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Teaching Locals to Engineer Solutions

Giving digital tools to ordinary people to help them solve problems. Forget access to computers. If you ask...

Giving digital tools to ordinary people to help them solve problems.Forget access to computers. If you ask MIT physicist Neil Gershenfeld, what people in many parts of the world need is more useful stuff. "A farmer in a rural village, a kid, needs to measure and modify the world, not just get information about it on a screen," he told an audience at the 2006 TED conference. Gershenfeld didn't fully appreciate that until after he launched his Fab Lab project to extend to the rest of the world some of the same tools he and his students use to do cutting-edge research, like building computers out of atomic nuclei and constructing molecules that assemble themselves into pre-designed shapes, like self-folding origami.Currently found in more than 30 locations in 12 countries, each Fab Lab is equipped with tens of thousands of dollars in digital fabrication and communications tools that help local people solve local engineering problems through hands-on workshops. Fab Lab volunteers trained villagers in rural India to build electronics to make their diesel engines run more efficiently and chemical sensors to monitor milk for spoilage. The Fab Lab in Lyngen, Norway came up with radio transmitters for nomadic herders to keep track of their sheep and reindeer. Other labs are working on wind and solar turbines.Some labs may need two to three years to reach the point where users can conceive of and solve problems on their own, says Amy Sun, an MIT graduate student who recently directed the installation of a Fab Lab in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, with the idea of showing that digital tools could help ordinary people solve problems in war-torn countries. Sun and her colleagues helped users build and install a series of open-source antennas for transmitting wireless internet. Sun says that users of the labs have turned a corner "of seeing access to information as a right, not a privilege that is reserved for just a few."Photo by Amy Sun, The Center for Bits and Atoms, MIT, 2009.Return to interactive site

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