Q+A: Amy Smith

How did you gravitate to sustainable design?

I love connecting things that are not ordinarily connected and realizing that you can come up with a new device that does something completely different. I’ve always had the intention of doing development work.

Have you experienced particular challenges as a female engineer?

I never felt those gender barriers. My mother was a math teacher and my father is an engineer. We used to prove the Pythagorean theorem over dinner, so I never felt math was something I couldn’t or shouldn’t do. I get frustrated when someone makes an appeal to me as a woman engineer-you know, as a three-headed freak. When you draw the distinction, you’re reinforcing the mode that it’s not standard.

What are some of the key considerations in designing for developing countries?

When you’re designing a consumer product for people with less than a dollar a day to spend, affordability becomes extremely important. You also have to understand the cultural context. Someone in Haiti is interested in alternative charcoal production, not because it prevents deforestation, but because they use charcoal every day. They can save money if they make their own, or earn money if they sell surplus at market.

Relief work is a really difficult issue. When food is donated to an area where there’s hunger, people stop growing crops. There’s no way you can compete with free. Obviously there are emergency situations, but the donation model tends to make such a mess of local markets. [In all development projects], you have to consider what other aid efforts are going on. Who are the stakeholders? Who’s producing something that’s an alternative to yours? If you wait until the tail end of the [design] process to fit a design into the local infrastructure and environment, you really haven’t done it right.

How do you handle the production and marketing of these technologies?

It’s not even that I’m a lousy businessperson. I’m an a-businessperson. We’re looking to move in the direction of better dissemination.

What are some of the top technological priorities for the developing world?

Drinking water is a huge issue. Respiratory infection due to breathing indoor cooking smoke is the number-one cause of death of children under 5. Improving agricultural techniques, so farmers can add value to their crops to get a higher price for them, is difficult to do. Our trade policies don’t allow that to happen. It’s the difference between zero tariffs on raw goods and upwards of 40 percent taxes if you do anything [such as milling wheat into flour] to try to earn a little more on a product.

At the policy level, how might you tinker with the machinery of international development? If you could, would you create a cabinet-level post for sustainability?

I would love to see the development industry more results-oriented and less monograph-oriented. And one of the big things I have issues with is that we’re almost paid to waste things in our country. Gas, liquor, cigarettes, none of it should be subsidized. If we could appoint someone to address how we as a society can be less consumptive, I’d love to see that happen.

What are you working on right now?

I’m trying to get a lab set up here so that we can have really focused research efforts, rather than just designing on an empirical basis. [For example], we can look into the mechanisms of charcoal production so we really understand the processes.

In terms of the MacArthur, part of it will be used to move projects forward. And then I’m hoping for the flash of inspiration to make a lasting and useful contribution. Maybe it’s setting up a workshop or a training program. I talked to some kids in Haiti who are interested in creating a youth corps that disseminates the technologies we’ve been working on.

It’s not going to be pads and pencils for the office supply closet, nor is it going to be a vacation home in the Berkshires.

Ted Smalley Bowen is a freelance journalist based in Boston.