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Necessity, the Mother, etc.
Alex Steffen, 29 Nov 03

Fabulous NYT Magazine profile of MIT's Amy Smith, whose classes focus on teaching engineers how to work with people in the developing world to invent tools that will improve the lives of the poorest. A must-read:

"[I]n Smith's 'D-lab' class, students gather around a huge, black-topped slab of a table. It's the first semester of design lab, and these undergrads are learning about the politics of delivering technology to poor nations, how to speak a little Creole and the nitty-gritty of mechanical engineering; during the midsemester break, they will travel to Haiti, Brazil or India. There, they will act as consultants in remote villages, helping locals solve technical problems. Oh, yes, and the students will also test village drinking water for dangerous bacteria.

"Today, Smith is training them to do that. Using a small pump, the students draw the Charles River water through a filter. Smith points to a piece of the testing rig -- what looks like a silver barbell. 'This test stand costs $600,' she says. 'Personally, I find that offensive.'"

"Smith's entire life is like one of her inventions, portable and off the grid. At 41, she has no kids, no car, no retirement plan and no desire for a Ph.D. Her official title: instructor. ''I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing. Why would I spend six years to get a Ph.D. to be in the position I'm in now, but with a title after my name? M.I.T. loves that I'm doing this work. The support is there. So I don't worry.'' It was a good thing that she won the Collegiate Inventors award in 1999, she says, because back then she was stretching a three-month graduate-student stipend to last for a year and didn't know how she'd pay her rent. The $7,500 prize came just in time.

"Likewise, the inventors who most inspire her will never strike it rich. ''There are geniuses in Africa, but they're not getting the press,'' she says. She gushes about Mohammed Bah Abba, a Nigerian teacher who came up with the pot-within-a-pot system. With nothing more than a big terra-cotta bowl, a little pot, some sand and water, Abba created a refrigerator -- the rig uses evaporation rather than electricity to keep vegetables cool. Innovations that target the poorest of the poor don't have to be complicated to make a big difference. The best solution is sometimes the most obvious.

"Smith, of course, aims to design such hidden-in-plain-sight tools and deliver them to the needy. But she also wants to change people's understanding of what it means to be an inventor. To this end, she is a co-founder of the Ideas (Innovation Development Enterprise Action) competition at M.I.T.; students work with a community partner to solve a problem for the disenfranchised. Last year's winners, for instance, included a team that developed a kit for removing land mines so that farmers in places like Zimbabwe no longer have to improvise with hoes and rakes.

"Success in the Ideas competition, as well as in the kind of design that Smith pursues, requires humility, because your masterpiece may end up looking like a bunch of rocks or a pile of sand. And since you'll be required to do extensive fieldwork to understand the problem you're solving, it also demands the skills of a crack Peace Corps volunteer, someone who remains cheerful even when the truck breaks down, the food runs out and you're the one who has to sleep next to the goat.

"Women have the advantage here, unlike other branches of engineering. ''I know how to be self-deprecating,'' Smith says. ''The traditional male engineer is not taught that way.'' That engineer, were he trying to figure out an agricultural problem in Botswana, might consult with men, but that wouldn't get him very far. ''In Africa, the women are the farmers. Women invented domesticated crops. If you're talking to the right people, they should be a group of elderly women with their hair up in bandannas.''

"As improbable as it may sound, Smith's brand of invention is moving into the mainstream. That is because her clients -- the disenfranchised in Africa, Haiti, Brazil, India -- are increasingly able to secure loans. The concept of microfinance, which first took off in the 1970's in Bangladesh, has gathered force throughout the developing world, giving impoverished people the capital they need to start small businesses and buy materials. According to Elizabeth Littlefield of the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor, a microfinance group within the World Bank, the integration of tiny loan-making operations into mainstream banking could bring billions of new consumers into the global marketplace over the next few decades. There have already been some surprising strides made. In India, for example, banks have set up solar-powered kiosks in out-of-the-way villages, giving clients access to financial services in places where there is not even electricity. But what will they invest in? The rural poor will need machines designed for their needs. And that will, in turn, create demand for new kinds of technologies."...

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