Low-tech, high-impact design at Amy Smith's IDDS

Posted by: Bgiussani

Not all inventions need to be grandiose, complex things, Amy Smith said at TED2006: sometimes they can be simple and smart ideas that just help a lot of people (watch her speechread summary). That’s the philosophy behind her first International Development Design Summit (IDDS), which just took place at MIT, where she teaches and heads the D-Lab (understand the "D" as placeholder for both Design and Development).

The IDDS is not a conference. It’s a monthlong collaborative learning program, as Jonathan Greenblatt describes in a nice wrap-up he wrote for WorldChanging:

People from locales as disparate as Brazil, Ghana, Haiti, Pakistan, and Tibet converged on MIT for the program: a month of intensive collaboration and learning. Participants self-organized into teams and were paired with mentors from top-notch design firms such as Continuum and IDEO. IDDS’s rich classroom experience involved case studies and lectures taught by MIT faculty, as well as development experts (…) IDDS put forth incredibly basic design criteria. Teams were required to create innovations to serve a clear development need, to use locally available materials and to do so at a low cost.

The end products offer fresh takes on old problems, including an off-grid refrigeration unit tailored for rural areas, a low-cost greenhouse from recycled materials, and microbial power sources (a list of all the IDDS projects is available here).

Greenblatt offers more details on a specific product designed to enable
efficient and hygienic water transport:

Typically, women and children in rural
settings often can journey up to six miles daily to retrieve water for
their families. Safirisodis
They frequently return to their homes carrying between
20 to 40 pounds on their backs or heads in unsound, unwieldy and often unclean vessels such as petroleum cans or ceramic pots. It’s a
ritualized behavior that sustains the cycle of disease, reduces human
productivity and creates tremendous physical strain. An IDDS team created a striking device, SODIS Safiri, to deal with
these challenges. (…) Water is carried in ergonomic, low-cost plastic pouches that
can be worn like apparel. Imagine a "backpack" that can be manufactured
for five dollars and efficiently bear up to four liters, or a poncho
that can carry twice that amount at a cost of only seven dollars. Along with improving transport efficiency, the SODIS Safiri device
capitalizes on the otherwise non-productive return journey: the
transparent design facilitates solar disinfection (SODIS) of the water so that
the water can be consumed upon arrival at the village. While some
contaminants cannot be handled solely by ultraviolet rays, this
zero-cost approach could be sufficient in many non-industrial locations
where basic microbial contamination creates diseases.

Brilliant. Simple. Relevant. I can imagine Amy Smith smiling in the back of the room while the students presented this idea.

Comments (3)

  • vcao best commented on May 23 2009

    I’d love to have the time to research the extent to which this technology or a lightly customized version thereof would be applicable in other parts of the developing world.

  • John Oldfield commented on Aug 19 2007


    Agree with the general theme of the piece (the best designs are often the most simple), but also with the concerns of Mr. Harcourt – his question “How is the baby carried?” is a brilliant example of the sort of sociocultural ‘externality’ that is often overlooked by the most well-meaning design team. The same sort of disconnect happens when you have pit latrines that children won’t use because they are dark and the drop holes are too big… (so adjust the size of the dropholes and put colorful posters inside). Plus 8l isn’t that much aqua even if the system works perfectly.

    With that said, the IDDS and Amy’s group rock. I’m also interested in the small-scale water testing solution.

    One additional idea – how about looking at what is the latest and greatest in household sanitation systems? One solution worth a closer look is what Sulabh International has come up with – the twin pit pour-flush latrine. See . I’d love to have the time to research the extent to which this technology or a lightly customized version thereof would be applicable in other parts of the developing world.

    Thanks for a very interesting piece.

    John Oldfield

  • Dave Harcourt commented on Aug 17 2007

    Am I just in a sceptical state of mind today? Sorry I can’t muster excitement like the writer.

    To me the biggest problem is the uncertainty of the solar disinfection process – depending on things like: is the water clear, less than the necessary 6 hours in the sun, do people wok in the shade, how is the baby carried, does the sun reach back & front etc. If the process can’t be guaranteed it is of little use, and only risks undoing what has been achieved.

    To carry the 40 lbs of water the 6 km described above, means a total walk of 30kms?

    Why not use existing technology – groundwater control, the roundabout water pump and the roller water carrier. Then invest the effort in increasing the uptake of oral rehydration treatment for the cases when clean water fails and a child’s life are at risk.