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BY DON BOROUGHS

THE BAREFOOT ENGINEER

Empowering the poor to find their own solutions.


UP CLOSE image: Mike Clifford Says Characterizations and Stories Enliven Lectures and Deepen DiscussionsShe earned a MacArthur “genius” grant for her inventions. Her mechanical engineering courses at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are frequently oversubscribed by 200 percent. So when you ask Amy Smith to name the most interesting device she has tinkered with, you might expect to hear about some extraordinarily complex machine. Instead, she waxes enthusiastic about a simple metal ring that poor farmers in Africa and Latin America use to shell corn from the cob.

With Amy Smith, expect the unexpected. She asks her MIT students to live on $2 a day, as half the world’s population must do to survive. She teams Ph.D. physicists and engineering students from elite universities with illiterate mechanics and farmers from Guatemala or Ghana to design useful gadgets. The daughter of an MIT engineering professor, she eschews the tenure track and even declined an honorary doctorate. She has never driven a car, yet is the driving force behind an expanding series of mechanical engineering courses at MIT, collectively known as D-Lab.

Smith’s work encompasses 100 scattered projects in the pursuit of a single goal: using simple technology to lessen the burden of the rural poor. “I believe that there is a need for us to focus on solving the world’s most difficult problems,” she argues – problems that affect “the billions of people who don’t have safe water, sanitation, and enough food to eat.”

The hub of Smith’s MIT activity is the D-Lab’s three alliterative courses: Development, Design, and Dissemination. Fifty undergrads who win the lottery — literally — to enroll in the Development course will partner in groups with community organizations in such places as Honduras or India to develop ideas for low-cost, locally produced technologies that address fundamental problems. The students visit these countries to gain better insights into needs and available skills on the ground. Projects may be fleshed out as workable prototypes and viable businesses in the follow-on Design and Dissemination courses. Recent projects include a high-pressure hand press for making charcoal briquettes from sugar-cane waste and a vibrating compactor for creating bricks from soil.

MIT graduate Jodie Wu says that after two corporate internships spent working in cubicles, “I didn’t want to be an engineer anymore.” But the D-Lab rekindled her interest, “because it was engineering to help people.” Adds senior Lisa Tacoronte: “Amy really grabs you from the first day; her enthusiasm spills over into the class.”

This year’s International Development Design Summit, which Smith has run for the past three years, hosted more than 70 innovators, from Zambian health care workers to Caltech engineering students, for five weeks in Ghana. Working 20-hour days – “my summer vacation” – Smith made regular visits to 10 villages, happily walking barefoot, and facilitated such projects as a bicycle-powered chlorine generator to purify water and batteries made from aluminum cans, charcoal, and salt water. “It totally rocked,” she says.

Moving the summit from MIT, where it began, to Africa parallels a shift in Smith’s thinking. “In my early years, I viewed myself as an engineer who would solve problems for people,” she says. If her inventions didn’t quite meet local needs, she gave locals a say in fine-tuning them. Now Smith aims to empower poor people to create their own solutions. “That’s the revolution I’m currently hoping to foster,” she says.

Smith’s unusual career path started 21 years ago during a Peace Corps stint in Botswana, where the MIT grad lamented having to make a choice between a future in development, teaching, or engineering design. One day, staring across the bushveldt, she realized that she did not have to choose: “I created a niche where I can do all the things I want to do.” And that may be Amy Smith’s greatest invention.

Don Boroughs is a freelance writer based in South Africa.

 

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