IDIN, CITE, D-Lab Scale-Ups, and Tufts University Host Convening to Explore Human-Centered Approach to Respectful, Right-Sized Research


Photo by Emily Kate Moon. 

Photo by Emily Kate Moon. 

Photo by Emily Kate Moon. 

This month, 50 development researchers, practitioners, and donors from an array of influential institutions came together at MIT’s D-Lab to jointly develop guiding principles for “Lean Research,” a human-centered approach to development research that is respectful, relevant, rigorous, and right-sized.

The daylong convening was organized by the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN), the Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE), and D-Lab Scale-Ups in partnership with faculty members at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. Participants included representatives from J-PAL, the Legatum Center at MIT, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, USAID’s Global Development Lab, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the SEEP Network, Oxfam, Save the Children, MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth, Bankable Frontier Associates, and others.

Our interest in creating an initiative on lean research stems from our shared observation that the act of research itself is often a significant intervention into the lives of the people we are researching.  If our programs and projects in development are intended to improve people’s wellbeing, our research into the effectiveness of those programs should be done in a way that also produces positive impacts for those who participate. Lean research places the positive experience of the research participant at the center of the research design and employs “right-sized” methods and protocol that do only what is actually necessary to produce rigorous findings that are actionable and have relevance to the key stakeholders in the research process.  

The daylong convening generated significant interest in the lean research framework, with participants calling for the development of lean research standards that their organizations can sign onto and suggesting a number of concrete steps to move the initiative forward. These include continuing to refine the lean research framework, potentially developing a prize in lean research, and developing a platform to enable us to work together on implementing these principles into our research endeavors.  

You can read more about lean research and the guiding principles we developed at the convening in this post by co-organizer Kim Wilson. You can also read about the event from the perspective of participant Alex Counts, president and CEO of the Grameen Foundation, who shares his thoughts on next steps on his blog

If you are interested in learning more about Lean Research or joining the group that is working to move this initiative forward, please contact IDIN’s Research Coordinator, Elizabeth Hoffecker Moreno. 

D-Lab Waste, D-Lab Biodiversity, and CoLab Team-Up to Investigate the Impact of Plastic on Nicaragua's Caribbean Coastline

Charlotte Allen Seid, Graduate Student





Community Innovators Lab, D-Lab: Biodiversity, and D-Lab: Waste recently teamed up to provide research on the impact of plastic waste on sea life on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coastline. The research project was part of a regional waste management program designed in partnership with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The D-Lab research team, comprised of instructors Libby McDonald and Ariel Phillips, biology Ph.D. student Charlotte Seid, and Nicaraguan diver and ecologist Fabio Buitrago, returned last week from their fieldwork on the Corn Islands where they explored how the influx of plastic bottles has affected coral reef fish and the communities who depend on them for fishing and tourism. 

Waste and recycling is a serious challenge for islands on the Caribbean Coast where tourism produces increased volumes of plastic waste, of which the biggest culprits are water bottles. Plastic is especially challenging in that it is expensive to transport to recycling companies located in cities on the other side of Central America. Furthermore, unlike traditional materials such as wood and coconut husks, plastic does not biodegrade when it is dumped into waterways. 

Using SCUBA and snorkeling gear, biology student Charlotte Seid and Nicaraguan ecologist Fabio Buitrago collected and catalogued underwater debris at seven key sites around Big Corn Island. Near the most populated areas, the shallow seagrass beds were littered with cans, bottles, and food packaging. The deeper, farther reefs appeared to be plastic-free. At this moment—while the outer reefs are still clean—it is critical to rethink waste management on the Corn Islands.  

Fortunately the alcaldía, or local government, is deeply committed to the environment and is working with the MIT team to implement innovative ideas that simultaneously provide drinking water to residents and tourists and keep plastic bottles off the islands. For example, local residents shared memories of using metal cans or gourds to carry water from central locations; perhaps similarly sustainable containers could be combined with a network of water filtration sites.

With help from the local seafood companies Pasenic and Central American Fisheries, nearly 300 fish stomachs were inspected and no plastic was found—a reassuring result. Additionally, to determine which fish species could potentially be impacted by plastic pollution and to track biodiversity over time, more than 50 species were identified and catalogued. The biodiversity snapshot produced by the study is important for understanding threats such as overfishing and human-introduced invasive species. To further protect fish biodiversity, the D-Lab team collected samples for two non-profit repositories of marine species genomes, one in Nicaragua and one near Boston. We’re looking forward to publicizing our results in an article, so stayed tuned this fall!

To learn more, check out this video made by Fabio of a hermit crab inspecting a plastic bottle!


Nineteen student teams and five individual students present designs for the developing world at D-Lab Spring Showcase

Nancy Adams, D-Lab Scale-Ups Communications Administrator

A large crowd gathered for the Showcase!

Showing off the Biodigeter Latrine project.

Explaining the Gasifying Stove.

Presenting the Hydropower Station project.

D-Lab Prosthetics project on display.

D-Lab's Amy Smith and D:Lab Design instructor Rick Schuhmann.

D-Lab is often best known for its cournerstone course, D-Lab Development, taught for over a decade by D-Lab founder, Amy Smith, and Bish Sanyal, Professor of Urban Development and Planning. In fact, ask an MIT student if they have experience with D-Lab and you often get the answer, "Yeah, I took D-Lab."

What seems to be less widely known is that after 12 years, D-Lab has developed a couple of additional courses, 19 courses in total, to be exact. Though not every course is taught every year, about a dozen different courses are.

Student projects from five of those courses were presented on May 9 at the 2014 D-Lab Spring Student Showcase. It was standing room only in D-Lab's "hands-on" classroom on the third floor of E-51 with over 150 in attendance to hear about projects from five D-Lab classes, an independent study, and our current group of D-Lab Biomass Fuel undergraduate researchers. 

 To kick things off, students gave  brief slide presentations, following which, attendees were able to view all the working prototypes on display throughout the D-Lab space and talk to the students.

Following is a list of projects:

D-Lab: Design. Instructors — Rick Schuhmann + Aron Zingman

  • SODIS in a Box. Developing a solar water disinfection system suitable for providing clean drinking water for a family of five living in a refugee camp in Uganda.
  • Recoplastic Washer Dryer. A system for cleaning plastic waste collected by waste pickers in Nigeria before being recycled.
  • Off Grid Blower for Gasifying Cookstove. A system for eliminating dependence on grid electricity for a gasifying cookstove blower in Zambia.
  • Mud Brick Mold. Improved multiple mud brick manufacturing mold for use in Uganda, using only available and affordable materials.

D-Lab: Dissemination WASH. Instructor — Susan Murcott

  • Ways2Clean. Redesigning the waste management system for Dinajpur, Banglasesh with workshops, sorting in collection vehicles, and streaming of recyclables.
  • Bamboo Charcoal Water Filter. Developing the use of an activated bamboo charcoal layer on top of a bio-sand water filter to remove heavy metals and organic waste from polluted river water in Banjaran, Indonesia.
  • Kom Zibu. An irrigation system that collects and distributes water to support reforestation efforts in Gburma, Northern Ghana.
  • MyH2O. One of the first crowd-sourcing mapping platforms on water quality in China, designed to prompt water risk awareness, citizen activism and governmental responses through computer-based as well as mobile app platforms.
  • WaSH4India. Scaling sanitation interventions in India. Summer pilot to make one village open-defecation free (ODF). Post-summer creation of website to inspire and train volunteers to reach 600 million Indians.

D-Lab: Education. Instructors — Jessica Huang + Pedro Cuéllar + Heather Beem

  • Science in Action. A sustainable education model incorporating hands-on activities into science lessons using local resources at the senior secondary school in New Longoro, Ghana.
  • Sustainable Schools Project. Working with FATEM to develop a model whereby economic activities help build cohesion and sustain community schools in isolated rural areas in Haiti.
  • Community School Support. Collaborating on trans-generational finance workshops and hands-on engineering education at a community school in Northern Colombia.
  • Interactive Entrepreneurship Workshops. Working with OneHen to empower youth to become social entrepreneurs at the Kasiisi Project’s network of 14 government primary schools in Western Uganda.

D-Lab: Biodiversity. Advisor — Ariel Phillips

  • Plastic Pollution, Fish, and Surveying the impacts of plastic marine debris on fish and fishing communities Public Health in the Caribbean.

D-Lab: Energy. Instructors — Libby Hsu + Amit Ghandi

  • Biodigester Latrine System. A modified urine-diversion latrine that can be connected to a biodigester for the conversion of human waste into energy.
  • Acai Pits. Gasification of acai berry pits, currently a waste product in the Amazon, for their use as a fuel source.
  • Hydropower Station. Conversion of a dammed area in a river to a hydropower station that can substitute for the use of diesel generators in an Amazon community.

D-Lab: Prosthetics. Instructors — David Sengeh + David Hill + Bryan Ranger + Katy Olesnavage + Katerina Mantzavinou

  • Shock Absorbing Pylon. A module that interfaces with existing pylons used in developing countries to lower ground reaction forces on the prosthetic side and thus increase user comfort.
  • Silicone Sleeve & Buckle Pin. A new suspension system for lower-limb prostheses, similar to what is currently used in the western world but for a fraction of the cost.
  • 2D to 3D Modeling for Prosthetic Socket Manufacturing. A process to go from 2D images taken with a cell phone camera to a 3D model from which a socket can be built.

D-Lab Biomass Fuel UROPs. Supervisor — Dan Sweeney

Technical evaluation of traditional and improved cooking fuels and stoves in Uganda
McCall Huston is creating a data analysis tool and compiling data from field experiments performed in Uganda during IAP to quantify the benefits and impacts of using waste-derived fuels and improved cook stoves.

Instrumentation and data acquisition for laboratory cooking fuel evaluations
Harry Thaman has developed a LabView based system for measuring important efficiency and emissions indicators during fuel and cook stove evaluations in D-Lab’s Fuel Testing Facility.

Physical and chemical characterization of charcoal briquette fuels
Harry Thaman is using advanced analytical methods available at MIT to determine important material properties of carbonized agricultural residues used to make charcoal briquettes by local producers in East Africa.

Efficiency and emissions performance laboratory testing of carbonized briquette fuels
Isabella DiDio is performing laboratory evaluations of charcoal briquette fuels made by D-Lab partners in Uganda and Tanzania to understand benefits to users and the environment, and characteristics needing improvement.

Development of an improved small-scale charcoal kiln
Nani Ruiz and students in MIT Engineers Without Borders are evaluating efficiency and emissions performance of existing kiln technologies to understand how to improve upon them while maintaining low-cost and simple operation.

For more information on all D-Lab courses, see the D-Lab MIT Courses page. D-Lab's goal is to challenge talented students to use their math, science, engineering, social science, and business skills to tackle a broad range of global poverty issues. 


D-Lab Spring Showcase & Open House

D-Lab challenges talented students to use their math, science, engineering, social science, and business skills to tackle a broad range of global poverty issues. Come see how our students are making an impact!

WHAT: Final presentations & working prototypes from current D-Lab students
WHEN: Friday, May 9th from 5:30 to 7:00 pm 
WHERE: At D-Lab, MIT N51-3rd Floor

D-Lab students from the five spring courses offered will be presenting!

- D-Lab: Design
- D-Lab: Dissemination WASH
- D-Lab: Energy
- D-Lab: Education
- Developing World Prosthetics

To kick things off, students will give brief presentations. Attendees will then be able to view all the working prototypes on display throughout the D-Lab space! All welcome.

Tubular cubbies

Cubbies under construction.


Installing the framework.


Painting the tubes.


Ta da!



The D-Lab workshop on the third floor of N51 MIT building is a dynamic space, where D-Lab students prototype their class projects, where UROPs build their contraptions to advance ongoing research in areas of agriculture or energy, and where primary school children get exposed to innovative technologies that improve poor people's lives.

Lots of shop users create a need for lots of personal storage space

The workshop sees consistent traffic of students who roll up their sleeves to tinker and build technology. And these workshop users bring along their backpacks, notebooks, jackets and whatnot that need to be stored conveniently and safely.Since we set up the workshop, we have had the need for some storage capability to put personal belongings away while people work on their projects.

Embracing innovation 

Instead of following the standard route of procuring ready-made storage furniture, we decided to embrace innovation, and make good use of the fabrication tools that we had lying around, and make something that would inspire others to join the creative process in a playful, yet functional manner.

Tubulor Shelves Instructable

After some Internet wandering, the initial inspiration was found in the following Instructable for Tubular Shelves, which in turn can be tracked down to some high-end furniture design of FlexiTube shelving system. Drawing inspiration from nature (in mimicking honeycombs) put a different spin on the design, with an element of randomness in the placement and length of each of the tubes.

Credit where due

The initial design was by Victor Grau Serrat, and was first prototyped in CAD software by Dennis Nagle, and later cut using a ShopBot (low-cost CNC router, where CNC stands for Computer Numeric Control) that we had access through the International Design Center down the hall (thanks to Charles Guan for the technical support provided).

Fabrication, painting and assembly were done by Jack Whipple and Victor Grau Serrat.



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