Open 2013: Feeding the Culture of Invention and Innovation


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  • Topic inspired by 2 common conversations we’ve often had:With large development organizations who are looking for the “office that does international development” at MIT. At academic conferences, where the focus is often on the new and flashy programs, rather than on the culture behind those programs. In our experience, it is the low-cost, more grassroots activities that bubble-up a lot of the innovation for international development.In other words, it’s all about the chaos!
  • Surprise! The betterment of humankind is in the MIT mission.
  • Brand-new MIT president.
  • Tetris. This was the Holy Grail of hacking challenges – achieved last spring. The consul really plays the game in the windows of the Green Building.For MIT students, there is an art to hacking and there are written code
  • Upside down living room. There’s even a cat on the sofa. Just for the heck of it.
  • Thousands of toy soldiers spelling out messages, indicating the mens’ room, and even making up a portrait of Susan Hockfield. Appeared overnight. Just for the heck of it.
  • Last summer. Dalek on the roof of the Artificial Intelligence Lab.Just for the heck of it.
  • Giant MIT scrabble on the wall of the media lab. Just for the heck of it.Bottom line: all these things are very creative, well executed, and took a LOT of work. And were just for the heck of it.Part of our job, is channeling some of that creativity towards meeting out mission of working for the betterment of humanity.(Must be said, though, that we have many students who come through the door already highly motivated to do just this.)
  • Rachel Diaz welding wheelchairs, Antigua, Guatemala. Part of the Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries program – some of you may have heard from TishScolnik yesterday during the Alumni panel.
  • First, some examples of student invention for International Development at MIT. They we’ll talk about some of the low-cost mechanisms that motivate and support students to work on invention for international development. Zara L’Heureux field testing the latest version of the STG solar trough in St Petersburg, FL prior to deployment in Lesotho.
  • Greg Tao and the Ottoclave. Cunning hacking of a pressure cooker into an autoclave that includes a voice-prompt user-guide, timing mechanism, and wireless data collection.In order to win the IDEAS Global Challenge this year, Greg had support from:And spent countless hours in our offices, attended mentoring sessions, And had support from X fellowshipsAnd did Start-Up Chile
  • Some support mechanisms overtly tie-in to the hacking culture.Prime example: Jose’s Little Devices That Could lab.“Medical Design and Invention Kits are a series of lab-in-box kits that serve as “Erector sets” for medical devices. Our approach is to nurture inventive behavior amongst “McGuyver docs and nurses” working in global health. We already know that they are coming up with ingenious ways around everyday problems.” “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.”
  • In the last few years students have developed a strong culture of organized “hacking for good.”This is T=0, a week long celebration of innovation and entrepreneurship. Sounds fancy, but most of the events are lab tours and MIT faculty speakers. Then, at the weekend, a hackathon focused on solving problems in energy, healthcare, and lifestyle. “We provide: Space, mentors, team formation, and all the Red Bull you can drink! You provide: An idea, project, team…or just your enthusiasm to do something cool!” Over the last few years, MIT has developed a strong “hacking for good” culture with Hacking Medicine, Farm Hack, GPI’s ID Hack. The winning project from the 24 hour ID Hack was Spectro Awesome: “We have created an absorption spectrometer as a low-cost add-on to a camera phone. It is capable of analyzing the composition and nature of various materials. Further iterations will make it suitable for tests such as the dissolved chemicals (e.g. salt, arsenic) in water (for water quality testing), and blood hematocrit analysis (for diagnosing anemia)”
  • Of course, not everything we do is low-cost or grassroots. We have some down-right fancy labs and some well-funded programs. For instance, this is the Pappalardo lab, dedicated to 2.009, the capstone senior mechanical engineering class (more about that later!). It’s seriously swanky. But it’s use is restricted to a particular set of students taking a few particular classes.
  • But a lot of the innovation happens in places like this: MITERS. Founded as the MIT Electronics Research Society, a club to give MIT students free and open access to computers, MITERS now features a mill, lathe, band saws, welders, and other hands-on tools, in addition to a host of oscilliscopes, high-end soldering irons, and other EE prototyping tools. It's a member-run creative haven and build-anything-you-want, if-you-break-it-fix-it space.MITERS receives no funding from MIT so they can “maintain independence”. They raise money through a technology swapfest and scrounge materials from sources I’d rather not think about!In between these two extremes are a variety of professionally-staffed machine shops, including a hobby shop, small dorm-based machine shops, and some garage spaces. Ken Stone. “What we do in the shop is enable people with limited experience to be successful at something they couldn’t have otherwise done.”There’s a list of all the shops here
  • Depending on the type of student you are: Some students will while away their time in the shops buildingThere’s also a wide range of student clubs focused on international development, many of them with an invention or entrepreneurship spin.
  • And, of course, there are “traditional” classes. This is 2.009 again, the capstone mechanical engineering class. It’s sometime taught by a gorilla, and typically includes a number of international development design challenges. Projects have included VacPac, agricultural processing devices, low cost sanitary pads, assistive technologies.Also the D-Lab suite of classes, DevVentures, Medical Device Design, and many others. The strong emphasis and value placed on experiential learning is also important to note. D-lab: Development students are primed to understand the experience of living on a constrained budget when, 2 weeks in to class, they are asked to live for one week only spending $2/day on food. They can be as entrepreneurial as they want, baking and selling and bartering, but they can only spend $2/day. The point tying these examples together is: MIT has a decentralized and creative culture. This makes it confusing from the outside but the huge plus point is that, whatever sort of student you are, there’s probable some support structure and motivator around international development that suits how you like to work. As administrators working in this environment, much of our work has been bringing these different flavors of development work together.And the list of offerings is growing….
  • Enabling: this is what we do best.One of the low-cost roles of programs like ours, is to host networking events to pull together students, alumni, faculty, and staff from all this disparate groups and environments to generate solutions to community challenges. This is a table from an IDEAS Generator Dinner. These cost us the price of table cloths, balloons, and a whole bunch of burritos, but the outcomes can be significant. One table at one of these events spawned: UBox, now being launched in the US medical market, IIH, TB treatment support in India, and XOutTB. This is an unusually good result, but demonstrates the power of simply getting people around the table to address challenges.IDEAS Generator dinner, c. 2008. Kendra Leith works at D-Lab; Matt Zedler is Product Development Manager at LP Amina, an environmental engineering company, in Beijing; Zehra Ali, started Ghonsla; Aaron Zingman, engineer at Continuum.
  • This is what the students tell us they value most Process (value add) : re: IDEAS (generator, feedback, retreat, beyond MIT Support)Mentoring / conversations / safe spaces / enabling / programs / IDEAS Retreat
  • It isn’t all about the $$$TOLERANCE (by the administration)ENCOURAGEMENT (by the faculty)ACTIVE PROMOTION (by the staff)Is this where we say: we have competitions, fellowships, grants, and accelerators, but without tapping into the very strong culture of creativity and using low-cost techniques to focus students on international development, we wouldn’t have the exciting projects that those programs then help move forward. ?
  • Open 2013: Feeding the Culture of Invention and Innovation

    1. 1. “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.” Mary Shelley
    2. 2. “We seek todevelop in eachmember of the MITcommunity theability and passionto work wisely,creatively, andeffectively for thebetterment ofthe MIT Mission Statementhumankind.”
    3. 3. “The secret toleading a place likeMIT is to learn whatfaculty and studentswant to do, and tohelp them find theresources to do it”From the MIT President RafaelReif’s inaugural address to theInstitute
    4. 4. Depending on the type of student you are:classes
    5. 5. The end