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From inventor boot camp, gadgets that could change lives

The International Development Design Summit was aimed at finding cheap, simple solutions to global problems, and inventions like a low-cost incubator and a ropeway for transmitting factory goods emerged.

Andres Sierra Davila of Guatemala works on a simple incubator that could be used to nurture premature babies in remote villages.
MIT/Donna Coveney

A cable-car-like ropeway that transports goods uphill. A charcoal-crushing machine made from carbonized corn cobs. A low-cost incubator that could be used to nurture premature babies in remote villages.

These are just a few of the gadgets that emerged from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology summer design workshop aimed at finding cheap, simple solutions to problems in the developing world. More than 50 innovators from some 20 countries on 5 continents gathered on MIT's campus for the monthlong International Development Design Summit, which wrapped up Friday.

Oswin Chibinga, a professor of agriculture at the University of Zambia, was part of a team designing a method for charging batteries while pumping water with a treadle pump, a simple irrigation device widely used in many developing countries.

The idea is to take advantage of the labor people are already doing to give them electric lights instead of the kerosene lamps they currently use.

"People will be able to generate electricity as they are doing their usual daily work," Chibinga said.

Other projects relied on everyday materials, as well.

Modified bicycle
One team used modified bike parts to efficiently thresh millet panicles like the one pictured above. MIT/Donna Coveney

One team rammed earth into a simple mold as part of a system for making stabilized interlocking construction blocks.

Another came up with a machine that uses bicycle spoke nuts protruding through the rotated rim on an inverted bike to thresh millet--a staple crop in Africa and Asia--faster and more cheaply than current mortar-and-pestle methods.

Amy Smith, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at MIT and a past recipient of the MacArthur "genius" grant, created the workshop, which is now in its second year and was this year co-sponsored by Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering and design firm Cooper Perkins. It was largely funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

"It's not just about the products, but the creative process behind them," Smith said. Participants, she added, will not only take home the blueprints for potentially helpful gadgets, but also lessons about working together to move an invention from the concept stage to real life.

A cable-car-like ropeway with a pulley made from a bike wheel is meant to transport goods uphill from small-town factories to markets. MIT/David Chandler

Next summer, the IDDS will be held in Ghana instead of at MIT, to give participants even more opportunities to interact with the people who may end up benefiting from their creations.

Niall Walsh, a student from Dublin, Ireland, who helped organize IDDS, shares lots more details in a daily blog he kept leading up to and during the event.

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