Designs for a better world emerge from M.I.T. summit

Diverse teams brainstorm and build simple solutions to help developing nations.

Mary Knox Merrill – Staff
Simple solutions: An IDDS team designed software for a super- low-cost computer that hooks up directly to television sets and costs between $10 and $20.

For three weeks this summer, masons and mechanics, farmers and welders, scientists and a pastor threw themselves into creating low-tech solutions to big problems that persist across the globe.

Converging here at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, these 61 inventors from 20 countries divided into multilingual teams, each drafting and tinkering with their own device that will hopefully make life for the world’s poor a little easier.

There was no grand prize to be won at this second-annual International Development Design Summit (IDDS), but members sometimes skipped meals and stayed up late – sawing, hammering, and welding – to perfect and build their designs.

Soon, their prototypes will be rebuilt and refined in the developing world by artisans using locally available materials and tested ultimately by consumers who live on less than a dollar a day.

While the 10 teams constructed a wide variety of devices – from an inexpensive incubator for low-birth-weight babies to a rope system that could help craftswomen in the Himalayas get their products to market – here are three of the most interesting inventions to emerge from this year’s IDDS:

The charcoal crusher
Each summer, Americans fire up their charcoal grill for an outdoor barbecue.
In many developing countries, charcoal is an everyday fuel and used with indoor kitchen stoves. But the smoke-flavored food carries a health risk.

Charcoal is not clean-burning, and one IDDS team says the resultant indoor pollution has been linked to deaths on the same scale as malaria and tuberculosis globally.

One way to make charcoal produce fewer emissions is to pulverize the charred agricultural waste – like corncobs or crushed sugar cane – and pack it into denser briquettes.

A $2 metal press is already available for crushing powder into charcoal, says Jessica Vechakul, an engineer from MIT. What is missing in the market is a device to crush the burnt cobs into powder – so her IDDS team decided to build one. Their prototype looks like an oversized mouse trap with a hand crank. The user spins the crank and feeds the blackened cobs through a hopper. The grinder drops the powder into a container where it’s mixed with other ingredients into a cookie-dough consistency for briquettes. The simple contraption can crush six pounds of cobs in 10 minutes.

Right now, people who make charcoal from corncobs stomp on bags of burned cobs or beat the sacks with heavy sticks. When they empty the bags, the crusher is momentarily engulfed in a black cloud, inhaling the dust, Vechakul says. Also, after a few stomping sessions, the bags must be replaced – a recurring expense. “It is one messy job,” says Ms. Vechakul.

Bernard Kiwia, a bike mechanic from Tanzania, will take his team’s design to his home country. There, his job will be to persuade rural communities to use the hand-cranked device instead of cutting down trees for fuel. This alternative fuel from agricultural waste might be cheap overall, but, as some rural poor see it, wood costs nothing but time and effort, says Mr. Kiwia.

Unless they understand the huge environmental cost of chopping down trees on a regular basis, those in the countryside have little incentive to switch to a cleaner fuel, he says. Getting the target audience to invest in the IDDS device appears to be toughest part of the design game.

Educational, supercheap computers
Video-game cartridges from the 1980s may strike some as quaint relics from an 8-bit era. But an IDDS team sought to convert the outmoded systems into an inexpensive learning tool for schoolchildren in developing countries.

Computers are prohibitively expensive for many in developing nations. But TV sets are common and could work as a platform for educational games, says Derek Lomas, the design team leader.

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.

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.

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