Berlin Lab

José Gómez-Márquez: Making Everyday Engineering Geniuses

Author’s note: Last fall, shortly after the Berlin Lab Team was announced, I sat down with the four Lab Team members (José Gómez-Márquez, Rachel Smith, Corinne Rose, and Carlo Ratti) to get a general feel for what they would be exploring during their time at the Lab. At that point they had very rough ideas of what their focus might be. But now, just days before the Lab opens, their plans are a lot more concrete—and thus a lot more exciting. Speaking with them privately about what they have in store, I was struck by just how much there is to look forward to in the weeks ahead. And so I thought it would be worth taking a quick glance at what Berliners can expect from the programs each will be presenting at the Lab. Enjoy.

José Gómez-Márquez is the first Lab Team member to take the programming reins in Berlin, leading off at the Lab from June 15 to June 24. José, of the Little Devices Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is best known as the “DIY medical guy” for his work empowering doctors in the developing world to create environment-appropriate and affordable medical equipment. (Check out some of his wild Lego-into-life-saving-equipment-type projects to see what I mean.)

But at the Lab, he’s much more interested in applying that same everyman hacker mentality to day-to-day city life. And not just to anyone’s day-to-day city life—to your day-to-day city life. That means that while his programs may look overly specific at first glance, they’re really intended as mere “gateways” into the approach of self-engineering solutions.

In one of his workshops, for instance, people will learn how to make their own solar coffee roasters. But this is not, as José put it to me a few days ago, “because we think everybody needs to learn how to make a solar coffee roaster.” Rather it’s a gateway into learning how DIY solar technology works.

In another workshop, people will be able to learn about the basics of creating their own electric circuits; in another, how to make things move, or how to hack things that already move and make them into something else. And throughout the week and a half that he is here, José will also be working with people to do crowdsourced diagnostics on water quality in the city. But it’s all with the goal of introducing basic skills that anyone can use to engineer tangible solutions to their own specific needs in their home, neighborhood, or city.

“This Lab is not geared toward the expert makers or the expert fabricators, or the expert designers . . . Our whole philosophy at the Lab I work in at MIT is not designing the most complex machines in the world—it’s how to get other people to learn how to design their own version of the most complex machines in the world,” José told me.

“We often think that designers can anticipate everything that people will need, but that’s really not the case. In many cases I find that the most interesting designs are the ones that we call ‘design for degrees of freedom,’ where you design something for the purposeful objective that it’s going to be taken over by the user and used in unexpected ways.”

Transferring basic engineering skills to regular citizens who wouldn’t otherwise have them (I, for one, most definitely fall into this category), he says, empowers them to take matters into their own hands without having to rely on so-called experts.

The crowdsourced water diagnostics, for instance, are actually a gateway into learning to use technology to do your own reliable data acquisition, which could be transferred to, say, soil, air, health in your community, or whatever.

“By empowering that person with that type of technology and knowing how that technology works, knowing how that technology can be re-created in their backyard, you go from trying to put all your efforts, for instance, into trying to convince some expert or some political committee to go and test your soil, and instead you go and do it yourself,” he says.

“It allows us to fight back even more powerfully. People become more aware of how things actually are to make or do, so when someone says, oh that will take €100,000 to, say, fix that wheelchair ramp, or whatever, then we can say, ‘actually, it really won’t.’”

José is even bringing along the support that people might need to make that transition to doing and making. Not only is he bringing along portable 3-D printers for going out and engineering interventions in the city right on the spot, but ten of his budding students at MIT will be at the Lab throughout the entirety of his programming time, acting as what he’s calling the Engineering Genius Bar: a place for anyone wishing to bounce around ideas about how to self-engineer a solution to something in their own life, or even to get some hands-on help with working on the project itself.

Do you have a project you’ve been chewing at the bit to engineer yourself, but you’re not quite sure where to start? Post your ideas in the comments section below so that others can get inspired. Personally, I’m dying to know if an MIT genius can help me engineer a better way of hauling my life’s possessions halfway around the world every few months. High hopes over here.