A group of renegade engineers at MIT is creating elegantly simple solutions to global problems. Tim McKeough shows us five of the best.
MIT's D-Lab can turn a plastic baby bottle into lab equipment and refashion a toilet as a chlorination system. Here's how its low-cost, low-tech solutions are saving lives around the world.MIT is often thought of as a high-tech clubhouse, a play space for brilliant thinkers who churn out one world-changing innovation after the next. MIT brainiacs have brought us everything from vital advances in high-speed photography and internet architecture to robots with artificial intelligence. But not all of their solutions are mind-numbingly complex. What use is an electrical invention if you live in a community that doesn't have the reliable power to use it, or a fragile device in an area where it's almost impossible to find spare parts?MIT's D-Lab, an elite unit of low-tech mercenaries, addresses these concerns with solutions that dramatically affect the quality of people's lives in developing countries. "Our goal is always to do things in the simplest way possible," says D-Lab's director, Amy Smith, a mechanical engineer who won the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for Invention in 2000 (she was the first woman to do so), and a MacArthur "genius"grant in 2004. "Designs are more likely to be successful if they're not complicated and requiring all sorts of support and infrastructure. But simple doesn't mean easy. It's a challenge to get to those ‘simple' solutions."She first realized that a skilled engineer could do a world of good in the developing world during the late 1980s, when she spent four years with the Peace Corps in Botswana. Now at D-Lab, Smith and an ever-changing roster of students develop no-nonsense technology for people in places like Honduras, Haiti, Brazil, India, and Zambia. Some of their inventions are already spreading through communities by word of mouth, while others are being studied by partner organizations for broader distribution. "We're not as well equipped to do dissemination as we would like," says Smith, who notes that D-Lab only has about 30 students at any one time. "We're interested in finding the right partners to move the technologies forward."