Rethink Relief: Looking Beyond Emergencies

From April 14th-20th, D-Lab played host to this year's Rethink Relief conference, a collaboration between MIT's D-Lab and the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering in Delft, Netherlands that is dedicated to the creation of technologies that bridge the gap between short-term relief and long-term sustainable development.

Christiane Kokubo, a participant in this year's conference and a journalist in Brazil, writes about her experience at this year's Rethink Relief - a conference about emergencies that was colored by the unfolding of Boston's own emergency.


And there we were. It was the third day of MIT D-Lab’s Rethink Relief conference, almost 9:30 in the morning, an we were all sitting. In front of us on the table were 4 straws, a sheet of paper, some tape, scissors, three elastic bands, two clips and some blue clay. Amy Smith explained the morning activity and 20 people, from 15 different countries, showed that inspiration can come even before breakfast, before talking to each other or before feeling really awake. “You have 10 minutes to make something useful with what you have in front of you,” Amy said.

What a challenge! Especially when your creation goes to someone else, who will have another five minutes to improve it, before they pass it to the next person, and the next. At the end of the activity, everyone explained the original idea and what happened to it. My crane mobile was improved by three people, including Amy, and came back to my hands much nicer than I could have made it myself in 10 minutes.

RR Brainstorm

A participant reviews the morning's brainstorms

This activity was just a small piece of our week of intense discussion and work during Rethink Relief, which took place from the 14th to the 20th of April. The week saw 20 participants from 15 countries and a wide variety of backgrounds sharing experiences, creativity and stories - contributing to find solutions and to improve ideas.

Our groups were Water, Health, Protection, Economic Empowerment, Education and Energy, each of them with three-four people. Every day, all day long, dialogues in English, Spanish, Hindi, Creole, Dutch, Portuguese, French and Italian could be heard in the room. We were a melting pot of designers, engineers, computer specialists and a journalist, all together thinking about relief solutions for emergency situations.

And how strange was it then, when on the second day of the conference, two bombs exploded 1.6 miles away, and we bore witness to an emergency situation unfolding in front of us? The day before, many of us had gone to the finish line of the Boston Marathon and, as good tourists, had taken pictures of that place that would be in all the world’s papers the next day. Alberto Zerboni, an experienced architect from Doctors Without Borders (MSF), part of the Protection group, would tell me a couple of days later that he had never felt so threatened before, even after more than 12 years working for MSF in the field. He was at the finish line on Monday morning.

Scared as we could be during the week, the work went on. We talked a lot, a lot, a lot. And then, we talked some more.  We laughed and made new good friends. We had participated in activities, we listened to experts, and we shared our own experiences. Our group defined what Protection meant for us, what solutions could lay in design, what kind of problem we were going to target, and what our mission statement was. The five other groups did the same.

We were anxious to talk about our work and accomplishments and to present our prototypes on Friday. And then, another emergency surprised us, now on this side of the Charles River. No subway, bus or taxi services were available. There was no possibility of going back to D-Lab. Authorities recommended that people did not leave their homes.

RR Host Home

Participants prepare final presentations at host family's home

We were lucky enough to find a place on Friday outside of the city where most of us could gather together. Débora Leal, a Brazilian and one of the organizers of the conference, talked to her host family, who kindly opened their house to us. Thanks to the Mallons, we had a place to finish our week’s work. For Saturday, our plans changed once again, and the picnic that had been planned for the beach in Beverly was swapped for a day at D-Lab, where we would all get together to finish our presentations and show the results of our week’s work on emergencies.

I am sure that it was a transforming week for everyone. After leaving D-Lab on Saturday afternoon and saying goodbye to our new friends, we all went back home full of ideas, projects, contacts and good feelings, rethought and relieved. Good things are to come.


A version of this story appears in Folha de S.Paulo, a Brazilian newspaper. You can find that article (in Portuguese) HERE.

Amy Smith honored as one of "Boston's Most Influential Women" by the Women of Harvard Club Committee

On April 23, D-Lab founder and co-director Amy Smith was honored as one of “Boston’s Most Influential Women” by the Women of the Harvard Club Committee. A festive gala at the Harvard Club in Boston marked the occasion where10 accomplished women who have created circles of access and influence in the areas of business, law, science, healthcare, philanthropy, government and academia were recognized.

The committee stated that, “Each honoree, whether affiliated with a national corporation or from a local community, exhibits excellence in their demonstrated leadership, outstanding achievements and the enduring positive effects of their influence.” 

Amy's comments for the ocasion:

What makes an inspirational women?

Swarnika, a young engineering student from India, was sharing with me the gender discrimination that she experiences at her university. She cannot leave campus on the weekends without special permission, and is fingerprinted as she comes and goes. She cannot participate in certain activities because they meet at night, and she is not allowed to go out after 7 pm. And she has nearly been expelled for protesting against this system.

She is passionate, she is inspirational, but she is not influential. She is speaking out to a system that is not listening. I asked how I could help. She mentioned that her school was very interested in working with my program, and that maybe I could be an advocate for her cause. It made me think about the conversations I could have with school administrators, which are conversations that she could not.

It also made me reflect on the influence I can and want to have, and gave some answers to the question:

An influential woman can help give a voice to those who are forced to be silent.

An influential woman can help bring equity and compassion to those who have been unfairly ignored.

An influential woman can help empower those who have been disenfranchised.

An influential woman can help provide inspiration and direction to those who might be feeling lost.

I’m sure there are many other answers to the question, but these are a few ways that I would hope to use whatever influence I may have acquired through my life and my work so far.


In addition to Amy, the other honorees included:

Stephanie Sonnabend, President, Sonesta International Hotels Corporation, and Co-Founder and Chair, 2020 Women on Boards

Helen Drinan, President, Simmons College

Aileen Gorman, Executive Director, The Commonwealth Institute

Peggy Kemp, Headmaster, Fenway High School

Sandra Moose, Senior Advisor, The Boston Consulting Group

Betsy Myers, Founding Director, Center for Women in Business, Bentley University

Diane Patrick, Esq., First Lady of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Partner, Ropes & Gray

The Honorable Emogene Johnson Smith, Presiding Justice, Wrentham District Court

Valerie Stone, MD, Director, MGH Primary Care Internal Medicine Residency Program and Associate Chief, MGH General Medicine Division


Congratulations to Amy and all those acknowledged by this award!

D-Lab Study Abroad is piloted in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Angela Hojnacki (MechE '13) shares a glimpse into her D-Lab Study Abroad experience.

On Monday, February 18th I arrived in Sao Paulo, Brasil, where I will be living and working the next two and a half months to finish my last semester at MIT. The program is a new initiative launched by D-Lab, where students continue to take classes at MIT, but live and work in the communities they are trying to help. We call into our classes via a web conference online software and Skype with our project teams to exchange information and finish assignments, all depending on a reliable Internet connection that we don’t always have. It’s no vacation – but, that being said, the weather is nicer, the people are wonderful, and pace of life is nothing like that of MIT.

On Sunday (Feb. 24th), we set off to our workshop in Dois Palitos to build a stool for our D-Lab Design assignment. Heavy rain, long bus rides, and general challenging life adjustments kept us from starting our stool earlier, leaving Sunday, a typical day of rest in Brazil, our only day to work on it. Our normally long commute was drawn out even longer when we ran into the weekly art fair in the city center. We faced a number of distractions – bright colors, adorable puppies for adoption, and dresses covered in caricature cows – however, we were still able to conduct valuable research, like evaluating stools such as the one pictured below.

Stools for sale at local market

When we finally made our way to our workshop, located in a neighborhood called Jardim da Luz, we luckily passed a dumpsite where someone had thrown out an old dresser. We were able to repurpose the materials into something we were proud of for the stool assignment, although we had to leave before we could add more supports and decoration; our workshop doesn’t yet have electricity and we didn’t want to risk walking to the bus stop after dark. 

Building a stool for a D-Lab: Design assignment

I love finding creative ways to reuse “waste”, and we’ve had many opportunities to learn since arriving. Every day the bus drops us off at the bottom of a flight of concrete stairs that leads us to our host’s house. One day, there were several small children sliding down the smooth edge of the stairs on a flattened plastic (PET) bottle. The children had several holes in their pants, and liability laws may prevent children from engaging in this activity in the US, but it’s been one of the best uses of a PET bottle that I’ve ever seen.

Children re-porposing PET bottles for sliding

Give a Gift to D-Lab this Holiday Season

D-Lab's success over the last 10 years has been due to a generous community of individual donors. Your gift this year will help us further develop our programs and broaden our impact.

Give to D-Lab

Back in May, D-Lab celebrated its 10th Anniversary with the D-Lab Decennial Gala. Shortly after the celebration, co-directors Amy Smith and Victor Grau Serrat reflected in the D-Lab Digest on how D-Lab’s philosophy has evolved and how the size, scope, and space of the program have all grown.

Currently, D-Lab is offering 16 subjects in collaboration with several MIT departments, and more than 250 students are expected to participate in D-Lab classes this year. During IAP 2013, more than 50 students will be traveling to seven countries to work on D-Lab projects and to deepen collaborations with community partners.

This year, thanks to the generosity of individual donors, D-Lab was able to fully outfit the workshop in its new space with a range of facilities – including spaces dedicated to welding, wood-working, and metal-working - that allow our students to work easily and safely with many materials. Also, we were able to offer a greater number of Creative Capacity Building workshops in remote communities in Uganda, Haiti, and El Salvador. And we were able to offer a number of scholarships to students who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to participate in IAP travel.

We were very fortunate to have recently received a major award from the new U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) program. This award will allow us to create the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN) and the Comprehensive Initiative and the Technology Evaluation (CITE). However, individual gifts still play an important role in supporting other D-Lab programs.

A gift to D-Lab supports:

  • Student travel to northern India to conduct medical workshops for women in rural areas, who live four to six hours from the nearest hospital, or to Tanzania to assist a local innovator in conducting initial market research for implementation of medium-scale production of drip irrigation systems that he designed.
  • Improved course delivery by providing funding to bring guest speakers and visiting practitioners to MIT to teach and mentor students, or to collaborate on ongoing projects.
  • Short- and medium-term fellowships for graduating or recently graduated students interested in pursuing a career in international development. Fellowships can fund students to temporarily join the staff of one or several D-Lab programs, or can provide funding to develop and disseminate a project for impact at scale.
  • Expanding our K-12 Outreach initiatives, funding the development of curriculum for visiting student groups and fostering collaborative relationships between local schools and schools abroad

And much more!

Any gift, no matter the size, helps us to continue to develop our programs and broaden our impact. We hope that you’ll consider making a gift to D-Lab this year. We cannot overstate our gratitude to those who have supported us in the past.

If you’d like to give, you can do so easily online. For information on other ways to give, click here.

It means a lot that you’ve read down this far, and we hope you’ll take the time to explore other areas of our website to learn more about all of our programs. Needless to say, you are always welcome to visit us during Open Hours – stop by any Tuesday, 12-2 pm during the academic year.

Course Spotlight: "Supply Chains" Ramps Up

How can we get a product to the right person, at the right place, and at the right time at minimum cost? What if this person has a low income and/or no credit? How about if you also want to generate a positive social impact to the manufacturers and distributors of these products?

D-Lab: Supply Chains, offered for its 2nd year in Spring 2013, addresses these questions. Students will learn the fundamentals of Supply Chain Management and engage in a real-world project related to supply chains in emerging markets. This course is designed for students of all fields who are interested in starting their own business, working on a project related to an emerging market, or being a consultant in this area.

Last semester, projects ranged from optimizing the production process of agricultural waste charcoal, to supply chain contracts for Essmart (http://www.essmart-global.com/), a supply-chain start-up. Many of the projects developed in D-Lab: Supply Chains were proposed by students, and were related to research projects they were involved in or start-ups they co-founded. Projects also serve as an interface for students interested in getting involved in D-Lab.

Drawing from the MBA and LGO (Leaders for Global Operations) operations classes at MIT Sloan, students will develop the foundations needed to enter in the field of Operations Management. We will use a diverse set of pedagogical tools and, besides the project, students will also play games, discuss case studies and even watch movies. The tools that students will learn are applicable in many different contexts.

For more information, please contact Prof. Stephen Graves (sgraves@mit.edu) or Andre Calmon (acalmon@mit.edu).

Units: 2-2-5

Lecture: MW2-3.30

Course Description:

Introduces concepts of supply chain design and operations with a focus on supply chains for products destined to improve quality of life in developing countries. Topics include demand estimation, process analysis, inventory management, and supply chain contracts and coordination. Also covers issues specific to emerging markets, such as sustainable supply chains, how to couple product design with supply chain design and operation, and how to account for the value-adding role of a supply chain. Students conduct projects on supply chain design or improvement.

Gender, Technology, and Development Workshop

On October 26, 2012, D-Lab, in collaboration with MIT's Anthropology department and the Women and Gender Studies and Science Technology and Society programs, hosted the first MIT Workshop on Gender, Technology and Development. 

 The workshop engaged scholars and practitioners from area universities – among them MIT, Boston University, Wellesley College, UMASS-Boston, and Clark University – who work within the fields of anthropology, economics, and engineering, as well as within the larger international development community. The workshop attendees were brought together by a shared interest in gender, development and technology.

 The morning session on environment and energy featured Susan Murcott of MIT, Pinar Keskin of Wellesley, Joanna Davidson of Boston University, and discussant Christine Walley of MIT. The lunch break featured technology demonstrations by D-Lab students and staff. The afternoon sessions featured presentations and discussions on gender and labor (Ping-Ann Adoo of UMass-Boston, Libby McDonald of MIT, Kiran Asher of Clark and discussant Heather Paxson of MIT) and methods of innovation (D-Lab’s Amy Smith and Abigail Mechtenberg of Clark University). 

 The day included lively discussions, debates and hands-on activities related to gender, technology, and development, and drew more than 80 participants over the course of the day. All in all, the workshop was a great success and we look forward to exploring similar event possibilities in the future.

 For event information and a detailed program, visit http://gendertech.weebly.com/

Amy Banzaert reflects on time with D-Lab and MIT

Last week, I successfully defended my PhD in MIT’s department of Mechanical Engineering, which was focused on understanding the combustions emissions associated with cooking fuels used in developing countries, with an emphasis on the viability of the D-Lab-invented Fuel from the Fields charcoal.  This accomplishment has led me to reflect on my involvement in D-Lab, which started before the program existed.

I came to MIT as a bright-eyed freshman, back in 1994, committed to using the skills I was about to gain in mechanical engineering to benefit the world in some undetermined but meaningful way.  I learned a tremendous amount at MIT but, with no D-Lab on campus, never gained a sense of how I could use my skills for humanitarian purposes.  After three years in the automotive industry, I needed a change. Not long after, I met Amy Smith.

 I still recall clearly our first conversation in her tiny office, telling her of my vague interests, hearing her passion, and experiencing her phenomenal ability to find synergies and opportunities.  She helped me become MIT’s first service-learning coordinator for the MIT Public Service Center. At the PSC, I was able to facilitate opportunities for students to marry their formal curriculum with project work that benefitted under-served communities locally and abroad.

 I was thrilled. I was helping to make the connections that I’d missed in my own MIT education. Later, when Amy and I co-taught “Health Technologies in the Developing World,” I realized my passion for teaching, and my eyes were opened fully to the developing world’s need for talented engineers. Three years after taking the position at the PSC, my decision to pursue my PhD enabled me to work directly on the sort of projects that I had been helping others to research – specifically, D-Lab’s charcoal project.

My investigations into D-Lab’s charcoal allowed me to determine the appropriate amount of binder to use in making briquettes and that manure, in addition to yucca, is a viable binder. I expanded the economic and location-based opportunities to make this fuel, and demonstrated that the use of certain household or industrial wastes to create the charcoal resulted in emissions of 9-45 more particulate matter than standard wood charcoal – very dangerous in terms of users’ respiratory health. In addition to my research and to TAing D-Lab: Design, I was the creator and founding instructor of the D-Lab: Energy class, which I taught for two semesters and which continues to be among D-Lab’s most popular subjects. I have found all this work to be tremendously gratifying, and my experiences here have cemented my commitment to engineering education.

I am proud to have received the first PhD associated with D-Lab and hope and expect that it will be the first of many. Now, I am looking forward to my next step: becoming Wellesley College’s first professor of engineering, helping students broaden their liberal arts education to include engineering that emphasizes project-based, humanitarian investigations. Study of more advanced engineering topics will be available through cross-registration with Olin College and MIT. Part of my work will be to continue to build the connective tissue between MIT and Wellesley College – I am very pleased that, among other things, this work ensures that I will maintain a strong connection with D-Lab.

Dr. Amy Banzaert successfully defended her thesis, "Viability of Waste-Based Cooking Fuels for Developing Countries: Combustion Emissions and Field Feasibility" on Wednesday, October 24, 2012. She will begin her professorship at Wellesley College this spring. To read more about her new engineering initiative at Wellesley, click here

Congratulations, Amy!

Fuel from the Fields: ARTI Tanzania

In August, I made my fourth trip to Tanzania. While my previous work has been centered around Arusha, this trip brought me to Dar es Salaam for the first time. After several weeks in Arusha, connecting with partners for what will hopefully be a D-Lab IAP trip, I took an eleven-hour-long Dar Express bus ride to the former capital and largest city in Tanzania. The bus is known for serving a soda during the trip, and I enjoyed my Fanta Orange as well as the truly astonishing views out the window as we drove across the country. I nearly missed the bus after our lunch stop, so I got to do the “jump into a moving vehicle” thing for the first time (it was moving slowly and quite fun), and continued on my journey.

After I reached my hostel in Mbezi Beach (outside of Dar city center) in the evening, Potnis, the co-founder of ARTI-TZ/ARTI Energy, was kind enough to welcome me with a delicious dinner out. ARTI Energy identifies appropriate renewable energy technologies and introduces them to Tanzania, “building production and sales capacity and public awareness through training and equipping beneficiaries and consumer sensitizing campaigns.” In addition to their work making charcoal from agricultural waste, they promote and sell solar lighting systems and kitchen waste biogas systems. 

The following day I visited the ARTI office in Mbezi Beach in the morning and then went to see several field sites in the Bagamoyo district for the rest of the afternoon. Joseph, a long-time friend of D-Lab and the International Development Design Summit, had come out from Arusha with me to help with translation and more; it was great to have his company on the trip. Our goals for the five days in Dar were getting to know ARTI and seeing their work, including their charcoal-making progress, and doing market research on charcoal use in Dar.

ARTI currently has one CBE, or community-based enterprise, that is producing charcoal. The CBE, Bagamoyo Briquette Company, collects char powder from local producer groups (up to 30 people working together) who have been trained in the production process -- how to fabricate kilns and carbonize different agricultural waste materials. Coconut shells, husks and wood shavings are some of the most common materials. The CBE then makes the binder (using ground, dried cassava skins), makes the wet mixture, uses an extruder to make the briquettes, and dries and packages them. They had just purchased a giant extruder from China and hope to start selling their charcoal in supermarkets soon, pending approval by the Tanzania Revenue Authority.

For the rest of my trip, I was interviewing different charcoal stakeholders with Joseph. I was connected to some through ARTI, and others through Joseph’s friend, Eveline. It was sometimes difficult to get people to agree to be interviewed – especially with the unfamiliar consent form – but by the end everyone was very sweet and thanking us! Talking to one woman who had tried a different alternative charcoal (apparently made from sunflower waste products) was especially interesting.

All in all, I enjoyed my first trip to Dar. Many people warned me about the traffic I would encounter, but as I spent most of my days away from the city center it was less an issue for me. I also loved being so close to the ocean, and managed to have a dip in the Indian Ocean on my last day before flying out. I hope to have the opportunity to return and work with ARTI again!

Fuel from the Fields: Bugiri, Uganda

Envirocoal is a successful Kampala-based business that sells alternative fuel briquettes to individual households and institutions. It is looking to help expand the market for alternative fuel briquettes into eastern Uganda by training and mentoring Community Based Organizations (CBOs) in villages that could make and sell charcoal briquettes as a loosely affiliated branch of Envirocoal. I visited two of these potential CBOs in the eastern region.

Petta Youth Thermal Power Initiative, making charcoal briquettes since 2009 using a Peterson Press (v.3) supplied by Envirocoal, is a 50+ member group located about 15 kilometers from the nearby city of Tororo, Though the group produces enough briquettes to meet their personal needs, they have not advanced into production levels high enough for sales at scale. They are excited about the possibility of producing briquettes beyond the level the Peterson Press is capable of and into a scale that would generate income for the group.

Nakabale Integrated Development Group in Namayemba near Bugiri town is a 30+ member group that has made charcoal briquettes since early 2010. They are also equipped with a Peterson Press (v.3) introduced to them by Envirocoal. This group is especially excited to adopt new technology because, as farmers, they own a lot of land (~150-200 acres of maize nearby). This land could supply the raw materials for a substantial production of charcoal briquettes. Their chairperson (and local politician) owns much of the area’s land and is ready to leverage his resources to get these briquettes to market.


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