Two-Sigma Solutions

Stephen DeAngelis

September 17, 2007

The term Six Sigma has become synonymous with the complex search for perfection. Companies like Six Sigma processes because they are always searching for improved efficiencies. Consumers like Six Sigma processes because they like products with good quality. There are times and places, however, where elegant solutions are not the best solutions. In those situations, better becomes the enemy of good enough. In our discussions about Development-in-a-Box™, Tom Barnett and I refer to “good enough” solutions as Two-Sigma solutions. Andrew C. Revkin reports that the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology has turned its attention to finding some Two-Sigma solutions to challenges facing the world’s poor [“Low Technologies, High Aims,” New York Times, 11 September 2007].

“Beneath the bustling “infinite corridor” linking buildings at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, just past a boiler room, an assemblage of tinkerers from 16 countries welded, stitched and hammered, working on rough-hewn inventions aimed at saving the world, one village at a time. M.I.T. has nurtured dozens of Nobel Prize winners in cerebral realms like astrophysics, economics and genetics. But lately, the institute has turned its attention toward concrete thinking to improve the lives of the world’s bottom billion, those who live on a dollar a day or less and who often die young.”

The behind-the-boiler workshop was part of “a four-week International Development Design Summit to identify problems, cobble together prototype solutions and refine the results to see which might work in the real world.”

“The summit ( was the brainchild mainly of Amy Smith, a lecturer at M.I.T. who received her master’s there in 1995 and in 2004 won a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ award, and Kenneth Pickar, an engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology. Faculty and students from Olin College, an engineering school near Boston, were also involved. The flurry of activity was taking place at D-Lab, a research center and set of courses at M.I.T. devoted to devising cheap technologies that could have a big effect in impoverished communities. In homage to Ms. Smith’s passion for attacking poverty from the ground up, the lab is nicknamed ‘Amy’s World.’ … Throughout the workshop, Ms. Smith served as scoutmaster, cheerleader, cook and personal shopper (when work flowed deep into the night), and she provided periodic reality checks.”

The problems on which summit participants worked included how water could be carried more easily, how cell phones could be charged in areas without electrical power, and how grain could be ground faster in those same powerless areas. Just because the solutions being sought are low tech doesn’t mean that they are easy to devise.

“Mohamed Mashaal, a young British engineer headed for a job with BP on the North Sea this fall, poured water into a handcrafted plastic backpack worn by a design partner, Bernard Kiwia, who teaches bicycle repair in rural Tanzania and hopes to offer women there an easier way to tote the precious liquid for long distances. Sham Tembo, an electrical engineer from Zambia, and Jessica Vechakul, an engineering graduate student at M.I.T., slowly added a cow manure puree to a five-gallon bucket holding charcoal made from corncobs. In the right configuration, the mix might generate enough electricity to charge a cellphone battery or a small flashlight for a year or more. … The work itself was often two steps back, not one step forward. As Lhamotso, a young woman from Tibet, and Laura Stupin, who just graduated from Olin, wrestled with a whirring Rube Goldberg mash-up of bicycle and grain mill, the chain slipped with a loud clang. ‘We have a real friction problem,’ Ms. Stupin yelled.”

In a close approximation of the well-known 80-20 rule, Smith asserts that 90 percent of all design is done for the wealthiest 10 percent of the world’s population. She wants to start a revolution that changes those figures. She wants to get designers to start designing for people at the bottom of the pyramid — like those who developed the One Laptop Per Child program [see my post Connecting the Poor].

“Most of the $200,000 budget [for the Summit] was provided by donations from individuals and private groups, including the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, which supports university programs to develop commercially viable products that advance society. The workshop began with a lecture by Paul Polak, a psychiatrist turned entrepreneur, who develops simple solutions for the problems of the poor. Dr. Polak, who has become something of a guru to the design revolution movement, railed against conventional charity and insisted that the route to prosperity lies in inventions that improve lives but mesh with existing lifestyles. He laid out the principles of development from the bottom up, including the importance of first listening and watching, then following the old dictum ‘small is beautiful’ with another, equally important one: ‘cheap is beautiful.’ The goal, he said, should be to improve a million lives, and to make technologies that can be sold and bought in increments — like a drip-irrigating system that can expand as a farmer’s income rises.”

The Development-in-a-Box approach becomes useful when an economy progresses far enough that it wants to connect to the global economy. The kinds of economic activity examined at the Summit are those needed to generate sufficient income that local populations can begin thinker bigger. They are the kinds of activities that move a family from the ranks of the impoverished to the lower middle class. That is an important move because it generally means health improves, children are sent to school, and people can start dreaming. They become entrepreneurs. That is one of the reasons that the Summit under discussion was so important, it was about developing real products.

“Ms. Smith said she wanted to avoid having the workshop end up as yet another academic exercise where the only outcome is often a set of paper proceedings or pledges. This time, she said, the goal was ‘no paper, just prototypes.’ In fact, in the first days of the workshop, it seemed that the only paper in evidence was an ever-spreading, flower-petal array of blue, green, pink and yellow sticky notes on walls and blackboards. The notes charted the progression from basic needs (water, food, energy, health) to specific issues (a three-mile hike to and from the nearest water supply in a Tanzanian village, the lack of a well-testing kit that a Bangladeshi village clinic could afford). Ms. Smith placed participants in project teams. Then came round-table discussions, rough sketches, technical drawings and the first three-dimensional models. Half a dozen volunteer mentors helped the participants make their ideas more concrete. Some were academics, like Ariel Phillips of Harvard, whose specialty is group dynamics. Others were drawn from Ms. Smith’s black book filled with an array of fixers and crafters — people whose careers have been spent solving problems by turning metal, plastic, wood, circuitry and motors into working devices.”

Because the devices are low tech, there is a good chance that people in the areas where they will be used can build them themselves. This low-end manufacturing begins the entrepreneurial cycle that is critical for building up a local economy. In addition to student participants, the Summit involved mentors — people with a history of successful invention. People like Josh Brandis.

“After a career building contraptions on movie sets, Mr. Brandis now helps run the Full Belly Project, which develops machines to simplify village work. Mr. Brandis noted that the budget for developing a peanut sheller for a Malian village was far different from that for building a camera-toting vehicle in rural Mexico to film Antonio Banderas galloping through the desert as Zorro. But the challenge of filling a niche with limited materials and tools is similar. The other similarity is that both kinds of design begin with a blank slate. As Mr. Brandis put it: ‘It’s, “Here’s the model high-rise made of Styrofoam, and then the flying saucer has to fly into it, and we need to shoot it three times from three different angles, and next Tuesday it’s got to happen.”‘ At the workshop, Mr. Brandis examined with approval one group’s design for an oven with three grates of progressively finer mesh to hold charcoal fuel, so that big pieces that have not burned down stay separate from more fully consumed fuel, limiting harmful smoke. ‘What you try to do in virtually every situation is make their lives more efficient,’ he said. ‘That’s what the big revolution in America was between 1860 and 1960 — that a person doing a day’s work can produce a lot more product. And that means time is more valuable and that means he has more time to do other things.'”

Revkin concludes his article by noting that getting into Amy Smith’s classes at MIT is as difficult as getting into the Sloan Business School classes there that are aimed at teaching people how to turn their high-priced education into millions of dollars in income. Obviously, the motivations are different, but those taking Smith’s classes point to an inner satisfaction that can only be achieved when one feels they are doing something that will leave the world a better place. The next time you raise your glass, offer a toast to Two-Sigma solutions.

PS — In a postscript to my last blog [Innovation, Competition, and Standards], Europe’s second-highest court today rejected Microsoft’s request to overturn a 2004 European Commission ruling that found the company abused its dominance in computer operating systems to gain market share in the server software and digital media player markets [“European Court Rejects Microsoft Antitrust Appeal,” by Kevin J. O’Brien, New York Times, 17 September 2007].