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MIT summit floats low-tech solutions to world's ills

(From left) Bernard Kiwia, Mohamed Mashaal, and Ismat Lotia work on a plastic backpack at MIT to help improve the quality of drinking water in 3rd world countries like Tanzania.
(From left) Bernard Kiwia, Mohamed Mashaal, and Ismat Lotia work on a plastic backpack at MIT to help improve the quality of drinking water in 3rd world countries like Tanzania. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

Back home on the arid plains of Tanzania, Bernard Kiwia works as a mechanic and electrician. But early this week, he labored in a basement lab at MIT, surrounded by plastic buckets and burlap sacks -- mundane objects for a school better known for lasers, robots and nanotechnology.

His task was to design and build a low-cost method of transporting and purifying water in his home country, where 40 percent of the rural population lacks access to clean drinking water.

"Women usually carry water in jugs on their head or in their hands," said Kiwia, proudly showing off the simple solution he devised with a team of other novice inventors from around the world: a transparent plastic backpack, which uses heat and ultraviolet rays from the sun to disinfect the water inside.

The backpack, which the team hopes would retail for less than $5, is one of 10 low-tech, low-cost prototypes developed in just four weeks at the first International Development Design Summit. Participants from 20 countries have been working in teams to concoct solutions to some of the developing world's most stubborn problems.

The summit is part of a growing movement among engineers at universities and nongovernmental organizations to combat poverty with appropriate technology -- products that are inexpensive, easy to use, and built with locally available materials. The effort has spawned such inventions as a fuel-efficient stove used throughout Latin America, and just seven years after it formed to help lead the movement, Engineers Without Borders-USA claims 10,000 members. The University of Colorado started a graduate program in engineering for developing countries in 2004, and other schools, including Princeton and Columbia, offer classes on the topic.

"Young people today are much more aware of the needs of the planet," said Bernard Amadei, founder of Engineers Without Borders and a professor at Colorado. "This is a kind of engineering that involves the heart as well as the brain, and it's appealing to more people than ever before."

Unlike many scientific conferences, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology summit, which wraps up tomorrow, has focused on turning innovative ideas into reality instead of just talking about them. It brought together scientists and engineers with nonacademics from poor countries who will test and market the products on the ground.

"One of the things that's important about doing development work is to involve people from developing countries in the whole creative process," said Amy Smith, an MIT lecturer and MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" winner who organized the summit.

The participants include a farmer from Ghana, a carpenter from Haiti and a medic from India, as well as students from MIT, Caltech, and Olin College of Engineering in Needham, cosponsors of the conference.

On Monday, they scrambled to finish projects as diverse as a greenhouse made with recycled materials and a low-voltage light powered with electricity created by the microbes in dirt.

A few feet from Kiwia, a pair of mechanical engineers from India were working on a water-purifying system that uses rusty nails to remove arsenic and cloth from traditional sari garments to trap the plankton that carry cholera. They had discarded their original design when they realized that it would reach 7 or 8 feet tall, and the user would have to stand above it to pour the water in.

"The average Indian woman is 5 feet," one of them, Sumit Pahwa, said. So they switched to a shorter, squatter design.

Pahwa's father grew up poor, he said. "I feel disgusted that people like us are living in such severe conditions," he said. "If I can get some technologies" from mentors like Smith, he said, "why not employ them in communities living below the poverty line?"

The conference began on July 16 with a brainstorming session in which participants identified problems in key sectors such as housing, health care and agriculture, writing them on hundreds of colorful sticky notes arrayed on a wall. "No electricity," one note read. "Inefficient fuel," said another. "No permanent housing."

The teams then came up with solutions, and took the final two weeks to build prototypes. They also developed business plans to market the new gadgets, and will try to attract investors and set up companies in the target countries.

"We want to break the myth that you can't be doing good and making money at the same time," said Jules Walter, heading into his senior year at MIT and a coordinator for the conference.

Kiwia will bring his team's prototype, crafted from cotton fabric and food-safe plastic sheets similar to a freezer-storage bag, to Tanzania next week. But coming up with a good design doesn't guarantee success, said teammate Ismat Lotia, who works for a health organization in Pakistan.

"We can't simulate the conditions in Tanzania, not only the very hot weather but the culture," she said. "Using the product will require a behavioral shift, and we don't know whether that will happen or not."

Having team members from several countries work together helped groups to identify possible markets for their designs. One group thought its invention, a pedal-powered grain mill, might work in Tibet. Then a team member from Tibet pointed out that many Tibetans are nomadic, and the country's farmers usually mill their grain in a few large batches, an impossibility with the machine. The team is now targeting the product to Guatemala.

Smith first became interested in international development when she volunteered for the Peace Corps in Botswana in the 1980s. The conference idea grew out of her popular D-Lab course -- the D stands for development, design and dissemination, Smith says -- which teaches students to combine their engineering skills with a passion for social change.

"My students are international students searching for ways to do stuff for their home country and see other countries, and students from the US trying to do something for the world," she said. Many of the participants are community leaders who have collaborated with Smith's students in their home countries, she said.

Smith said she knows the problems the conference is addressing are complex and deep-rooted.

"I don't think technology is the majority of the solution -- and it pains me to say that," she said. "But if you didn't have it, if we weren't thinking about what we can be doing for and with people, how could you move forward?"