In the year following the 2004 tsunami, the Indonesian city of Meulaboh received eight neonatal incubators from international relief organizations. Several years later, when an MIT fellow named Timothy Prestero visited the local hospital, all eight were out of order, the victim of power surges and tropical humidity, along with the hospital staff’s inability to read the English repair manual.
Mr. Prestero and the organization he cofounded, Design That Matters, had been working for several years on a more reliable, and less expensive, incubator for the developing world. In 2008, they introduced a prototype called the NeoNurture. It looked like a streamlined modern incubator, but its guts were automotive. Sealed-beam headlights supplied the crucial warmth; dashboard fans provided filtered air circulation; door chimes sounded alarms. You could power the device with an adapted cigarette lighter or a standard-issue motorcycle battery. Building the NeoNurture out of car parts was doubly efficient, because it tapped both the local supply of parts and the local knowledge of automobile repair. You didn’t have to be a trained medical technician to fix the NeoNurture; you just needed to know how to replace a broken headlight.
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