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MIT Helps Third World With Hands-On Approach 128

Posted by Soulskill
from the helpful-contributions dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "About 60 people from 20 nations will descend on the MIT campus July 14th for the second annual International Development Design Summit to begin an intensive month-long process of creating technological solutions for the needs of people in the world's developing nations. The goal of the program is to develop simple, inexpensive devices that in some cases can be produced locally and make a real difference for people and communities. The event is the brainchild of MIT Senior Lecturer Amy Smith, a returned Peace Corps volunteer and a past winner of the MacArthur 'genius' grant. Previous products of Smith's design class include a bike-powered corn sheller, a metal press that can make clean-burning fuel out of agricultural waste, and an electricity-free incubator. The workshop promotes a shift in focus among companies, universities, investors and scientists toward attacking problems that hamper development in the world's poorest places. 'Nearly 90 percent of research and development dollars are spent on creating technologies that serve the wealthiest 10 percent of the world's population,' Ms. Smith said. 'The point of the design revolution is to switch that.'"
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MIT Helps Third World With Hands-On Approach

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  • What if the USA stops helping to create wars and manipulating the markets around the world, and helping to create unstable and volatile political situations, that are the conditions that eventually lead all this so called 'third world countries' to be in the terrible situation they are now ... ?

    I mean, the USA became RICH thanks to this countries!!. Kill democracy, create wars, sell weapons to both sides, then use it's puppets in the World Bank to get this countries in debt with everyone, Help to create dic

    • by cptnapalm (120276)

      I think somebody's been in the Kool-Aid again...

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Tablizer (95088)

      No, we don't need your stupid help MIT. We need you [US] to stay home, and stop playing to be the world police.

      Be careful what you wish for. Something even worse may step into the void.
           

    • by dhavleak (912889)

      What if the USA stops helping to create wars and manipulating the markets around the world, and helping to create unstable and volatile political situations, that are the conditions that eventually lead all this so called 'third world countries' to be in the terrible situation they are now ... ?

      No, we don't need your stupid help MIT. We need you to stay home, and stop playing to be the world police.

      I think you're confusing two different things -- US foreign policy, and MIT have nothing to do with each other. The world does need MIT. And you don't speak for the people MIT is trying to help.

    • by fugue (4373)

      No, we don't need your stupid help MIT. We need you to stay home, and stop playing to be the world police.

      Not sure where you went to school, but having spent quite a bit of time at top universities as well as at middle-of-the-road state schools, I have a hunch where part of the confusion might be.

      State schools are not internationally known. Nobody tries to get in. They are often bastions of liberal American thought, but still overwhelmed by Americans.

      MIT and other famous schools are quite different. People apply to them from all over the world, and the admissions committees and hiring committees choose f

  • by OzPeter (195038) on Sunday July 13, 2008 @11:22AM (#24172643)
    An appropriate place for a plug for Engineers without borders" [ewb-usa.org]
    • by Quixote (154172) *
      What hope is there for EWB when then can't even link to their West Coast chapter properly? See this page [ewb-usa.org].
      • by OzPeter (195038)
        I hope you emailed them and pointed out the error of their ways. They are nice people to deal with but as non-profit they don't always see the quality of their web presence as the most important thing on their agenda (and yes - I have also had issues with their website in the past)
  • WHICH Third World? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mangu (126918) on Sunday July 13, 2008 @11:22AM (#24172649)

    The problem is that there is a wide range of poorer nations, every of which is "Third World". There are more advanced nations, like Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, there are some in the middle of the road, like India, Egypt, Pakistan, and then there are the desperately poor, like most of Africa.

    The technology needed by each group is different. A cheap way of digging a well is not what the people living in a city slum need most. OTOH, a cheap computer will not be much help people who live in mud huts somewhere in Africa.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by MrNaz (730548)

      The technology "needed"? Funny, there's this odd history book that seems to think that humans lived in Africa for a while before Europeans arrived. I'm not sure, but I hear that in this mysterious time before time, they even didn't have cellphones or the Internet!

      What is needed is an end to things like this [thirdworldtraveler.com]. Until the first world nations stop raping third world nations and supporting tinpot dictators just for the sake of guaranteeing access to their resources, human misery will continue wholesale.

      • by maxume (22995)

        Not necessarily at today's population densities (so technology can have a real impact on peoples ability to obtain food).

        This project is pretty clearly about increasing quality of life, not resource exploitation, so there really isn't any reason to direct your attitude at it.

      • Re: (Score:1, Troll)

        Until the first world nations stop raping third world nations and supporting tinpot dictators just for the sake of guaranteeing access to their resources, human misery will continue wholesale.

        Yes! We need to get out of the way and let the local tinpot dictators get on with raping their own countries without outside intereference. Just ask Robert Mugabe! He'll tell you.

        And yes, human misery will continue wholesale once we stop helping local tinpot dictators. Or do you really believe that the various non

        • by dhavleak (912889)

          Until the first world nations stop raping third world nations and supporting tinpot dictators just for the sake of guaranteeing access to their resources, human misery will continue wholesale.

          Yes! We need to get out of the way and let the local tinpot dictators get on with raping their own countries without outside interference. Just ask Robert Mugabe! He'll tell you.

          Well, just imagine if we hadn't interfered in Iraq, Afghanistan in the 60s, Vietnam, Korea, etc. -- we wouldn't be overextended right now, and could genuinely help out in Zimbabwe if the UN asked us to. In fact, we would actually have enough credibility in the UN to rally support around the idea of taking action in Zimbabwe.

          But instead we went chasing 'weapons of mass destruction' and an 'al-qaida in Iraq' that didn't exist there until we turned the country into a pile of rubble. So the man has a point, a

          • Well, just imagine if we hadn't interfered in Iraq, Afghanistan in the 60s, Vietnam, Korea, etc.

            (emphasize is mine)
            Then instead of rich and (now) democratic South Korea and poor tyrannic North Korea, we would have poor tyrannic Korea across entire peninsula. And even more likely, passivity from the West would probably encourage Soviet Union and its satellites to try to attack even more countries.

        • by jcr (53032)

          We need to get out of the way and let the local tinpot dictators get on with raping their own countries without outside intereference. Just ask Robert Mugabe!

          If we stopped giving financial aid to local dictators, they would be a lot easier for their people to overthrow.

          -jcr

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      here are more advanced nations, like Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, there are some in the middle of the road, like India, Egypt, Pakistan,

      Just curious about your classification -- what makes Brazil and Mexico "advanced" and India and Egypt "middle of the road"? Aside from them being largely arbitrary classifications, the world's poor are pretty much the same everywhere. They're desperate, they have bleak futures and have a shockingly uniform form of suffering, no matter where they are. Small, ingenious innovati

  • Didn't read TFA, this being slashdot and all, but isn't there a shitload of old true-and-tried local technologies that are not anymore common knowledge in famine and civil war-ridden countries? I'm talking about stuff like traditional fuel-efficient ovens, food storage solutions, hygienic dry toilets etc..

    Bringing that stuff back would have major impact on daily lives and be logical first step of this kind of program.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      What's more, this is not a technological problem, but a systematic one. This article [npr.org] is from 2006, and even though the problem was apparent even earlier, nothing happens.

      So, instead of trying to help the 3rd world countries with tech, we might just try not to harm them with our business practices and subsidies.

    • by mangu (126918)

      isn't there a shitload of old true-and-tried local technologies

      I once saw an interesting example of this. There's a village in the Brazilian northeast where people make cattle bells. The bells themselves are made of steel cut from old oil drums, but what's interesting is the way they braze them.

      They cut small pieces of brass from junk and weigh them in a primitive scale, they have a standard pebble that's the right weight of brass for each size of bell. They pile the bells on each other, about ten for a pac

    • by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Sunday July 13, 2008 @12:14PM (#24173005)
      One thing that holds poor people back is that their equipment is often very primitive. Any method of cooking that needs an open fire or has to heat up a lot of stone is very energy intensive. A Western halogen or induction hob is, by contrast, extremely efficient, heating only what is needed when it is needed. An open fire will often put 80% of the heat output straight up the chimney, whereas I have a very efficient Scandinavian solid fuel stove which puts more than 80% of its output into the house. But the cost of a Jotul or Morso stove would represent maybe five to ten years total income to a third world family.

      This is why thinking like this is needed. Expensive but efficient technology needs to be commoditised for Third World production to bootstrap their economies.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I'd be more impressed if these types of events weren't just a way for the overly affluent to jet set around trying to justify an overly excessive and unsustainable lifestyle.

    Speaking as a planet, we simply can't afford you!

  • Trickle down (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 13, 2008 @12:26PM (#24173119)

    90% of research dollars may be spent on creating technologies that are targeted at the richest 10% of the population, but that doesn't mean they don't benefit the other 90%. Think of mobile phones, for example - originally aimed at the Western business elite, but they went on to revolutionise the African economy by creating a fast, efficient communication network between villages where it wasn't feasible to roll out wired infrastructure.

  • Nearly 90 percent of research and development dollars are spent on creating technologies that serve the wealthiest 10 percent of the world's population

    If reversing that is the goal, why only help the third world when it seems that nearly the entire globe is that way?
  • Missing links (Score:4, Informative)

    by belg4mit (152620) on Sunday July 13, 2008 @01:07PM (#24173451) Homepage

    For some reason the news office didn't link to D-lab [mit.edu]. But there are actually plenty of groups at MIT doing stuff like this,
    including the Public Service Center's IDEAS [mit.edu] competition, several Mech-E student ptojects, Design for Change [mit.edu],
    and the spin-off Design that matters [designthatmatters.org].

    These groups work on a lot of interesting things. Some of them, like the Kinkajou projector, see somewhat esoteric or "luxurious,"
    but others are pretty basic and nifty. There are a lot of bicycle flywheel-moderated pedal powered devices that seem to fill genuine
    needs, as does the famous peanut sheller [fullbellyproject.org].

    • If you're someone with an engineering background and some free time, how do you get involved with groups like this?
      • by belg4mit (152620)

        Not sure. DTM seems to run a mailing-list, and accept interns. Other posters have mentioned Engineers Without Borders,
        and vkg gave a few links to similar kinds of things [slashdot.org] including "Appropedia."

      • That's a great question. There have to be a bunch of engineers w/spare time to contribute to these kinds of projects. Not everyone can move to another country or even dedicate a semester to a project. OTOH, will the administrative cost be worthwhile?
    • by scotfrank (156936)
      Another MIT spin-off and a group I'm working with, One Earth Designs [oneearthdesigns.org], should also be mentioned. Our focus is in high altitude areas, particularly the Himalaya region and Tibet. Currently we are testing a solar cooker and heater, and in the future we will be rolling out some methods rural energy generation and water treatment.

      If anyone with interest would like to get involved, please contact us! In fact we are hoping to start a multi-purpose system that will facilitate this type of collaboration around the
  • Let's make really cheap, low-cost, useful, and robust devices to help people. Why didn't I think of that! Bet nobody else has thought of that before either!

  • by vkg (158234) on Sunday July 13, 2008 @01:22PM (#24173557) Homepage

    is turning into quite a movement.

    http://appropedia.org/ [appropedia.org] is like wikipedia but, predictably, for appropriate technology.

    http://hexayurt.com/ [hexayurt.com] is a nice little emergency shelter (that's my project.)

    http://globalswadeshi.net/ [globalswadeshi.net] takes Gandhi's ideas (like the spinning wheel) and generalizes them into a global picture based on appropriate technology innovations

    http://akvo.org/ [akvo.org] does water technology

    http://openfarmtech.org/ [openfarmtech.org] does a wide range of systems for a very high standard of living

    and there's a lot more out there.

    http://www.globalswadeshi.net/video [globalswadeshi.net] has a series of video interviews with people working on appropriate technology in this general vein.

  • by vkg (158234) on Sunday July 13, 2008 @01:24PM (#24173571) Homepage

    Basically, when you run the numbers, it seems like about half of all global death is from poverty.

    This talk (I presented it about two weeks ago) gives some details, sketches out possible solutions, and puts the whole thing in context.

    http://www.globalswadeshi.net/video/video/show?id=2097821%3AVideo%3A1943 [globalswadeshi.net]

    Enjoy.

  • Zug-Zug (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Migraineman (632203) on Sunday July 13, 2008 @01:39PM (#24173699)
    The technology is one element of a systemic solution. Go play Warcraft (the original one.) You start out with one grunt. You harvest resources, enhance capabilities, and improve your situation through incremental means. Throughout the process, you've developed an infrastructure that will support your population.

    Aw hell! Some bastard sent troops into my Town Square and is tearing the place to shit! Yep, you can expect the local warlord/gang/bunch_of_thugs to do that in the real world as well. You've developed a resource; someone will try to take it from you.

    Simply tossing a technological measure at a community won't magically fix things. At a minimum, it'll free up someone to perform another task that wasn't an option before. It's worth doing, but needs to be part of a larger program that helps with developing comprehensive infrastructure.
    • by hyades1 (1149581)

      Nicely said. And don't overlook that classic example of what happens when you mix Third World mentality with up-to-date technology. We call them IED's.

      • You can weaponize a stick. It's not terribly effective against your neighbor who also has weaponized sticks. However, if these outsiders drop a magical technology into you lap that allows you to deliver your weaponized sticks at your neighbor from a great distance, that represents a disruption in the balance of power you previously had. I think that's the true danger. Incremental improvements in anything give you time to adapt socially, an gives your neighbors a similar opportunity.

        If you could att
    • Simply tossing a technological measure at a community won't magically fix things.

      Exactly. I have a bunch of friends big into EWB-Canada - there's some really interesting stories (that they think are both funny ...and a bit embarrassing) about the organization's first few years where they genuinely believed straight-up tech was the complete answer. Nowadays they joke about it a lot.

      Over the last 6 or 7 years EWB (Canada*) has had a major shift from those top-down 'western engineering solutions will save Africa' ideas to focusing on understanding people's actual needs there. Volunte

  • 1. cheap, reliable electricity generation
    2. cheap, reliable air conditioning

    Those two things alone would make an unbelievable difference in the lives of pretty much everyone in the Third World.

    Clean micro-power would obivate the need for (1) expensive to own/operate gas/diesel generators and (2) large infrastructure investments.

    Cheap, reliable air conditioning would benefit both industry (food storage and transportation) and normal life (things really are nicer in AC).

    These two would change life radically i

    • Don't forget transportation, as we're making leaps and bounds in the first world towards electrification of transportation. If Nanosolar were to get their product down to $1/Watt, it would make sense for a large non-profit (B&M Gates Foundation) to step in and put several solar generating facilities in Africa. Give the power away at first, but than slowly raise the price to a sustainable level as the quality of life increases.
    • South African electricity is (was?) probably the cheapest in the world. To the consumer it is sold at about 44 cents per kWh (that is about 5 American cents per KwH).

      Neigbouring countries (including Zimbabwe) paid about 13 cents per kWh (about 1.5 'merican sents per kWh). This helped those countries f*ck-all (the are still 3rd world).
  • This is a relatively regular initiative which has been producing good results on a sporadic basis for decades. At least this has been my experience in Canada. I feel certain that people in many other so-called 'first world' countries have given it a go as well. It would seem, however, that a more durable approach might consist of going to the people in the areas where the need is felt and assisting them to make their own technologies from locally available materials to answer locally felt needs. Not the sam
  • Sustainability (Score:5, Insightful)

    by seanthenerd (678349) on Sunday July 13, 2008 @03:08PM (#24174371) Journal
    It's great to see (reading the NY Times article) that this summit includes people from developing countries. Often, these sorts of things just involve people from developed countries dreaming up 'solutions' that sound awesome but wouldn't actually work on the ground, because the focus is only on the technologies and there isn't enough understanding of the people and societies in the developing countries or areas the technology is meant for.

    I talked to a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders Canada [ewb.ca] who had this crazy story about rural villages in Mali (in western Africa). In almost every single town he visited (poor farming villages, actually) there was a deep, covered well and pump providing clean, healthy drinking water. And nobody used them. Instead, women from the villages would walk a few kilometres to collect water from a stagnant, parasite-infected pool of water.

    Which seems ridiculous to us, maybe, except that collecting water by the pool was an important social event for these women (that standing in line at the well didn't duplicate at all), and that people thought the metal of the pump was unnatural - especially compared to a water source 'in nature', and that no one had really convinced the families in these villages that water from the pump would make their babies more likely to survive.

    But it really goes to show that the best-intended engineering or technical solutions (in this case, a foreign NGO's decision a decade or two ago that every Malian village needed a water pump) won't succeed without a better understanding of the people they are meant to help. And that in the end, developing countries will never "make it" because of solutions 'handed down' by first-world organizations; in the end people there need to be empowered to improve their lives and their countries. First-world organizations can help with that, but we can't pretend to understand their communities' needs better than they do.
  • by surfcow (169572) on Sunday July 13, 2008 @04:21PM (#24174929) Homepage

    ObPlug: Paul Polak's "Out of Poverty" program. http://www.paulpolak.com/ [paulpolak.com] He has a deeper-than-surface understanding of 3rd world micro-economics. He introduced simple but effective technologies in many places which have completely transformed the lives of whole villages. Drip irrigation, cheap water storage, treadle-pumps, etc. He also has a book at amazon. Haven't read it yet, but it's on my wish list.

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1576754499/ref=ord_cart_shr?_encoding=UTF8&m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&v=glance [amazon.com]

    On a related note:
    (IMO) our universities must become more than diploma mills for the children of the wealthy, they should (primarily) be incubators for real, functional change. MIT and a few other universities take this seriously and (most importantly) fund it. (See recent articles on break-through solar technology.) I hope they will open-source the fruits of their research.

    We somehow need to shift focus from getting-rich-quick to saving a world that needs it. We can't afford to let the 21st century really can't be like the 20th.

  • One of the most difficult problems 3+ World Communities have is the acquiring of fresh water. Another problem is that once fresh water is acquired, others would come and take it, AND the method to make more fresh water. If MIT could find a Low Technology solution to this one issue, then these cultures could work on the next great problem, "Finding a Good Deli."

    • There already exists a low-budget method to obtain semi-drinkable water, it's called SODIS, and relies on solar radiation to disinfect the water. While obviously this won't work in situations where the water is heavily polluted (i.e. oil or something like that) there are a lot of areas where this will work.

      It's also a matter of education though - getting people to believe you that it's worth all this trouble to obtain clean water. Hell, even in situations where it's no trouble to get clean water it may st

  • Did anyone else read that as "electric free defibrillator"?
  • Seems a little silly compared to this sort of thing.
  • How long before the current economic situation (thanks, GW!) results in the majority of these technologies being needed in the good ole USofA? Is there going to come a day when the rich & affluent citizens of Zimbabwe are sending us cheap bicycle-powered corn shuckers?

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