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MIT Begins Environmental Project with Costa Rica

By Rich Fletcher
STAFF REPORTER

In an effort to bring information technology to developing countries, the Costa Rica Foundation for Sustainable Development and MIT have begun a project to develop modular information centers to be deployed around the world. The inaugural event to kick-off the project was held on March 30 at the MIT Media Lab and featured a series of talks on sustainable development. With welcoming remarks by President Charles M. Vest, the talks included notable speakers from Costa Rica, MIT, Harvard University, and the White House, as well as several speakers from industry.

The central idea of this project is to create small deployable structures which contain essential communication tools that would be integrated into local essential functions in health, education and commerce.

“By combining advanced construction methods using recycled materials and the latest communication technologies, we will be able to bring first-class services anywhere in the world at a price that most developing countries can afford.,” said Professor of Media Arts and Sciences Sandy Pentland, who heads the Media Lab’s involvement in the project,

The project, known as Little Intelligent Communities (LINCOS), was initiated by Jose Maria Figueres, former president of Costa Rica and head of the Costa Rican Foundation for Sustainable Development. Motivated by devastation and relief efforts following hurricane Mitch in Central America, president Figueres was inspired to create a decentralized means for helping regions which lack basic information infrastrucuture.

In December of 1998, Figueres invited the MIT Media Lab and MIT Architecture Department to participate in creating the project. The MIT Architecture Department and the Industrial Design Department of the Costa Rica Technical Institute have worked closely to design a multi-function modular structure made from recycled industrial shipping containers.

While certain Central American regions in Guatemala and Nicaragua are being considered as the initial sites for deployment, Figueres feels that such units would be useful world-wide.

According to Figueres, “while the funding for the initial units will come from national governments and relief organizations, we are considering how such units could be built inexpensively in the countries themselves and finding ways for such units to generate sufficient revenue to pay for their own maintenance costs.”

According to Pentland, “At least a couple organizations around the world have attempted similar projects focused on specific areas of health, generating electricity, or communication, but in our project, we are trying to develop a comprehensive suite of technologies which could be used for many different functions.”

“Additionally, we don’t want this container module to seem like some sort of UFO object dropped from the sky, so we are being very careful to solicit local community involvement and participation in the design process.”

MIT affiliates travel to Costa Rica

During the first three months of 1999, a total of 12 MIT students and faculty from diverse backgrounds spent time in Costa Rica studying rural cultural issues as well as deciding on appropriate technology.

To demonstrate functionality, two sample prototypes of the so-called “community information centers” were built in Costa Rica during early March and one of them was shipped to the MIT campus, where it is currently on display in the courtyard behind building E15.

The demonstration unit features a working high-bandwidth satellite link, a space for telemedicine, environmental monitoring, a computer lab, and a walk-up information booth. The actual deployed units, however, will probably not be “all-in-one” units, but rather deployed as a group of 2 or 3 specialized units linked together. Additionally, by using the modular containers as the hub of a network, new lower-cost wireless local loop technologies provided by Motorola and other potential project sponsors, would enable voice over IP, data, and Internet access to be integrated more seamlessly into the surrounding buildings of a remote community.