Research in Extreme Affordability

My May column in Mechanical Engineering magazine:

A few weeks ago, Amy Smith of MIT’s D-Lab, challenged the chair of Ball State University’s architecture department to a corn-shelling contest. She won big.

The contest was rigged to prove a point. Mahesh Senagala, the architect, had to use his hands, while Smith used a tool made from an old tin can cut out into the shape of an O-ring with a rough interior surface that scraped off the kernels as the ear of corn was pushed through it. It took a couple of seconds for her to complete the task. Senagala, his hands stinging, did fine, but was no match for Smith.

The contraption appeared simple enough. But in developing countries where the staple food is corn, the corn-shelling tool is revolutionary. The corn is used for food, and the cobs, far from being agricultural waste, deliver a significant cooking fuel alternative that is less expensive and healthier than wood fuels. Burning charcoal made of corn cobs instead of wood also has the potential to reduce deforestation.

Because such inventions as the corn-sheller improve living conditions in poor areas, the prospect of creating new tools continues to inspire local innovators as well as engineers and designers around the world who are willing to share their know-how to help make these products most efficient. Innovators also want to help develop sustainable infrastructures, such as affordable housing in urban slums, and products like wheelchairs that withstand the rigors of local terrains (more on this in a moment).

Smith—who last year was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for her determination to promote local innovation and technology creation—and Senagala were part of a group of thinkers meeting at a workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation in conjunction with ASME, Ball State University, Engineering for Change, and IEEE. They gathered to examine how engineering and design advances can be adapted to support people living in what has been called the base of the pyramid (2.5 billion people living on less than $2.50 a day). Those participating, including Harvard- and Oxford-trained architects and leading engineers, identified ways in which research in this area—sometimes referred to as “extreme affordability,” a controversial term coined at Stanford University—can be legitimized. While this sort of research is common and lauded in some countries, in others, like the United States, research often focuses on breakthrough technologies on the grand scale. And while no one would dispute the need for this work, there is also a need to raise the profile of research focusing on designs for emerging markets.

Amos Winter, founder of MIT’s Mobility Lab, focuses on creating technologies for people with disabilities in developing countries. His most noteworthy invention is the Leveraged Freedom Chair, a wheelchair that is faster than traditional chairs and durable enough to navigate safely across multi-terrain environments. It is built locally with bicycle parts. Winter is passionate and makes a compelling case for the need for structured research in this area.

Because product development in the Third World faces diverse cultural, economic, and technical hurdles, it stands to reason that applied research in this space is worth pursuing in the United States so that we all understand the challenges and the rewards, and foremost, so that we all get it right.

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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

May 2011

Twitter from John Falcioni

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