environmentally friendly to produce, use, disassemble, and recycle.1 On the other hand, popular design, even of products specifically marketed to simplify our lives2,3 is, in the end, about comfortable households consuming more—not exactly the embodiment of sustainability. Fortunately, there is an area of design practice that has a loftier goal: to meet the needs of the global poor, when possible using non-proprietary technology4 and simple, inexpensive, locally-available materials to make tools that are durable and easy to use, maintain, and repair.

These efforts, often called by the somewhat patronizing appellation “appropriate technology,” lack a central Web clearinghouse. This is unsurprising for two reasons. First, design is contextual. Successful design usually depends on immersion in a problem, often involving or at least consulting the people who will use the end result. As a result it would likely be difficult to centralize. Second, design for development is aimed at many different sorts of tasks and so involves experts in many different fields. These tasks include obtaining and purifying water to drink; growing crops and raising livestock; storing, preparing, and cooking food; safely disposing of human waste; preventing disease and healing the sick and injured; making housing safe from hazards; generating electricity and energy; getting from one place to another; learning and communicating; and maintaining a livelihood.

In 2007, Cooper-Hewitt, the Smithsonian Institution's National Design Museum in New York, mounted an exhibit titled “Design for the Other 90%.” The exhibit, which is now touring North America and will stop in Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., in 2010,5 is a good introduction to the range of designs for the global household, featuring outstanding design achievements in shelter, health, water, education, energy, and transportation. Another good place for initial exploration of the design for development concept is the New York Times blog, “Dot Earth,” by Andrew C. Revkin.6 In the blogroll column of his blog, Revkin lists “Poverty, Development, and Design” links. And in 2005, an Industrial Design Society of America conference brought together IT professionals and designers to learn about and to generate personal goals for serving the global poor.7

One specific example of compelling design for sustainability featured in the Cooper-Hewitt exhibit is the Q Drum, a wheel-shaped water container that allows a water carrier to roll her load along the ground rather than carrying it or balancing it on her head.8 Perhaps the most widely publicized design for sustainability, also featured in the exhibit, is the XO laptop, a computer produced by the One Laptop Per Child Foundation to teach creative thinking and to begin to close the information gap.9

Each of these designs, however, has had problems with cost. A single Q Drum sells for approximately US$63,10 a large amount for the great majority of the global population who live on fewer than $10 dollars per day. (See a 2006 article by Lant Pritchett to learn more about the complex subject of how to measure global poverty.)11 The XO, originally planned as the “hundred dollar laptop,” is relying, among other strategies, on a $199 per laptop donation program.12 This means that the laptop is both expensive for those who need it and perhaps soon to be priced out by the netbook market.13 The XO also has encountered problems with its original distribution model of selling in mass quantities directly to governments.14 Further, neither the XO nor the Q Drum can be made from inexpensive locally available materials, going against another of the ideals of design for sustainability.

University classroom design labs might live up to more of the minimalist ideals of design for the global household, since assignments have to be completed in a brief period of time, on a limited budget, and by relatively inexperienced designers. One such lab is the D-Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),15 where recent projects have included turning sugarcane waste into charcoal and a more robust mill to grind grain into flour. MIT and other universities also work closely with a nonprofit design firm, Design that Matters,16 that specializes in “minimum resource design” for the global poor. Their projects include a microfilm projector system that allows night-time literacy education in non-electrified places and an accurate manual intravenous drip control.

Another nonprofit, Practical Action,17 has been active in the field for more than four decades, much of that time as the Intermediate Technology Development Group. Founded by E. F. Schumaker,18 Practical Action has run projects including building earthquake-resistant housing in Peru based on traditional architecture and spreading information on low-cost modification of bicycles for cargo. It has also served as a founding supporter of the International Forum for Rural Transport and Development, “a global network of individuals and organizations working together toward improved access, mobility, and economic opportunity for poor communities in developing countries” with sensitivity to project variables such as gender, age, and HIV transmission.19

Design for sustainability is inspired not only by pervasive concerns such as water supply and transportation, but also by issues that are more geographically concentrated, including both “natural” hazards such as tsunamis20 and those hazards created more directly by human activity.21 Energy is also a focus for some designers, as in the very small scale hydroelectric power work at the University of Nottingham.22

Ashoka, a nonprofit organization focused on social entrepreneurship, recognizes promising and accomplished inventors, mostly from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, who work on designs for sustainability. Ashoka lists profiles of these inventors on their Website.23 Those interested in studying for a career in design for the global poor might need to do some research to locate design, engineering, or other degree programs with substantial emphasis on the topic. Several are listed in a 2004 presentation at Baylor University by Walter L. Bradley and Byron P. Newberry.24 The Lemelson Center at Hampshire College offers the opportunity to study socially responsible design in a liberal arts setting.25 Engineers Without Borders lists many opportunities as well, including both education and internships.26

1. See, for example, Thomas M. Parris' previous “Bytes of Note” column: “Internet Resources for Sustainable Product Design,” Environment, March 2006, p. 3., and the work of William McDonough on “cradle to cradle” design at http://www.mcdonough.com/full.htm.

2. See the magazine http://www.realsimple.com.

3. See the line of products at http://www.simplehuman.com.

4. http://www.appropedia.org/Open_Source_Appropriate_Technology

5. http://other90.cooper-hewitt.org

6. http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com

7. http://www.idsa.org/design_about

8. http://www.qdrum.co.za

9. http://wiki.laptop.org, http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2009/06/the-xo-laptop-two-years-later-part-1-the-vision

10. http://www.qdrum.co.za/index.php/pricing

11. http://wbro.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/short/lkj002v1

12. https://authorize.payments.amazon.com/pba/xo

13. http://www.boston.com/business/technology/articles/2009/02/11/cheaper_cheap_laptop_promised, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/02/technology/02netbooks.html

14. http://www.olpcnews.com/files/One_Laptop_Per_Child_Overview_2009.pdf

15. http://web.mit.edu/d-lab

16. http://designthatmatters.org

17. http://practicalaction.org

18. These personal archives are indexed online at http://www.smallisbeautiful.org/library.html.

19. http://www.ifrtd.org

20. Harvard's Tsunami Design Initiative, http://projects.gsd.harvard.edu/tsunami/index2.htm.

21. Berkeley Arsenic Alleviation Group, http://arsenic.lbl.gov.

22. http://www.eee.nottingham.ac.uk/picohydro

23. http://www.ashoka.org/lemelson2

24. http://www.wpi.edu/News/Conf/ISTAS/Presentations/appropriatetechnology.pdf

25. http://www.hampshire.edu/lemelson/2114.htm

26. http://www.ewb-international.org/opportunities.htm

How can I get involved, other than taking a class?

In addition to its academic offerings, D-Lab offers research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students alike. Undergraduate students usually work on D-Lab projects outside the class through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Project (UROP) and the International Research Opportunities Project (IROP). Check these websites for more details, and then get in touch directly with any D-Lab instructor to be your project supervisor.

Managing Disasters With Small Steps

The New York Times puts together an article about disaster relief efforts following up the earthquake in Haiti this past January. The article presents a compilation of different initiatives that manage projects of different sizes that are having a measurable and concise impact on the ground on several fronts, not necessarily in Haiti though.

As one of such initiatives, the article highlights the work that D-Lab has been working on for years, and quotes Laura Sampath, manager of the International Development Initiative at MIT:

“You can’t just sweep in from outside and drop something in and say, ‘This is exactly what you need,’ ” said Laura Sampath, manager of the International Development Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It has to be almost driven from the community.”

The M.I.T. effort includes the D-Lab, whose instructors and students work on low-tech solutions to infrastructure problems and spend time in the field implementing them. Among the projects are ones to manufacture ceramic water filters in Ghana; install chlorine dispensers to treat drinking water in Kenya; and develop a bicilavadora, a pedal-powered washing machine, in Peru.

“We’re graduating engineers who realize it’s important to talk to people first,” Ms. Sampath said.

The entire article can be found on the New York Times website.

How can I get involved in D-Lab?

The most straightforward way of getting involved in D-Lab is taking any of its classes. In order for you to take any of the D-Lab classes, you must be an MIT student or a student of any other institution with which MIT has a cross-registration agreement (e.g. Harvard University and Wellesley College). Please check the cross-registration page from the Office of the Registrar, and consult your own institution Registrar's Office.

The Barefoot Engineer

Prism, the magazine from the American Association for Engineering Education (ASEE), publishes in its November issue an article about Amy Smith. The article is accessible from the Prism website, or right here:


Empowering the poor to find their own solutions.

UP CLOSE image: Amy Smith, the Barefoot EngineerShe earned a MacArthur “genius” grant for her inventions. Her mechanical engineering courses at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are frequently oversubscribed by 200 percent. So when you ask Amy Smith to name the most interesting device she has tinkered with, you might expect to hear about some extraordinarily complex machine. Instead, she waxes enthusiastic about a simple metal ring that poor farmers in Africa and Latin America use to shell corn from the cob.

With Amy Smith, expect the unexpected. She asks her MIT students to live on $2 a day, as half the world’s population must do to survive. She teams Ph.D. physicists and engineering students from elite universities with illiterate mechanics and farmers from Guatemala or Ghana to design useful gadgets. The daughter of an MIT engineering professor, she eschews the tenure track and even declined an honorary doctorate. She has never driven a car, yet is the driving force behind an expanding series of mechanical engineering courses at MIT, collectively known as D-Lab.

Smith’s work encompasses 100 scattered projects in the pursuit of a single goal: using simple technology to lessen the burden of the rural poor. “I believe that there is a need for us to focus on solving the world’s most difficult problems,” she argues – problems that affect “the billions of people who don’t have safe water, sanitation, and enough food to eat.”

The hub of Smith’s MIT activity is the D-Lab’s three alliterative courses: Development, Design, and Dissemination. Fifty undergrads who win the lottery — literally — to enroll in the Development course will partner in groups with community organizations in such places as Honduras or India to develop ideas for low-cost, locally produced technologies that address fundamental problems. The students visit these countries to gain better insights into needs and available skills on the ground. Projects may be fleshed out as workable prototypes and viable businesses in the follow-on Design and Dissemination courses. Recent projects include a high-pressure hand press for making charcoal briquettes from sugar-cane waste and a vibrating compactor for creating bricks from soil.

MIT graduate Jodie Wu says that after two corporate internships spent working in cubicles, “I didn’t want to be an engineer anymore.” But the D-Lab rekindled her interest, “because it was engineering to help people.” Adds senior Lisa Tacoronte: “Amy really grabs you from the first day; her enthusiasm spills over into the class.”

This year’s International Development Design Summit, which Smith has run for the past three years, hosted more than 70 innovators, from Zambian health care workers to Caltech engineering students, for five weeks in Ghana. Working 20-hour days – “my summer vacation” – Smith made regular visits to 10 villages, happily walking barefoot, and facilitated such projects as a bicycle-powered chlorine generator to purify water and batteries made from aluminum cans, charcoal, and salt water. “It totally rocked,” she says.

Moving the summit from MIT, where it began, to Africa parallels a shift in Smith’s thinking. “In my early years, I viewed myself as an engineer who would solve problems for people,” she says. If her inventions didn’t quite meet local needs, she gave locals a say in fine-tuning them. Now Smith aims to empower poor people to create their own solutions. “That’s the revolution I’m currently hoping to foster,” she says.

Smith’s unusual career path started 21 years ago during a Peace Corps stint in Botswana, where the MIT grad lamented having to make a choice between a future in development, teaching, or engineering design. One day, staring across the bushveldt, she realized that she did not have to choose: “I created a niche where I can do all the things I want to do.” And that may be Amy Smith’s greatest invention.

Don Boroughs is a freelance writer based in South Africa.

D-Lab is featured in the book "Design Revolution"

Design Revolution: 100 Products that Empower People is a compendium of and call-to-action for product design that improves life. Authored by Project H Design founder Emily Pilloton, with a foreword by Core77's Allan Chochinov, the book challenges designers to be activists over aestheticians, and highlights over 100 products in 8 categories that show product design's ability to enable individuals, communities, and economies in the developing world and in our own back yards alike.

Among these 100 plus technologies featured in the book, two are coming out from D-Lab: Low-Cost Water Testing (page 74) and Sugarcane Charcoal (page 147). Additionally, D-Lab's overall approach to design and engineering for the developing world is also featured:

Perhaps the best example of design-as-action academics is MIT’s D-Lab, an engineering-based course offering that creates simple and appropriate technologies for the developing world under the leadership of engineer and maverick Amy Smith. The lab’s projects have included the previously mentioned sugarcane charcoal in Haiti and a low-cost lab test that uses a refashioned baby bottle and inexpensive filter paper to see if water is potable (see p. 74). Each of these academic initiatives is based on a social imperative and hands-on learning, and carried out through partnerships and strategic plans for implementation.

If interested, learn more about the book or buy it from Amazon.


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