$12 Laptop Featured at Int’l Dev. Design Summit

Goodbye $100 laptop, hello $12 laptop. Well technically, it’s only a keyboard, but it just needs to be plugged into a TV.

The $12 TV/computer was one of the ten projects that were worked on during the International Development Design Summit 2008, held at MIT between July 14 and Aug. 12 this year. Featuring 60 participants from more than 20 countries across the globe, the IDDS brought together people from different countries, professions, and backgrounds; the aim was to devote concentrated time and effort to work on simple projects meant to improve the lives of people in developing countries. During the summit, the participants, grouped into 10 teams, discussed real-world problems that people in developing world were facing, and used technology to come up with innovative solutions to the problems.

One team built a working prototype of a hand-held diagnostic tool that could perform DNA analysis. Another built a device to treat breast milk to prevent HIV transmission from infected mothers to their infants. Yet another group worked specifically to design a rope-way system for the craftsmen in the Himalayan mountains so that the workers don’t have to transport their goods on their heads.

It wasn’t always easy going for either the participants or the organizers of the summit. Some of the participants could not speak English, some had never left their home countries and thus it was a challenge just to get the teams started on their projects. In one team with three Spanish speakers, only one of them also spoke English. Although the bilingual member was able to act as a mediator between the Spanish speakers and the rest of the group, he wasn’t always available for translation and translators had to be arranged. However, after a few days of learning English from peers and team-building exercises, the participants were able to effectively utilize a combination of broken English and sign language as a means of communication.

Nadia S. Elkordy ’08, who was an integral part of the organizing staff of IDDS, said one of her favorite moments during the course of the summit was the session where teams presented their ideas to a panel of professionals from industry. A team working on using bicycle parts to thresh pearl millet had initially only considered using the wheel spokes. The professionals suggested that it might be more effective to use the tire flaps as well. In just a couple of days, the team effectively executed the idea.

More than the technologies that the participants designed, it was the problem-solving process that they learned during the course of the summit that they considered to be the most valuable. Derek Lomas, research director at the Social Movement Laboratory and member of the $12 Laptop team, remarked, “the design education was pretty incredible. It helped us establish a great framework on how to work forward on complex projects.” According to Anuj Nanavati, a user researcher from California who participated in the summit, his involvement helped change his entire perspective about his work. “The summit has helped me understand the problems in developing countries and opened up my thinking. Now whenever I think of a problem and try forming its solution, I think how a person in Africa would be able to use my ideas,” said Nanavati.

While some student participants are considering furthering their prototypes and making them the topics for their doctoral theses, the people from developing countries plan to put the problem-solving and design skills they acquired at the summit to use in their home countries.

However, the summit was not just about a group of engineers coming together and building things; it was a great channel for people from all over the world to meet. Lomas, Nanavati, and Elkordy all mentioned that after IDDS, they feel they have a welcome home in over 20 countries of the world. Although still a year away, many are already eagerly awaiting the next IDDS in Ghana.