D-Lab: Water, Sanitation, Hygiene (WASH) + Environment – Reflections on the 1st 10 years

I am delighted to have been invited to write about D-Lab: Evaluating, Disseminating and Scaling Up Global Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Environmental Innovations for the Common Good for the D-Lab Blog. This is the D-Lab class that may have the longest name in D-Lab class history!

Early years

D-Lab WASH + ENV, its simple name, began life in spring 2006 as “D-Lab III Disseminating Innovations for the Common Good.” D-Lab III Dissemination” and was one of the original ”D”s of D-Lab, back when D-Lab had evolved on from what was known as the Haiti class, and consisted of D-Lab I: Development, D-Lab II: Design, and D-Lab III: Dissemination.

For five years, from spring 2006 to spring 2010, the D-Lab III: Dissemination class focus was all manner of innovations in any sphere. Always, the emphasis of the class was to support students as they formulated an idea, innovation, or service project and to mentor them through the process of bringing that project to fruition. Entering the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge or some other competition or grant application process was always the deliverable for the class. 

The MIT course catalogue description from 2009 reads as follows:

D-Lab III is the third in the D-Lab trilogy of courses on "Development," "Design," and "Dissemination" focusing on disseminating innovations among underserved communities, especially in developing countries. Students acquire skills related to building partnerships and piloting, financing, implementing, and scaling-up a selected innovation for the common good. The course is structured around MIT competitions: IDEAS Global Challenge, $100K, Deshpande IdeasStream Innovation Showcase, and outside competitions…

Co-teaching with Alice Amsden

For two “middle” years, in spring 2009 and spring 2010, the course was joyfully and colorfully co-taught with Department of Urban Studies and Planning Professor Alice Amsden (1943 – 2012). We were a wonderful team! Alice had this deep economist’s knowledge of emerging economies, what she referred to as “the West and the Rest” and I had considerable experience with field-based engineering projects around the world with “the bottom billion.” She was a brilliant, eccentric and outspoken intellectual of great integrity, dedicated to her students, and ever eager to pursue new ways of thinking and teaching. This was how she happened to ask to co-teach a D-Lab class, and how I happened to be the lucky one to team up with her. 

WASH and environmental engineering projects

After this two-year experiment of co-teaching with Alice, she and I agreed that it was time to refocus the class from innovative projects on any subject to projects solely in my area of expertise -- WASH and environmental engineering projects. Thus, beginning in 2011, the class focused only on WASH and/or environmental projects. It was the next year in March 2012 that Alice passed away unexpectedly. She is sorely missed by those of us in D-Lab who had the privilege of knowing and working with her. 

Thus, for the past five years, D-Lab: WASH + ENV has been intentionally more narrowly circumscribed, even while D-Lab classes themselves have exploded into many wide and wonderful topic areas, including related areas, such as D-Lab: Waste, D-Lab: Biodiversity, Design for Scale.

Small but beautiful - and award-winning

This has kept D-Lab: WASH + ENV small, but always the class has subscribed to the philosophy that “small is beautiful.” While we have been small, with class sizes of about four to five teams each year, we have been “beautiful” insofar these teams have won many IDEAS Global Challenge and other competitions. In fact, teams mentored though this class, plus a few other teams from before D-Lab existed, have won prizes in 24 IDEAS Global Challenge Competitions from 2002 to 2014. Of 121 winning IDEAS teams total over that period, teams this class has helped to nurture and support represents 20 percent of all IDEAS winners – not a bad record! 

Having reflected on this small-is-beautiful past, in my next D-Lab Digest, I will welcome the opportunity writing about this year’s 2015 D-Lab WASH + ENV class and the projects, competitions and service learning in which we are engaged.

Susan Murcott
Instructor, D-Lab: WASH + ENV

Susan Murcott
Susan Murcott
“Hope in Flight” students Yiping Xing and Coyin Oh with their Black Soldier Fly composter in Tamale, Ghana
“Hope in Flight” students Yiping Xing and Coyin Oh with their Black Soldier Fly composter in Tamale, Ghana
Alice Amsden
Alice Amsden
Vac-Cast: a student team sand-casting prosthetic fitting technique
Vac-Cast: a student team sand-casting prosthetic fitting technique