Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Encouraging Inventiveness

A few months ago, I wrote this response piece in Boston Review. It distills a lot of things we strive for at D-Lab, IIH, and the larger MIT community: making invention a toolset that can be embedded in our community partners. For those of you who've asked for links, here's an excerpt and the full piece after the jump.

Rachel Glennerster and Michael Kremer point out that interventions in health and education need to complement much more complex machinery: human behavior. They are right. And their argument can go a step further. Engaging local stakeholders in the design of policies and solutions can boost the innovative behavior of the people whose well-being we evaluate.

At MIT’s D-Lab we believe that users in the developing world have the potential to be the everyday inventors of their own solutions. In a Nicaraguan hospital, a nurse might quietly create neonatal UV protectors from layers of surgical gauze. Around the corner in the operating room, surgeons can be found trading sutures for fishing line and drainage valves for cut-up soda bottles that work just as well. These inventive behaviors are often hidden. The designs are remaches, geuzas, improvisations, hacks. Not exactly the stuff of professional associations. This is only because they lack the last bit of formal engineering that makes them appear the brilliant solutions they in fact are.

Traditionally, technology designers who focus on the developing world try to create affordable solutions adaptable to the local environment. They might develop efficient water pumps that run on pedal power, cell phones with longer ranges and smarter features, and syringes that are safer and more accessible, with retractable needles that automatically disable them. Our approach is to encourage co-creation in the design process: we want to empower locals to invent, so they can be collaborators, not just clients. In our fieldwork we teach students to look for inventive behaviors, and many of our interventions have originated with users. Cultivating inventiveness and the tools of invention among the poor is our priority.

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