Designs for a better world emerge from M.I.T. summit
Diverse teams brainstorm and build simple solutions to help developing nations.
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Earlier this year in Bangalore, India, Mr. Lomas strolled through a bazaar and noticed an educational video-game system based on the Japanese Nintendo Famicom, for which patents have run out. Just for a lark, he bought the set for $12.50. The generic system came with two game cartridges, a keyboard, and a couple of controllers.Skip to next paragraph
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Such a cheap, TV-based computer got his IDDS team brainstorming. Facilities in Ghanaian public high schools are significantly lacking compared with private schools, says teammate and Ghanaian pastor George Fuachie. Some cleverly designed educational software with reasonable price tags could give disadvantaged kids much-needed help and computer training. Off the shelf, this rudimentary computer can run a graphic user interface with a mouse and has some built-in programming capability. The team’s job is to design software appropriate for the classroom.
“It can run 8-bit games like Oregon Trail, Lemonade Stand, PAWS teaches typing, and Number Munchers, which I enjoyed playing as a kid,” says Lomas. Eventually, students could start creating their own locally relevant games on this system. Imagine children in Africa playing ethnic board games like Mancala – or a regional variation – on a television screen, he says.
The team researched hardware modifications to the TV-computer that will enable users to connect to text-only Internet sites – they declare it doable. Within a month, they also assembled a software development kit that makes it easier for open-source developers to produce new games and educational content for the system.
Going from the design concept to a commercial product is the task that lies ahead. When that happens, Lomas can consider his $12.50 investment a decent bargain.
Power generation from everyday chores
Globally, 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity and use fuel lamps or stay in darkness every night. Going about their daytime chores – pumping water, grinding dough, or getting around on bicycles – these off-the-grid people physically exert themselves to run machines. One IDDS team worked on a bit of modern alchemy – converting mechanical energy from everyday labor into stored electrical energy.
Few consumers will labor away to generate electrical power. “But if the effort is incidental as they go about some regular task, people don’t seem to mind putting in that extra 10 percent,” says Jay Pagnis, a mechanical engineering student from India. His team focused on treadle pumps – foot-operated devices used to irrigate farmland in Asia and Africa. Many country farmers step on and off these StairMaster-like contraptions to pump water for an average of four hours a day.
The team’s generator attachment fits in a wooden frame and hooks the pump’s treadle to a turning wheel, which charges a couple of store-bought batteries. After the day’s work, a farmer can unhook the rechargeable batteries and use the power to light a 5-watt compact fluorescent lamp – the equivalent of a regular 25 watt incandescent lamp – for four hours, says Mr. Pagnis.
This may not seem like much, but this lighting is more efficient compared with kerosene lamps currently in use in such places, points out teammate Suprio Das, an Indian electrical engineer. What’s more, this set-up can pay for itself in six months, they say. And, if it breaks down, the mechanism is simple enough to be repaired by a local bike mechanic.