D-Lab occupies a former shipping area in a basement beneath MIT’s famous Infinite Corridor, which connects many of the university’s buildings. Scattered about the room, beneath a jumble of pipes and ductwork, is a curious collection that includes corn shellers, grain mills, solar panels, piles of red-speckled corncobs, sooty charcoal briquettes and one large plastic container labeled “Holly’s Bovine Faecal Matter—Do Not Remove Please.”
The visionary who presides over this idiosyncratic work space is senior lecturer Amy B. Smith, a leader in the appropriate technology movement, which helps people in developing countries through the creation of simple, low-cost technology. Smith’s own designs—for no-electricity medical lab equipment, better grain mills and more—have won awards and improved lives. But she is also a pied piper for appropriate tech nology—and the engineers she inspires may constitute her greatest achievement.
“More and more students around the world want to make a difference, as well as making a living,” says Paul Polak, a leader in the field and the author of Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail. “Amy’s giving them that opportunity.” Smith and her students tackle problems in countries as far-flung as Haiti, Ghana and India. Her growing cadre of followers and former students praise her offbeat humor and ability to focus, even when bouncing on Third World buses after sleeping on cold, manure-stained concrete. After joining Smith and other students in Peru last January, Mary Hong, now a 19-year-old MIT junior, switched her major from aerospace to mechanical engineering. (See “Fixing the World on $2 a Day,” Aug. ’08.) “Amy is genuinely passionate about her work,” Hong says. “She has ideas, and she goes out and does something about them.”