Toolmaking for the Greater Good: from Amy Smith’s D-Lab to a Cambodian Innovation Lab, Going Local for Better Answers

As part of Popular Mechanics magazine’s annual conference on world-changing innovation, Amy B. Smith, MIT’s pied piper of Design-That-Makes-a-Difference, was named this year’s Breakthrough Leadership award-winner. It was an easy choice. Smith and her team of “D-Lab” students have helped set the bar for practical brilliance. Whether they are making charcoal from plant waste or engineering a better corn-shucker, it is thrilling to see the dramatic impact their simple yet deft solutions to grinding every day problems can have on people’s lives.

Even those of us best described as “mechanically-challenged” can grasp how these inventions work — which is a big part of the point. In fact, it is #4 on Smith’s list of “Seven Rules for Low-Tech Engineering”:

Create “transparent” technologies, ones that are easily understood by the users, and promote local innovation.

Personally, I have given up hope of ever understanding all the nifty features on my too-smart-for-its-own-good cell phone. But I know I could master that corn-shucker (the “Design on $2 a Day” video includes a segment on it — note to MIT: video embed codes please…)

Rule #7 also focuses on the critical user-interface issue, but with a emphasis on design as an iterative, rather than a static, process:

Provide skills, not just finished technologies. The current revolution in design for developing countries is the notion of co-creation, of teaching the skills necessary to create the solution, rather than simply providing the solution. By involving the community throughout the design process, you can help equip people to innovate and contribute to the evolution of the product. Furthermore, they acquire the skills needed to create solutions to a much wider variety of problems. They are empowered.

My friend Ed Jezierski at InSTEDD is attempting to apply this low-tech philosophy to high-tech, setting up an “innovation lab” in Cambodia (full disclosure: TrackerNews is also a project of InSTEDD). To jump start the effort, he helped put together a one-day tech event in September — Bar Camp Phnom Penh — for which 200 people registered and 300 showed up. Clearly, Ed’s tapped into something big. Now the challenge is to make the dream real by putting together a lab where local talent develops software solutions for local and regional needs (in this case, with a focus on health systems). “All technologies go obsolete — so for true sustainability you need to assemble a team of people that will invent the ‘next thing’ — and give it the skills, capital and opportunities to do so,” he explains.

If it works, the Cambodian lab would also serve as a prototype for labs in other developing countries. Given the infrastructure hurdles (electricity, connectivity, etc.) if the concept can make it in here — to paraphrase Frank Sinatra — it can make it anywhere.

One Response

  1. Interesting read. There is currently quite a lot of information around this subject around and about on the net and some are most defintely better than others. You have caught the detail here just right which makes for a refreshing change – thanks.

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