A maze of rooms spans across the third floor of N51, the gray building that has long held the MIT Museum. The rooms look more like a workman’s workshop than a scientist’s lab. There are dozens of boxes for storing woodworking tools, metal work tools, hammers, wrenches and bike parts. The cooking stove is a windowsill line. Pots that cool food through evaporation from the surrounding layer of wet sand occupy the hallway. Hanging from the ceiling, there is a floating bike that hangs over four pontoons, so a rider will paddle just above the surface of the water. This is D-Lab.
Ask different members of the D-Lab what D means, and you may get different responses. Often, people say “design” or “development”. At one point, D was a placeholder for the whole phrase- “development through dialogue, design and promotion.” Ta Corrales ’16 added another D word to the list: “D-Lab Derailed The student, “he says,” and I was too. “
Corales was a first-year Costa Rican graduate when he discovered this eclectic enclave within MIT, where 26 staff members support 15 classes that teach MIT students how technological innovation can bring people together. Students, instead, teach others in less-developed areas how to create tools that make their lives easier. D-Lab helps improve the quality of life in more than 25 countries on five continents. Towards the end of his second year, Corales decided that instead of pursuing his first love, chemistry, he would base his career on D-Lab work.
Today, five years after graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering (and a minor in chemistry) from MIT, Corrales is a leader at the OAXIN Innovation Center, a nonprofit company based in Oaxaca, Mexico. OAXIN was founded in 2019 after 32 academic, nonprofit and government partners collaborated to identify ways to build a regional economy, including D-Lab and the MIT Enterprise Forum Mexico. Today, about 10 OAXIN members run workshops where locals and MIT students design and build tools for Oaxacan use. Workshop participants say they feel connected to their community and are empowered to solve technical problems. Often, they contribute to the local economy along the way.
At the beginning of a typical five-day workshop, 25 participants discussed Oxacans ’greatest needs and voted five to focus on. Participants may say that they want to prepare food faster, avoid breathing in smoke while cooking, or turn on the lights in their home at night. Once they have chosen what problems to solve, Corales leads the locals through a design process where they think about technology, create prototypes, see what works best and what needs to be improved, and then repeat the process. Small groups of MIT students sometimes travel to Oaxaca to join and who often return to MIT labs to solve prototypes.
“Ta Corales has shown us that in order for a community to prosper, it needs to understand how to manage technology,” said Enoch Ramirez, a former workshop participant, through a text message translator.
Ramirez has enjoyed working with tools since childhood and he has long built machines such as agave grinders and lawn mowers. During his first workshop with Corrales in 2018, he learned design techniques, prototyping and a framework for improving his designs that made his job as an inventor and welder much easier and more efficient. Now he conducts workshops through OAXIN as well as making and fixing his business equipment.
Recently, he helped a group of women speed up the processing of fish by designing a knife with a blade that was optimized to disk the fish on the one hand and to clean them on the other. She hopes that learning engineering and design skills in the workshops she and Corales run will give Oxacans more work opportunities and prevent young people like her two children from immigrating to the United States illegally, as she once did.
Corales comes from a line he calls the “working woman”. Her grandmother ran a cooperative that provides education and micro-credit to women who want to start a business in the vicinity of Los Lagos, Costa Rica. When Corales was growing up, his mother ran a school for children with learning disabilities who came from underdeveloped communities. The name Corrales comes from both of them. His mother chose Tachamahal, which means “treasure” to him (and made him “Ta” when his sister was younger). And his grandmother proposed his middle name Marie in honor of pioneer chemist Mary Currie. Corales wanted to follow in Currie’s footsteps as a chemist, but he also knew he wanted to keep up the family tradition of promoting social justice.
Corales did not see himself as an engineer when he started college. This changed in his second year during a D-Lab trip to Arusha, Tanzania. Farmers in the region used a laborious process to separate tree seeds from their stems by hand, and Corales helped them build a bike-driven thresher so they could process crops such as corn and peas more quickly.
Growing up, Corales moved away from electrical appliances, thinking they were only for men. But his time in Tanzania has proven that he can actually use the tools just like anyone else. “A change in self-perception happens when you are able to invent something yourself,” he says.
Back at MIT, Corales took his major in engineering. She was shy of just a few classes to get a chemistry degree, and the move meant an extra six months in school, but it seemed right. She knew she had found her niche.
Corales became a skilled engineer and soon earned the title of “Chief McGuire”. D-Lab lecturer and associate director of academics Libi Hu, Meng ’10, SM ’11, said he once saw Corales pull out a waterproof lantern from the material lying around the Mexican city where they were working. “Everyone sees him as this amazing tinker,” Hu said
Invent on a shoe
Giacomo Genello, an associate professor in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at UK Reading University, says there is a growing awareness of the value contained by common innovations, such as the coral lantern. “You don’t have to go to the moon to be innovative,” he said, adding that technology users who drive the process, such as D-Labs, are being seen as a valuable way to inspire change.
In Oaxaca, Corales has helped locals create a variety of innovations, including a thin, crunchy type of tortilla called totopo that is made only in this region. Standard tortilla presses do not thin the dough enough to form totopos, which are traditionally stretched and shaped by hand. A custom press that helped create the Corrales significantly increased the production capacity of the locals.
Nowadays, Corales Smith is embracing the inclusive attitude of global D-Labs through a company called Assembly, which he founded in the spring of 2020 with fellow engineer Liz Hunt. With this new company, Corrales and Hunt are offering team-building workshops to English-speaking companies. With the help of the Smith Assembly, colleagues design and create tools or art projects in workshops such as Corales Lead in Oaxaca. For example, workshop participants can create traditional Oxacan dolls shaped like gorgeous or mythical creatures.
During the Covid-19 epidemic, Smith Assembly’s remote workshops helped participants innovate using common materials such as pencils, serial boxes and prescription-bottle caps. The company is building connections even among socially distance colleagues.
Corales was living with his family in Costa Rica during the epidemic, but that doesn’t mean he left Oksaka behind. He and other members of OAXIN have moved toward running epidemic-centric workshops remotely through the WhatsApp text messaging and audio segments. In Oaxaca, for example, many coastal communities focus their food production on fishing, relying on fruits and vegetables imported from other parts of Mexico. In the early days of the epidemic, vegetable supply chains were disrupted, with little to buy in town stores or village markets. OAXIN runs a WhatsApp-based workshop for people who know very little about how to grow vegetables in their backyard.
“[Before the pandemic] If you asked me if we could actually do it, I wouldn’t say for sure, ”Corales said. But in true D-Lab consciousness, he and his colleagues have invented and found a way forward.
As soon as the vaccines become available, Corales personally hopes to start touring and running Smith Assembly workshops, but for now, he is in Costa Rica and continues to work online.
OAXIN recently launched a new project to help Oaxacans commercialize traditional textiles by selling shawls through an online marketplace. As the Smith Assembly has become more and more busy, Corales has shifted its efforts away from running workshops in Oaxaca and measuring what impact those workshops have had on participants’ daily lives and incomes. The two Oxacan Totopo producers have agreed to work in depth as a case study, and with the information gathered, Corales has found that presses save each Totopo manufacturer two hours of labor per day and increase production capacity by 50%.
Just an example of how technological innovation can bring people together to solve small everyday problems on the floor or in the kitchen.