A letter to the D-Lab community from Founding Director Amy Smith: Doing in the time of COVID-19



Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I am reaching out with greetings from D-Lab, and hope that you are finding ways to support and be supported by your community and manage in these challenging times. The Covid-19 pandemic has swept across the globe and upset life and work as we knew it for our students, instructors, staff, and community partners around the world. I wanted to share a bit about what D-Lab is doing, and what we hope to do, as we face this difficult situation together.


In March, all MIT undergraduates were sent home, and along with so many instructors at MIT and around the world, our academics team is focused on engaging students in meaningful ways to work on projects in collaboration with teammates and partners around the world. Our dedicated academics team has moved all seven spring D-Lab classes online, with a focus on offering instruction as well as compassion to our students. We are working to make classes as interesting, interactive, and hands-on as possible. Although we won’t be hosting the usual end-of-semester celebratory student showcase at D-Lab, stay tuned for a variety of ways to find out more about this semester’s projects. As for summer, we are hard at work re-imagining how students can continue their projects and engage with community members from afar.


Our research continues from a distance, focused on studying issues relevant to people living in the low- and middle-income communities where we work and the pandemic could have a devastating impact. Our current areas of research, low-cost storage for fruits and vegetables, improved food supply, inclusive local innovation processes, cleaner-burning and affordable cookstoves and fuels, digital financial services, mobile technologies for health and agriculture applications, fairness in machine learning for international development, and water treatment and testing, have never been more relevant. We are working with our collaborators to keep this work going at a distance and build their capacity to apply lean research principles to the work we do together. As we find ourselves working from home instead of in the field, we are taking the opportunity to focus on ways that we can share the results of our research more broadly.

Innovation Practice

Our innovation practice group is reaching out to partners to understand the challenges they are facing and working hard to support them. Within the innovation practice group, we are reaching out to our partners to understand the challenges they are facing. Whether helping rural communities cope with a disrupted food supply, supporting social entrepreneurs as they struggle to keep their businesses open to provide services to their communities, or finding ways to engage refugee innovators in creating solutions that provide protection and safety, we are working hard with our community partners to identify ways that we can support them and have an impact.

As relevant as ever

In other words, D-Lab's collaborative work to build resilience in under-resourced areas of the world is as relevant as ever, possibly more so now. And I am impressed every day by the work our staff is doing with dedication and determination. I am inspired by the compassion they bring to the work and their commitment to using their skills to help alleviate the impact of this crisis. You’ll hear more about their specific efforts over the next few weeks and months.

D is for Doing

As for me, when I first started writing this, I found myself at something of a loss. For many in areas where COVID-19 has yet to reach critical numbers and lockdowns have been ordered to keep the disease in check, people are experiencing more of an economic crisis than a health crisis. It has pulled at our heartstrings, knowing the impact it will have on people who are living on the margins of economic security. What should I be doing? What should D-Lab be doing?

I will admit to feeling somewhat paralyzed when thinking about this question initially. D-Lab’s experience in convening groups and engaging people in face-to-face, hands-on work to create solutions is not what we should be doing in the face of a pandemic. While not formally one of the Ds that D-Lab was founded on (Development, Design, and Dissemination, built on a foundation of Dialogue and Discovery), Doing has always been an important principle at D-Lab. Doing is part of our DNA, it is woven into our academic programs, our research, and our fieldwork.

Two of my favorite inspirational quotes revolve around doing:


I am only one; but still, I am one.
I cannot do everything; but still, I can do something.
And because I cannot to everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.

-Edward Everett Hale

One cannot level one’s moral lance at every evil in the universe, there are just too many of them. But you can do something, and the difference between doing something and doing nothing, is everything.

-Daniel Berrigan

Promoting livelihoods and strengthening communities

Personally, for the past decade, I have been deeply engaged in building out the Creative Capacity Building (CCB) and International Development Design Summit (IDDS) programs that seek to engage people around the world in the doing that leads to solutions that promote livelihoods and strengthen communities. I have had the pleasure of teaching design in settings ranging from the Kalahari Desert to the mountains of the Andes, under trees in refugee settlements and in Buddhist temples. The transformation that I see when people believe in their ability to do – to create solutions that impact their lives – is one of the things that keeps me inspired and motivated to do more.

The something we can do

But this isn’t an option now, and for the foreseeable future, I have no trips planned. For the first time in more than a decade, I have been home, really at home, for weeks (more than seven weeks already as I was self-isolating before the mandatory work-at-home directives and travel ban hit). So, what is the something I can do? Stay at home and avoid contact with other people? It’s a little lonely, and I know it is necessary, but I want to have more impact. Put some of our content online? I know that’s useful, but over the years, we’ve worked hard to develop interactive curricula where we engage with students and participants in collaborative, hands-on activities, so trying to flatten that to digital feels a little like painting over a rainbow with grey paint. That being said, I know that this is an opportunity for us, as it challenges us to bring our D-Lab style to remote instruction, and in the long run, we hope it will allow us to expand our capacity and ability to reach out to more people. But still, I want to do more.

It took me a little while, but I realized that the way to start doing something is to start doing something. It may be small and local, like providing a meal for someone who is overwhelmed or feeling sick. It might be reaching out to someone who has faced a loss. Or, it might be bigger, like working to solve the increasing gaps in global health care delivery, providing accessible information and activities to help stop the spread of the disease, or providing alternative livelihoods. For me, it took a while to figure out the “something I can do,” and I didn’t figure it out alone. Talking with D-Lab staff and people in our international network helped me crystallize the areas that I will be focusing on in the coming weeks. I’ve also realized that I have to be careful about trying to do too much. I can’t “level my lance at everything” so I have started narrowing things down, and am settling in, rolling up my sleeves and getting to work. And that feels good. So, I hope that you all can take the time to reflect and connect with friends and colleagues to discuss and discover the something you can do.

Join us in doing something, share your ideas

Join us in doing something! Are there challenges that you’ve seen or experienced that you think D-Lab could help with? Have you come up with a creative solution that you think others could benefit from? Have you learned something important or gained some insights that can build our collective wisdom? Let us know! Send us your thoughts, write a blog post. We are eager to help share your ideas with D-Lab audiences. And as we continue our own work, we will keep you updated with what we are doing.

In closing, I offer you my love and support and wish you all strength during this difficult and unsettling time. I am so grateful for the D-Lab community that stretches around the globe. Thank you for being part of it.



Amy Smith is Founding Director of MIT D-Lab.