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How Reverse Innovation Can Help Everyone Move Forward

November 21, 2016
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MIT's GEAR Lab is working to design a prosthetic foot using low-cost materials.
MIT's GEAR Lab is working to design a prosthetic foot using low-cost materials.
Engineers from the GEAR Lab researching a village-scale water desalination system.
MIT's GEAR Lab is testing a village-scale water desalination system in India.
MIT's GEAR Lab created an all-terrain wheelchair designed for rural areas.
MIT's GEAR Lab created an all-terrain wheelchair designed for rural areas.

The Segal Design Institute presented a talk by Amos Winter, the Ratan N. Tata Career Development Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, on November 15th as part of the Segal Seminar Series.

If you picture a detective solving a mystery, you might not immediately think of someone like Amos Winter, a mechanical engineer at MIT. In a way, however, detective work is exactly what Winter does with his team at the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab at MIT.

The GEAR Lab researches and creates high-performance, low-cost technologies within the socioeconomic constraints of developing and emerging markets.

“We try to do a lot of detective work to really understand the socioeconomic and technical constraints that define what is needed in developing countries and contrast that with existing technology,” said Winter. “This puts us, as engineers, in a ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ type of situation.”

The work done by the GEAR Lab is often called the process of “reverse innovation,” which means it is likely to be used first in the developing world before spreading to the industrialized world.  The GEAR Lab refers to that process as “engineering global development,” according to Winter.

When the GEAR Lab was asked by Jain Irrigation Systems to address contaminated water in India, Winter’s first question was “What problem do we actually solve?”

“We had to understand what was affecting clean water in India, who was it affecting, how was it affecting them, and what would be an appropriate solution path for this problem. As we dug in and started doing some detective work, we realized that the most prevalent contaminant of water in India is salt,” he explained. Their research led them to propose solar-powered desalination systems because many villages were off-grid.

“We took two years to do this detective work. Instead of just jumping in and saying “We’re going to make a water purifier or water filter or RO system, we took a step back and doing that detective work gave us a powerful insight into a new technology that could make a big impact in this space. What we’re seeing now around the world is that about two years behind us, people are starting to pick up on this.”

In fact, the USAID is now pushing the GEAR Lab to test their system worldwide. This year, Winter’s team will test a prototype in Gaza and in India.

Haoqi Zhang, an Assistant Professor at Northwestern University in Computer Science and at the Segal Design Institute and currently the Junior Breed Professor of Design, invited Winter to speak at the Segal Seminar Series and introduced him at the start of the event.

“From the user-centered design perspective, Amos’ lab does deep dives into problems and stays connected with partners on the ground to drive technical innovation. This is very exciting but also difficult to do typically,” explained Zhang. “Actually doing something transformative, that can actually be applied in practice in emerging markets, is so incredibly difficult to do that seeing his technical work make an impact on the design of solutions for actual problems and people in emerging markets is truly exciting.”

Asked about which part of the design process the GEAR Lab includes user-centered design in, Amos replied enthusiastically, “Every stage. Before we design anything, we’re spending time in the field talking to end users. But our user is a whole chain of stakeholders that represents taking an idea from inception all the way to commercialization. If we break that chain anywhere, it will kill the idea.”

Going even further, Winters says that designers should adopt the attitude that you are designing with stakeholders.

“We try to fail in context with the stakeholders so we can understand how to improve the product,” said Winter.

For example, when the GEAR Lab set out to design a prosthetic limb for amputees in India, they made a discovery upon talking with users.

“The number one activity that was difficult for almost all the subjects, and that was then important if it could be improved, was sitting cross-legged. And what’s so interesting about this to me is this has nothing to do with walking,” said Winter. “This is a secondary mechanical requirement that we would have never picked up on had we not asked them about it.“

Users often reveal flaws in a design that are otherwise invisible to well-meaning engineers and their input results in design modifications.

Winters added, “I think it’s so easy for engineers to get fixated on ‘Here’s the technical problem I’m solving’ but there may be some other important issues that can really kill your project if you don’t address them.”

The GEAR Lab devoted six years to designing a wheelchair for users in rural areas of developing countries. Users needed a wheelchair hardy enough be able to travel long distances over rough ground, while simultaneously small enough maneuver indoors easily. All for a price of approximately $250. To meet this daunting challenge, Winter and his team tested their design with users around the world for six years.

Their persistence paid off. Today, their off-road wheelchair for people in developing countries is manufactured in India. The venture the MIT team founded to make the chairs, Global Research Innovation and Technology, was one of four start-ups that received a diamond award at MassChallenge, the world’s largest start-up competition, in 2012. In 2014, GRIT ran a Kickstarter campaign for the Freedom Chair and the start-up met its funding goal in only five days.

“We try to fail as early and often as possible,” Winter said. That embrace of failure seems to be one of the keys to the GEAR Lab’s success.

Watch a video of the complete seminar.

[Image credits: Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab]