A labyrinth of rooms stretches across the third floor of N51, the weathered gray building that has long housed the MIT Museum. The rooms look more like a handyperson’s workshop than a scientist’s lab. There’s woodworking equipment, metalworking equipment, hammers, wrenches, and dozens of boxes just for storing bike parts. Cookstoves line a windowsill. Pots that cool food through evaporation from a surrounding layer of wet sand occupy a hallway. Hanging from the ceiling, there’s a floatable bike that’s suspended above four pontoons, so a rider would pedal just above the water’s surface. This is D-Lab.

Ask different members of D-Lab what the D stands for, and you’re likely to get a variety of responses. Often, people say “design” or “development.” At one point, the D was a placeholder for a whole phrase—“Development through dialogue, design, and dissemination.” Ta Corrales ’16 adds another D word to the list: “D-Lab derails students,” she says, “and that was me, too.”

Corrales was a first-year undergraduate from Costa Rica when she discovered this eclectic enclave within MIT, where 26 staff members support 15 classes that teach MIT students how technological innovation can bring people together. The students, in turn, teach others in less-developed areas how to build tools that will simplify their lives. D-Lab works in more than 25 countries on five continents to help raise standards of living. By the end of her sophomore year, Corrales decided that instead of pursuing her first love, chemistry, she would make D-Lab’s work the basis for her career.

Solving problems

Today, five years after graduating from MIT with a degree in mechanical engineering (and a minor in chemistry), Corrales is a leader at the OAXIN Innovation Center, a nonprofit organization in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. OAXIN was founded in 2019 after 32 academic, nonprofit, and government partners, including D-Lab and MIT Enterprise Forum Mexico, collaborated to identify ways to build up the regional economy. Today, around 10 OAXIN members run workshops in which locals and visiting MIT students design and build tools for Oaxacans to use. Workshop participants say they come away feeling connected to their communities and empowered to solve technological problems. Often, they contribute to the local economy along the way. 

At the start of a typical five-day workshop, 25 participants discuss Oaxacans’ biggest needs and vote for five to focus on. Participants might say they want to prepare food more quickly, avoid inhaling smoke while cooking, or light their homes at night. After they choose which issues to address, Corrales leads locals through a design process in which they brainstorm technology, build prototypes, see what works well and what needs improvement, and then repeat the process. Small groups of MIT students sometimes travel to Oaxaca to join in, and those who do often prototype solutions back in the lab at MIT.

Corrales demonstrates a charcoal press at a workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico.OC3 PROGRAM

“Ta Corrales showed us that for a community to become prosperous, it has to understand how to manage technology,” Enoc Ramírez, a former workshop participant, says through a translator by text message. 

Ramírez has enjoyed working with tools since he was a kid, and he’s long built machines like agave grinders and lawn mowers. During his first workshop with Corrales in 2018, he learned a framework for researching design strategies, prototyping, and improving his designs that made his job as an inventor and welder much easier and more efficient. Now he runs workshops through OAXIN as well as fixing and creating tools in his business. 

Recently, he helped a group of women speed up fish processing by helping them design a knife with a blade that’s optimized for descaling the fish on one side and cleaning them on the other. He hopes that learning engineering and design skills in the workshops that he and Corrales run will give Oaxacans more job opportunities and prevent young people, like his two children, from needing to immigrate illegally to the United States, as he

Read More


By: Saima May Sidik, SM ’21
Title: The power of simple innovations
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2021/10/26/1036741/the-power-of-simple-innovations/
Published Date: Wed, 27 Oct 2021 00:00:00 +0000

Did you miss our previous article…