Amy Smith designs cheap, practical fixes for tough problems in developing countries. Among her many accomplishments, the MIT engineer received a MacArthur "genius" grant in 2004 and was the first woman to win the Lemelson-MIT Prize for turning her ideas into inventions.
Mechanical engineer Amy Smith's approach to problem-solving in developing nations is refreshingly common-sense: Invent cheap, low-tech devices that use local resources, so communities can reproduce her efforts and ultimately help themselves. Smith, working with her students at MIT's D-Lab, has come up with several useful tools, including an incubator that stays warm without electricity, a simple grain mill, and a tool that converts farm waste into cleaner-burning charcoal.
The inventions have earned Smith three prestigious prizes: the B.F. Goodrich Collegiate Inventors Award, the MIT-Lemelson Prize, and a MacArthur "genius" grant. Her course, "Design for Developing Countries," is a pioneer in bringing humanitarian design into the curriculum of major institutions. Going forward, the former Peace Corps volunteer strives to do much more, bringing her inventiveness and boundless energy to bear on some of the world's most persistent problems.
“[Around the world], women and children spend 40 billion hours a year fetching water. That’s as if the entire workforce of the State of California worked full time for a year doing nothing but fetching water.”
“If this were India, in this room [of 1500 people], only three of us would have a car. If this were Afghanistan, only one person in this room would know how to use the Internet. If this were Zambia, 300 of you would be farmers, 100 of you would have AIDS or HIV.”
“It is necessary to have a very clear vision of the world that we live in … the world where women spend two to three hours every day grinding grain for their families to eat.”
“The number-one cause of death in children under five … water-borne diseases? Diarrhea? Malnutrition? No: it’s breathing the smoke from indoor cooking fires — acute respiratory infections. Over two million deaths every year.”
“We need to rethink our development strategies, so that we’re not promoting educational campaigns to get people to stop being farmers, but rather to stop being poor farmers.”