The power of simple innovation

A maze of rooms spanning the third floor of N51, this weathered gray building has long been the seat of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum. The room looks more like a handyman’s studio than a scientist’s laboratory. There are woodworking equipment, metal processing equipment, hammers, wrenches, and dozens of boxes dedicated to storing bicycle parts. The stove is lined up on the windowsill. Flower pots that cool food by evaporating from the surrounding wet sand occupies the corridor. A floatable bicycle is suspended from the ceiling, suspended above four pontoons, so the rider can pedal above the water.This is laboratory.

Ask the different members of D-Lab what D stands for, and you may get a variety of answers. People often say “design” or “development”. At one time, D was a placeholder for the entire phrase-“Development through dialogue, design, and communication.” Ta Corrales ’16 added another D word to the list: “D-Lab Cheating Student,” she said, “that’s me too. “

Corrales is a first-year undergraduate from Costa Rica when she discovered this eclectic enclave at MIT, where 26 staff members support 15 courses, teaching MIT students how technological innovation can bring people Gather together. In turn, students will teach others in underdeveloped areas how to build tools that can simplify their lives. D-Lab works in more than 25 countries on five continents to help improve living standards. By the end of her sophomore year, Corrales decided not to pursue her first love and chemistry, but to use D-Lab’s work as the basis of her career.

Solve the problem

Today, five years after earning a degree in mechanical engineering (minor in chemistry) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Corrales becomes the leader of the OAXIN Innovation Center, a non-profit organization in Oaxaca, Mexico. OAXIN was established in 2019 after 32 academic, non-profit organizations, and government partners (including D-Lab and the MIT Mexico Business Forum) worked together to determine a way to build a regional economy. Today, about 10 OAXIN members hold seminars, and locals and visiting students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology design and build tools for Oaxacans. Participants in the seminar stated that when they left, they felt connected to the community and were able to solve technical problems. Usually, they contribute to the local economy in this process.

At the beginning of a typical five-day seminar, 25 participants discussed the greatest needs of Oaxaca and voted for five key concerns. Participants may say that they want to prepare food faster, avoid inhaling smoke while cooking, or light up their home at night. After they chose the problem to be solved, Corrales led the locals to complete a design process. During this process, they brainstormed, built prototypes, looked at what worked well and what needed improvement, and then repeated the process. MIT student groups sometimes travel to Oaxaca to participate, and those students who often prototype solutions in MIT laboratories.

Corrales of Oaxaca, Mexico
Corrales displays a charcoal press in a workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico.

“Ta Corrales has shown us that for a community to become prosperous, it must understand how to manage technology,” former seminar participant Enoc Ramírez said via text message via an interpreter.

Ramírez has loved using tools since he was a child, and he has long made machines such as agave grinders and lawn mowers. During the first seminar with Corrales in 2018, he learned a framework for researching design strategies, prototyping and improving designs, which made his work as an inventor and welder easier and more efficient. Now, he holds seminars through OAXIN and fixes and creates tools in his business.

Recently, he helped a group of women design a knife whose blade was optimized to remove scales on one side and clean the fish on the other, helping them speed up the processing of fish. He hopes that learning engineering and design skills in the studio run by him and Corrales will provide Oaxaca with more job opportunities and prevent young people like his two children from doing what he once did. Need to immigrate to the United States illegally.

Heritage activism

Corrales comes from what she calls “radical women.” Her grandmother ran a cooperative that provided education and micro loans to women who wanted to start a business near Los Lagos, Costa Rica. When Corrales grew up, her mother opened a school for children with learning disabilities from underserved communities. The name Corrales comes from both of them. Her mother chose Tachmahal, which means “treasure” to her (her sister referred to as “Ta” when they were young). Her grandmother suggested that she use the middle name Mary in honor of the chemist Marie Curie. Corrales intends to follow in Curie’s footsteps and become a chemist, but she also knows that she wants to maintain family traditions that promote social justice.

Corrales did not consider himself an engineer when he went to college. In her sophomore year, during her trip to D-Lab in Arusha, Tanzania, things changed. Farmers in the area are using a laborious process to manually separate the seeds and stems of the plants. Corrales helped them build a bicycle-powered thresher so that they can process crops such as corn and beans more quickly.

“Ta Corrales showed us that for a community to thrive, it must understand how to manage technology.”

When he grew up, Corrales avoided power tools, thinking they were only suitable for men. But her time in Tanzania proved that she can actually use tools like everyone else. “When you find that you can invent something, your self-perception changes,” she said.

Back at MIT, Corrales turned her major to engineering. She is only a few classes away to get a degree in chemistry, and this move means six more months of study, but it feels right. She knew she had found her position.

Corrales became a skilled engineer and soon discovered that he had the title of “Chief MacGyver”. D-Lab Lecturer and Deputy Academic Director Libby Hsu, MEng ’10, SM ’11, said that she had seen Corrales make waterproof lanterns using materials around the Mexican towns where they worked. “Everyone thinks she is a great tinker,” Xu said.

Shoelace innovation

Giacomo Zanello, an associate professor at the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, said that people are increasingly aware of the value of simple innovations like Corrales’ lanterns. “You can innovate without going to the moon,” he said, adding that, like D-Lab, letting users of technology drive this process is becoming a valuable way to promote change.

In Oaxaca, Corrales helped the locals develop several inventions, including squeezing a thin and crisp tortilla called totopo, which is only produced in the region. A standard tortilla press will not press the dough thin enough to make totopos that are traditionally stretched and shaped by hand. The custom printing press that Corrales helped create has greatly increased the production capacity of the locals.

Corrales of Smith Assembly Shop
In her Smith assembly workshop, Corrales taught participants to make traditional Oaxaca dolls and so on.

Today, Corrales has adopted a company called Smith Assembly She co-founded the company with engineer Liz Hunt in the spring of 2020. Through this new company, Corrales and Hunter are providing team building seminars for English-speaking companies. With the help of Smith Assembly, colleagues design and create tools or art projects in a studio similar to the one led by Oaxaca Corrales. For example, seminar participants can make traditional Oaxaca dolls shaped like fantasy or mythological creatures.

During the covid-19 pandemic, Smith Assembly’s remote seminars helped participants innovate using common materials such as pencils, cereal boxes, and prescription bottle caps. The company even establishes connections with socially distancing colleagues.

During the pandemic, Corrales has been living in Costa Rica with her family, but this does not mean that she has left Oaxaca. She and other members of OAXIN have turned to remotely running pandemic-focused seminars via WhatsApp text messages and audio clips. For example, many coastal communities in Oaxaca state focus food production on fisheries while relying on fruits and vegetables imported from other parts of Mexico. In the early days of the pandemic, the vegetable supply chain was disrupted, and there was little to buy in urban stores or rural markets. OAXIN held a WhatsApp-based seminar to teach those who know little about gardening how to grow vegetables in their backyard.

“[Before the pandemic] If you ask me if I can do this virtually, I would definitely say no,” Corrales said. But in the true D-Lab spirit, she and her collaborators have innovated and found a way forward. the way.

With the popularity of vaccination, Corrales hopes to start traveling in person and run the Smith Assembly workshop, but for now, she stays in Costa Rica and continues to work online.

OAXIN recently launched a new project to sell shawls through an online market to help Oaxaca people commercialize traditional textiles. As Smith Assembly gets busier, Corrales has shifted her job in Oaxaca from holding seminars to quantifying the impact of these seminars on participants’ daily lives and income. Two Oaxaca totopo producers agreed as an in-depth case study. Based on the data collected, Corrales found that the printing press saved each totopo manufacturer two hours of labor per day and increased production capacity by 50%.

This is just one example of how technological innovation brings people together to solve small daily problems on the ground or in the kitchen.

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