When an inventor flexes her wings in the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering, a tornado of innovation sweeps across the developing world. This growing phenomenon is the IDDS effect—the International Design Development Summit—and its origins can be traced to MechE Senior Lecturer Amy Smith.
Smith, who was recognized recently by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people, admits she’s a bit surprised to find herself at the center of this whirlwind of progress. “I was one of those super-shy, skinny kids in elementary school,” says Smith, “but I’ll confess that I had a stubborn streak, and I was always determined to try and do the right thing.”
A vision in the wilderness
When it comes to mechanical engineering, the right thing in Smith’s worldview is to crowd source invention, fabrication, and distribution of technologies that improve the lives of people living in poverty. The resolve to implement this vision came to her in the wilderness—literally.
After receiving her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at MIT in 1984, Smith spent four years in Botswana as a Peace Corp volunteer. She was teaching junior high math, science, and English. As much as she loved teaching, Smith missed the creative problem solving of design work. Then one day in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, her life’s work came into focus. “I had sort of an epiphany,” Smith told the Boston Business Journal in 2000. “I was sitting at my desk, looking out over the bush, when I realized I wanted to do engineering for developing countries.”
Smith came back to MIT and completed her master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1995. She also started cranking out inventions and winning awards. When she joined the staff of the Edgerton Center in 2000, Smith began looking for ways to inspire MIT students to follow in her footsteps. Over the next three years, she founded or helped found the MIT IDEAS Competition, the Service Learning Initiative at MIT, and D-Lab, a program that teaches students how to develop appropriate technologies and sustainable solutions within the framework of international development.
The birth of IDDS
Smith launched her latest and most revolutionary MIT-sponsored educational innovation—the International Design Development Summit (IDDS)—in 2007. The summit was co-sponsored by Olin College and Cooper Perkins, a technology development company based in Lexington, Massachusetts. “Our goal was simple,” she says. “We wanted to develop the creative capacity of communities and individuals in a way that is respectful of the fact that everyone who participates in the process has a real contribution to make.”
Smith described the essence of the original vision for IDDS in a funding proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation.
Imagine a forum where a doctor from Pakistan is working alongside an agronomist from Haiti and students from Zambia and Brazil to create technologies that will dramatically improve the lives of the world’s poorest people. A forum where the director of a small technology center in rural Tanzania learns how to use state-of-the-art rapid prototyping equipment to develop pedal-powered pumps to supply his village with water. A forum where students from MIT, Caltech, and universities around the world come together in the spirit of collaboration, not competition, to use their knowledge and energy to create an impact in the world.
The first summit convened on the MIT campus in the summer of 2007. Fifty participants from 20 countries spent a month working together on water treatment systems, low-cost lighting technologies, improved cook stoves, and other practical devices targeted at the developing world. It was a life-changing experience for many attendees. “[IDDS] opened my eyes to how technology is a pillar of sustainable development, and that it is the small solutions that make the difference and bring about change,” commented one participant. Another said, “IDDS 2007 has left a permanent design scar on my mind. I think design, speak design, and act design.”
More than half of the participants were students who were inspired to work side-by-side with field practitioners with little or no formal training. Teams were intentionally diverse in terms of culture, education, and work experience, and each group had a mentor with deep knowledge of the project at hand. “People began to see very early on that inventiveness is not restricted to those who have a formal education,” says Smith. “This helped create an atmosphere of excitement, energy, and rapid learning.”
When Jodie met Bernard
The story of Jodie Wu BS ’09 and Bernard Kiwia is typical of how the IDDS effect is reverberating in the developing world. Kiwia was working as a bicycle mechanic when he made the trip from Tanzania to MIT to participate in the first IDDS in 2007. At the summit, he learned about bicycle-powered agricultural technologies from Carlos Machán, director of the Guatemalan NGO Maya Pedal. That encounter, plus the IDDS design curriculum, jump-started Kiwia’s career as an inventor. He returned to Tanzania after the summit and began to produce a variety of bicycle-powered devices to address local needs. “I used to fix bikes,” Kiwia says. “Now I make things.”
Wu’s encounter with the IDDS effect was triggered by her participation in one of Amy Smith’s D-Lab classes in the fall of 2007. During the semester, Wu learned about a maize sheller originally developed by Maya Pedal. Energized by Smith’s vision of disseminating affordable, appropriate technologies, Wu decided to test the sheller’s potential in Tanzanian villages on her D-Lab trip during MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP) in January 2008.
Although local response to the sheller was encouraging, farmers also pointed out a drawback to the design. To build the Maya Pedal device, a bicycle had to be dismantled for parts—a serious limitation in a region of the world where bicycles are an important means of transportation.
Such feedback from villagers was critical in helping Wu identify potential barriers to widespread adoption of the technology, but it wasn’t the only revelation she experienced on the trip. Equally important was a stop at Kiwia’s workshop in the city of Arusha. “It was the first place where I had seen local technology created right there in the workshop,” Wu told the MIT News Office in 2008.
Wu got her chance to tinker with the maize sheller when she took another D-Lab course in the spring of 2008. For a group project, Wu and her classmates decided to improve the version of the device she had previously taken to Tanzania. The team adapted the sheller so that it could be bolted easily onto an ordinary bicycle frame as needed.
When the operator finished shelling, the equipment could be quickly detached. The bicycle was thus available for riding again and could transport the sheller for use in another location. It could even generate income for the operator.
With support from the Baker Foundation and MIT’s Public Service Center, Wu took the improved sheller back on the road in Tanzania that summer. “It was exciting to see my device, which I’d worked on with other students, being used by people who are now making money from it,” said Wu.
That return trip was so successful that Wu decided to pursue the enterprise full time. She launched Global Cycle Solutions (GCS) in 2009 after winning the Development Track of the MIT $100K Competition. Kiwia— who has invented a pedal-powered hacksaw, drill press, and cell phone charger—leads the company’s R&D efforts and supervises manufacturing. Nine members of GCS’s board and management teams have MIT connections, including D-Lab instructor Gwyndaf Jones, mechanical engineering student Caroline Hane- Weijlman ’11, and IDDS organizer Daniel Mokrauer-Madden.
IDDS 2010, participants take a break from designing and go for a day trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.
A vast wake of entrepreneurship
In the wake of IDDS summer events in 2007, 2008, and 2009, similar partnerships began sprouting up across the developing world. People were linking up as a result of the summits, launching a network of collaborations between engineers, inventors, suppliers, and manufacturers from Zambia and India to Guatemala, Tanzania, and the U.S.
After three successful summits, including the 2009 IDDS hosted by the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Ghana, this summer’s 2010 IDDS introduced a major program innovation. The central focus of the event, held at the campus of co-sponsor Colorado State University (CSU), shifted from the creation of technologies to the formation of ventures to disseminate them. Under the guidance of lead faculty Paul Hudnut of CSU, Benjamin Linder SM ’93, PhD ’99 of Olin College, and Harald Quintus-Bosz SB ’90 of the technology development firm Cooper Perkins, participants in the 2010 summit developed sustainable business models and plans for the production and launch of nine existing small-scale enterprises.
IDDS continues to evolve in response to growing demand. “This is the next wave of development, the way I believe development should be done,” says Smith. “It’s all about capacity building at the local level, creating community-based networks of inventors, manufacturers, and material suppliers as we move on a dual track from prototypes to products and from projects to ventures. A lot of people believe in this model, and I think it can become pervasive.”
Given the current trajectory of IDDS, the forecast is favorable. A whirlwind of positive change should continue to spread across the developing world for years to come.