In this video, MIT alum Amy Smith discusses her role as a founder of D-Lab, which works with people around the world to develop practical solutions to global poverty challenges.
Amy uses the Charcoal Project as an example of D-Lab's early work, which involved creating charcoal from agricultural waste products and in turn, reducing deforestation. Furthermore, Amy expresses the challenges in scaling such designs, including the economic limitations that some regions face.
[00:00:01:01] I was an undergraduate at MIT, Course 2, Mechanical Engineering. Soon after I graduated, I joined the Peace Corps. I spent four years in Botswana, and then I came back to graduate school and wanted to learn more about engineering and how it could apply to the development work that I enjoyed doing in the Peace Corps. As a graduate student, I started by integrating development projects into existing classes, and then I started creating my own classes. And then eventually, that evolved into D-Lab where we not only had classes, but they were integrated into field trips, and so that really was when I feel like D-Lab itself had its birth.
[00:00:47:06] We said the early D's were development, design, and dissemination, where we really wanted students to think about not only creating the technology, but what's the context, and how could you understand the context, if you aren't able to travel and see the place. So we started doing that particularly focused on Haiti in the first year, and then expanded to add in Brazil and India.
[00:01:14:11] One of the important things that we do is not just foster design and innovation here at MIT, but we do a lot of work in the field, teaching people about the design process. So that they're creating solutions for themselves not waiting for people to come from outside to create solutions. So that's where I spend more of my time these days is not here. But one of the things that I think is also critical is that you think about who is doing the designing, because I sometimes talk about design for development, but there's also design as development. Because there's an empowerment that happens when you create a solution yourself.
[00:01:56:02] One of our oldest projects is the Charcoal Project that we started in Haiti, and we developed a way to create charcoal from agricultural waste materials. And so that can have huge impacts for a couple of reasons. One is just not cutting down as many trees. In Haiti alone, eight million trees are cut down for fuel wood every year, so reducing deforestation through that mechanism. But also there's economic benefits because charcoal is a very high value product, and so people are able to generate income, which means they're more likely to adopt the environmentally friendly alternative. And then in addition to that, there's the health benefits, because it burns cleaner than wood charcoal or uncarbonized agricultural waste.
[00:02:46:06] I applied with a colleague from Brazil with the World Wildlife Foundation to look at using Biochar as a way of sequestering charcoal and not doing it on a huge scale, but doing it on a more either individual farmer or farmer cooperative scale. And in so doing, one of the things that we're looking to do is to develop income generating or service provision technologies that use the waste heat and gas from the carbonization process. So that the farmer is motivated to produce the Biochar not only because it will help the fields, but also because using that heat you can maybe do something to retain energy for cooking or for powering certain machinery. It's difficult to scale because the market is incredibly fragmented, and so things that work to scale things here just don't work effectively. Because the communication is difficult, the market, supply chains are broken, et cetera.
[00:03:52:02] It's also true that people don't have as much disposable income. So if you want to scale things there aren't a whole lot of ways to do it. And one of the best is to do it as a product that people would buy, and just people don't have as much purchasing power. Another thing is that it's not always easy for us here to understand the entire context. And so that's one of the reasons why we try to do a lot of work either through co-creation or in capacity building. So that it's the end users themselves who are highly engaged in the design process and it's not people who live in Cambridge, Massachusetts who are trying to design things for farmers in Mali, having never been there not even knowing what people farm.
[00:04:38:12] Part of what D-Lab does is to try to better educate our students to understand the context so that they can do a better job designing for those contexts. But we're also trying to increase the capacity for people to create their own designs, and then the really important thing is the link between those, the co-creation. So that you can bring sort of the analytical power of MIT towards some of the projects that are really extremely well understood by the users themselves.