Accelerating Developmental Innovations @ MIT

DRAFT – Comments & Criticism Welcome * Joost Bonsen * 18 June 2001 * * 617.930.0415


Developmental Innovations – or, how we at MIT can dramatically help the three-quarters of humanity in developing nations – is a blossoming theme at the Institute.  While not yet an MIT priority, it could and perhaps should become a major strategic thrust.  Furthermore, MIT has special institutional competencies encouraging us to focus on:  (1) Developmental Technologies & Designs, (2) Developmental Entrepreneurship & Finance, and (3) Developmental Education & Intellectual Infrastructure.  We are well-positioned to accelerate progress via the MIT organizational triad of Education, Research, and Community/Extracurriculars.


Educational Offerings Today – Already we have popular classes in Developmental Economics, Development By Design, Development Planning, Globalization, and more.  The OpenCourseWare initiative may well have its greatest impact in developing regions, where faculty and students can tap into top tier content at a fraction of the current cost.


Research Thrusts Today – Faculty in the Schools of Engineering, Architecture, and Science study water and sanitation systems, medical diagnostics, distributed and solar power, sustainable housing, and more.


Extracurricular Activity Today – There is tremendous latent interest in developing regions at MIT among the student body.  Fully one-third of graduate students are internationals and over half of these are from developing regions.  Informal polling suggests that this population of students is tremendously interested in initiatives and projects which have tangible bearing on life back home, as evidenced by AITI, ATF, ThinkCycle, SEEDS, and AID, among others.  These student groups are pursuing internet initiatives in Africa, educational exchanges in Latin America, and similar projects in South Asia and elsewhere.


The Emerging Strategic Opportunity – And yet many of these developmental efforts at MIT are unconnected and fragmentary.  The people involved lack the benefits of institutional framework, economies of scale, organizational mindshare, and project financing.  It is challenging to make a big dent in the Research agenda at MIT, but there is tremendous potential in influencing the Curricular and Extracurricular dimensions at MIT, especially with modest amounts of seed or incentive funding. 


Potential Curricular Elements – Several classes need course building funds to reshape the curriculum, craft new cases and materials, and rethink the projects.  Furthermore, enhanced existing and entirely new classes are needed to tile the space of possibilities.  For example:

·         Developmental Technologies – Techniques, cases, and projects for designing solutions to problems faced by the majority of humanity:  inexpensive shelter, distributed power, personal transportation, communication infrastructure, eyecare, medical treatment, educational services, banking and financial services.

·         Developmental Entrepreneurship – Cases and business plan projects about diffusing suitable and needed technologies in an economical fashion throughout a region.  Looking at historical successes and failures.


Possible Extracurricular Innovations – The student and alumni body at and around MIT have passionate interest in and willingness to invest their time and money towards developmental innovation.  Our challenge is to tap this latent interest and channel it in organizationally productive ways.  One historical model to follow is the tremendous impact the student run MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition has had in catering to student interest in technology startups, and also in accelerating MIT curricular development via the more formal class offerings and entrepreneurship programs.  We are poised for a similar boom in the Developmental Innovations arena.  Many exciting ideas are possible, including:

·         Student Grassroots Development Conference – A unifying campus-wide conference drawing students from multiple regions and disciplines together all interested in developmental progress.  Such a conference would serve as a common purpose for otherwise focused and fragmented groups each pursuing ideas and interests specific to their region or discipline.  With a unified conference, students at MIT can achieve global media visibility and influence.

·         Developmental Technology Projects Fund – There are currently student groups focused on Model Rocketry, Autonomous Subs, Model Railroads, etc.  With a Developmental Technology Projects Fund, we could seed fund entirely new groups or the focused work of a few UROPs or graduate students working on a special developmental systems project.

·         Student Group Collaboration Incentive Fund – Traditionally student groups have concentrated on their narrow interests in the interest of expediency and natural foci.  More than in most fields, however, development is a shared concern and an arena where spreading good ideas (or avoiding bad ones) is of great import.  With financial incentives, we can encourage cooperation towards greater common good.

·         Developmental Entrepreneurship Challenge – an MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition for developing regions – Since the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition has been so successful here in the US and has been copied by Universities and in developed regions world-wide, let’s use similar methods to inspire entrepreneurial thinking in emerging regions.


The Vision:  Towards a First-World Wide – With concerted effort at grassroots and top-levels at MIT, we can play a key role in accelerating human progress globally towards a first-world, spread world wide.  A place where hunger is vanquished, disease contained, environment is cleansed, industry is sustainable, diverse cultures respected, education widespread, wealth abundant, and much more.  With our unique MIT abilities applied towards Developmental Technologies, Developmental Entrepreneurship, and Developmental Education, we are poised to be pathfinders towards this desirable tomorrow.


References – Some listed here; others to be found on the sites linked by these.


·         ThinkCycle Collaborative Open Source Design Platform