Ken Pickar
Visiting Professor of Mechanical Engineering

California Institute of Technology
208 Gates-Thomas, Mail Code 104-44
Pasadena, CA 91125
(626) 395-4185


E/ME 105

Syllabus (pdf)
Background Materials
Class Trips

E 102

E/ME 103

Useful Links




E/ME 105: Product Design for the Developing World

Trips to Guatemala (Student Trip Reports)

Jason Kephart (Caltech)

  1. The first lesson that I learned from the trip is that local people must be included to the greatest extent possible in the design of appropriate technologies. Because these people may be hesitant to adopt new technologies, and have limited time, money, and access to materials and markets, their concerns must be listened to and weighed heavily. It will in fact be difficult to complete a project from Pasadena without continuous input from local people. The final goal is in fact to help these people, and we should not just make projects that we think are cool, but projects that people will hopefully adopt one day.

  2. Another lesson that really changed the way I think about these problems is that the villagers that we met did not want to live like us or be particularly wealthy. They as a community have chosen to forgo industrialization and live a life closer to what their ancestors lived. Our role as a class is to help them live a healthier, happier life within the constraints of what they will accept. In this respect, we will never "end poverty" as we may define the term, but we can always find a way to eliminate desperation and increase happiness.

  3. My first idea to improve the experience would be to limit the amount of repetition on the trip and focus on doing a few important things per day, while allowing people a few hours per day to just explore, relax, and get to know all the people on the trip. While I enjoyed most of the things we did, I think there was kind of an overload, especially when people were in a new place with new people and wanted to explore.

  4. In addition to "free time," there should be time allotted to journaling or documenting what is happening on the trip. I felt like when there was free time I didn’t really want to spend that small amount of time writing in my notebook, but getting to know people. If there was time in which everyone has to document what happened on that day, I think we would come away with a better memory and more organization in regard to what happened on the trip and what needs to happen in the class.

  5. What I noticed when we talked with the local geniuses at work in Guatemala was that they were always willing to listen to our advice and seemed to want to associate with us. Maybe they could do more to try to network with people in richer countries interested in development, whether it be through email contact, having a web page, or getting fundraisers there. I know they are stretched doing the work, but if you take the example of a university professor in the U.S., much of their time is spent getting money and support, and providing guidance for students to do the actual work. I’m sure this is already being done but it seems integral to their success.

    I cannot say for sure that there wasn’t enough of this because I didn’t witness their action in the community, but there needs to be a lot of effort also on convincing the locals of the advantages of appropriate technologies. When Carlos visited Ri Palamax it seemed like all of the women saw the devices as funny contraptions but may not have actually been interested in buying them for use at the facility.

  6. I appreciated the local geniuses’ emphasis on simplicity. It seems like Carlos has really been able to do a lot with a little. Also, while I didn’t see any of Julio Cesar's things, he also seemed very motivated to help people with limited resources.

    One practice that I admired was how inclusive they were to everyone, from MIT interns to villagers, to visitors from the city and the US. Their designs incorporated concerns from locals and evolved from existing pieces of machinery and solutions.

  7. The first ground truth is that your idea of a problem and the villagers' idea of a problem are completely different. You may think weaving or farming something by hand is tragic, painful, miserable, and inefficient, but to them it is a way of life. They don’t want to transform their lives into something completely different, so we must find a way to use things that make their existing way of life a little easier or healthier, as I have said many times in this paper.

  8. The second truth is that if the people in the village don’t understand or can’t maintain the product, it will only be used until something goes wrong. A successful project must integrate simplicity, locally found materials, and be simple enough that a local genius can understand and take ownership of the process. They must be able to take the initiative and start making the products themselves

    The final truth is that projects that were simply designed and left were never adopted by the local people or were left by the wayside. The most successful projects had an ongoing cooperation between local organizations, local individuals, and external organizations. It seems like this cooperation provides all the necessary aspects of a successful project, from money, to people doing the work and building the products, to promotion and development of technologies.

  9. The trip exceeded my expectations. I met more amazing people than I ever thought I would. The people from Art Center, Caltech and Landivar turned out to be a smart, motivated group with a lot of personality! I also gained a lot of real, useful knowledge for the class and about poverty and development. I also was amazed at the number of projects we came up with to help out in Poaquil and San Juan La Laguna. While the trip was just the beginning of the class, I feel that the relationships formed on the trip will make a big difference in the success of the class projects.

  10. I think that in general we did a very good job gathering product design ground truth. I think future years will learn from the mistakes we make in our projects and hopefully become more successful. One area we could improve on is the organization of writing down all the things we see, getting contact information, and taking pictures of the process. It seems like our record of the processes and interviews was kind of spotty at times, and we may have even forgotten to present some of the potential projects that we saw! Also, we may want to arrange for the Landivar students to be responsible to get and keep contact information from all the villagers that we see.
    8. I think there is only so much ethnography one can do in a week, but we learned a lot through the cultural events and through direct interaction with people in the villages. I think that I learned the most about the indigenous culture by talking to people in the villages about their businesses. Through this, I got an idea of what their core values were and why they did things the way they did, which is crucial to finding a technology they would be willing to adopt.

  11. I don't quite understand this question, so I assume it means "What do you wish you had known before going on the trip?" Not much, but it would be good to explain to people clearly that they will need to be careful about what they eat and drink, and that there will be mosquitoes, rain, etc. although this is just common sense.
    10. What I loved most about this trip was being able to see so many new ideas and meet so many motivated people in a short period of time. I often have trouble finding people who have interests in poverty, development, and sustainability, and meeting a lot of people with those interests in one week was really refreshing. I feel like with that combination of people, something cool will definitely come out of this class.