The power of simple innovations

A labyrinth of rooms extends to the third floor of the N51, the weathered gray building that has long housed the MIT Museum. The rooms are more like a handyperson’s workshop than a scientist’s lab. There are woodworking tools, metal making equipment, hammers, wrenches, and several boxes just for storing bicycle parts. The kitchens are lined with a windowsill. Pots that can cool food by evaporating from the surrounding layer of wet sand occupy an aisle. Hanging from the ceiling, there is a floatable bike suspended on top of four pontoons, so that a rider can pedal over the water. This is D-Lab.

Ask different members of the D-Lab what D means, and you will likely receive different answers. Often, people say “design” or “progress.” At one point, D was a placeholder for an entire phrase— “Progress through dialogue, design, and dissemination.” Ta Corrales ’16 added another D word to the list: “D-Lab derails students, ”he said,“ and so did I. ”

Corrales was a first-year undergraduate from Costa Rica when he discovered this eclectic enclave within MIT, where 26 staff members support 15 classes that teach MIT students how to innovate. or can unite people. Students, in turn, teach others in less developed areas how to create tools that can simplify their lives. D-Lab works in more than 25 countries on five continents to help raise living standards. At the end of his sophomore year, Corrales decided that instead of pursuing his first passion, chemistry, he would base D-Lab work on his career.

Solve problems

Now, five years after graduating from MIT with a degree in mechanical engineering (and a minor in chemistry), Corrales is a leader at the OAXIN Innovation Center, a nonprofit organization in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. OAXIN was founded in 2019 after 32 academic, non-business, and government partners, including D-Lab and MIT Enterprise Forum Mexico, worked together to figure out ways to strengthen the region’s economy. Today, nearly 10 OAXIN members run workshops where local and visiting MIT students design and build tools to be used in Oaxacans. Workshop participants said they were far from feeling connected to their communities and empowered to solve technology problems. Often, they contribute to the local economy along the way.

At the start of the typical five -day workshop, 25 participants discussed the greatest needs of Oaxacans and voted for five to focus on. Participants may say they want to prepare food more quickly, avoid inhaling smoke while cooking, or light their homes at night. After they chose what issues to solve, Corrales led the locals through a design process where they brainstormed the technology, built prototypes, looked at what was good and what needed to be done. repair, and then repeat the process. Small groups of MIT students sometimes travel to Oaxaca to participate, and those who regularly create prototype solutions return to the MIT lab.

Corrales demonstrates a charcoal press at a workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico.


“Ta Corrales showed us that in order for a community to thrive, it is necessary to understand how technology is managed,” said Enoc Ramírez, a former workshop participant, via an interpreter via text message.

Ramírez has enjoyed working with tools since he was a child, and he has long made machines such as the agave grinder and lawn mower. During his first workshop with Corrales in 2018, he learned a framework for researching design strategies, prototyping, and improving his designs that made his job as an inventor and welder easier and more convenient. efficient. Now he runs workshops through OAXIN as well as repairing and building tools in his business.

Recently, she helped a group of women facilitate fish processing by helping them design a knife with a blade that is optimized for descaling fish on one side. and clean it on the other side. He hopes that learning engineering and design skills in the workshops they run with Corrales will give Oaxacans more job opportunities and prevent young people, like his two children, who do not have to immigrate to the United States illegally, as in the past.

Legacy of activism

Corrales comes from the line of what she calls “activist women.” Her grandmother runs a cooperative that offers education and micro-loans to women who want to start a business around their hometown of Los Lagos, Costa Rica. When Corrales was growing up, her mother ran a school for children with learning disabilities who came from underserved communities. Corrales’ name comes from both of them. His mother chose Tachmahal, which for him meant “wealth” (and was abbreviated by his brother to “Ta” when they were young). And her grandmother suggested her middle name, Marie, in honor of pioneering chemist Marie Curie. Corrales wanted to follow in Curie’s footsteps as a chemist, but he also knew he wanted to continue the family tradition of promoting social justice.

Corrales did not see himself as an engineer when he started college. That changed in his sophomore year, on a trip to the D-Lab in Arusha, Tanzania. Farmers in the region used a laborious process to separate plant seeds from their branches by hand, and Corrales helped them make a bike-powered thresher so they could more easily process crops such as corn and beans.

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

Growing up, Corrales avoided electrical appliances, thinking they were only for men. But his time in Tanzania proves that he can, in fact, use tools like no other. “There’s a change in self-perception that happens when you see yourself being able to invent something,” he said.

Back at MIT, Corrales transferred his major to engineering. He was only a few classes shy to get a chemistry degree, and the transfer meant an extra six months of schooling, but it felt right. He knew he had found his place.

Corrales became a skilled engineer and soon found himself holding the title of “Chief MacGyver.” D-Lab lecturer and associate director of academics Libby Hsu, MEng ’10, SM ’11, said she once saw Corrales carrying a waterproof lantern from materials located in a in the Mexican towns where they work. “Everyone looks at him as this amazing tinkerer,” Hsu said.

Changing a shoe

Giacomo Zanello, an associate professor in the School of Agriculture, Policy, and Development at the University of Reading in the UK, says there is a growing awareness of the value held by simple innovations like Corrales ’parole. “You don’t have to go to the moon to be new,” he says, adding that users of a technology that drives the process, as D-Lab does, get as an important way to inspire to change.

In Oaxaca, Corrales helped locals make several inventions, including a press for a thin, crispy type of tortilla called totopo made only in this region. Standard tortilla presses do not force the dough thin to make totopos, which are traditionally stretched and shaped by hand. A regular press that Corrales helped create that increased the production capacity of the locals.

Corrales at the Smith Assembly workshop
In his Smith Assembly workshops, Corrales taught participants how to make traditional Oaxacan dolls, and more.


These days, Corrales takes the inclusive spirit of D-Lab around the world through a company called Smith Assembly which he built in the spring of 2020 with fellow engineer Liz Hunt. With this new company, Corrales and Hunt offer workshops to create a team of English-speaking companies. With the help of the Smith Assembly, co -workers designed and created tools or art projects in workshops similar to those led by Corrales in Oaxaca. For example, workshop participants will be able to create traditional Oaxacan dolls shaped like imaginary or mythical creatures.

During the covid-19 pandemic, Smith Assembly remote workshops helped participants adapt using common materials such as pencils, cereal boxes, and bottle caps. The company builds connections even between co -workers who are far away socially.

Corrales lived with his family in Costa Rica during the pandemic, but that didn’t mean he left Oaxaca. He and other OAXIN members moved on to run pandemic -focused workshops remotely through WhatsApp text messages and audio features. For example, many coastal communities in Oaxaca focus their food production on fishing, while relying on fruit and vegetables imported from other parts of Mexico. In the early days of the pandemic, vegetable supply chains were disrupted, leaving little to be bought in town shops or village markets. OAXIN is running a WhatsApp-based workshop to teach people who know little about gardening how to grow vegetables in their backyards.

“[Before the pandemic] if you ask me if we can do it almost, I’m sure I would say no, ”Corrales said. But in the true spirit of D-Lab, he and his colleagues are changing and finding a way forward.

Once the vaccinations are available, Corrales hopes to start traveling and running Smith Assembly workshops in person, but for now, he stays in Costa Rica and continues to work online.

OAXIN recently started a new project that helps Oaxacans commercialize traditional fabrics by selling shawls through an online marketplace. While the Smith Assembly was busy, Corrales shifted his efforts in Oaxaca from running the workshops and to counting the impacts of the workshops on the daily lives and income of the participants. Two Oaxacan totopo producers agreed to act as an in -depth case study, and from the data collected, Corrales found that the presses could save each totopo maker two hours of work per day and added production capacity of 50%.

This is just one example of how technology has brought people together to solve small everyday problems on the ground — or in the kitchen.

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