Berlin Lab

Empowerment Technologies: An Interview with José Gómez-Márquez

José Gómez-Márquez, Berlin Lab Team

The Lab Team in Berlin will have an overarching theme of making and doing—empowering everyday citizens to create and improve their own cities. Within this theme, Lab Team members have each chosen a special focus based on their skill sets and backgrounds. 

José Gómez-Márquez is the program director for the Innovations in International Health (IIH) initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and cofounder of LDTC+Labs, a design and strategy consultancy for international development technology. He is best known for his work empowering doctors in the developing world to create appropriate and affordable medical equipment. His focus at the Lab will be Empowerment Technologies—finding innovative uses of technology to empower citizens in the process of actively making.

This is the first in a series of four interviews with Lab Team members to provide a sneak peek of what we can expect from their programming in Berlin. Be sure to check out last week’s interview with cocurator Maria Nicanor and to stay tuned over the coming weeks for interviews with Lab Team members Corinne Rose, Carlo Ratti, and Rachel Smith.

Let’s first talk about your main topic, Empowerment Technologies. What does this mean, and how do you hope to explore it at the Lab? 

Instead of creating a design solution, we create a design space so that regular people can participate in it. I’m more interested in what somebody off the street comes up with as a solution to their problem by using technology, than understanding their problem so well that I come up with the technological solution. So Empowerment Technologies is about taking advantage of how there are a whole plethora of new and exciting devices and approaches that allow every person to invent.…

What’s been lost in this whole revolution is often: how do we get everyday people—your mom, my grandmother—to participate in these things, instead of just relying on the star architect, or designer, or engineer from MIT to address it?

Someone working on medical technology is not the most obvious or self-explanatory fit for an urban think tank. Can you talk about how your work on finding solutions to medical problems applies to finding solutions to city problems?

Unlike other engineering fields, medicine is systemic. It involves multiple angles at once. Even though we have specialists, a diagnosis is often the result of many systems coming together. Now, I work as an engineer to make equipment for doctors and enable them to make their own equipment. So that brings together two basic themes: I have to bring together a bunch of different disciplines to work with somebody who is a nondesigner, and then I have to enable that designer to solve it on their own once I’m gone.

In terms of the way that related to the city, [it] was really a challenge for me… but what we found is that if you look at city problems through the lens of the diagnostic, and the prescription, it creates a really nice platform for solving things. So instead of me just trying to focus on the health in the city, which could have been an easy path, the work in Empowerment Technologies looks at giving citizens the power to diagnose problems in a systemic way, and then enable them to create the prescriptions to solve them.

I’ve watched you speak a lot about how one of the problems in the developing world is that traditional medical technologies are not designed for the environments doctors are working in, and therefore there is a need to develop environment-specific/appropriate technologies. Transferring that idea over to the city, what environmental factors will you be looking at? What about urban environments do we need to take into consideration when creating these DIY solutions?

I think the approach translates both in the tangible and in the social. It’s really about democratization. The reason these things aren’t designed for the developing world is that people in the developing world generally aren’t the ones who are going to design them. It’s some engineer at a big company deciding to design for a market that they’re used to selling to, not a market that they’re used to donating to. So those people in the developing world didn’t get to have a say, and they’re not going to get to have a say. So by giving people the ability to design on their own, it changes that equation.

So if we’re translating it to Berlin I guess we’re saying that by giving people the tools to actually design something that they are usually only used to complaining about, you skip the conventional approach of trying to reach the authorities at the top and hoping that it will trickle down to the everyday person on the street. In the more tangible, which I think is the more exciting part; it will translate onto just everyday problems. For instance we’re thinking of having a workshop where people who cannot afford the 850-euro stroller that goes over everything in the winter can trick out their regular 50-euro strollers and make them snow-ready… it is about conceptualization. It’s about responding to context.

Can you describe how you hope to interact with the public at the Lab? What do you see their role as?

The way I hope to empower them is to create a language of design. It’s something I’ve done with doctors and nurses in developing countries, and its something that I’ve found works very well. By creating environments where the public and ourselves interact around a prototyping activity it will be a way to engage in a discussion of something tangible as opposed to abstract concepts. People interact with prototypes in very different ways than they do when they’re just waving their hands and talking about something.

If see two four-year-olds play Lego together, it doesn’t matter if one is German and one is American, they connect around the six-by-two Lego blocks and make something together. That translates not just to people who have a language barrier, but also people who generally have a traditional social boundary and professional boundary. So we’ll talk about their issues not just in the forum form, but instead with tool kits and objects.

The other thing that does is, there are a lot of people who are really good at talking about things, and those are not always the people who are good at making something or doing something about it. I want to engage the latter group more.

Can you think of three words to describe the process of working on the Lab so far, and what we have to look forward to?

Prototypes, toys, and engagement.

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Photo: TEDGlobal 2011