Innovation Begins with Empathy

At the intersection of many fields sits the inquiring mind of David Moinina Sengeh.  As a Ph.D. candidate at the MIT Media Lab, Sengeh is working to design tailor-made prosthetic sockets that can be worn comfortably by amputees. It is a project that demands intense, cross-disciplinary interaction.

In developing a perfectly fitted prosthetic device, Sengeh’s compassion for the person who will use it is only the beginning of what goes into his design. He carefully considers anatomy, medical imaging, manufacturing materials, 3D printing, and a host of other factors that must come together to produce the desired product.

Fortunately, he likes to ask questions. “Lots and lots of questions,” he says. “If you don’t ask the right questions, you will have a hard time navigating those multiple fields.”

At MIT, Sengeh is constantly surrounded by scientists, designers, and thinkers who have been charged with “creating the future.” He probes and prods their minds, attempting to grasp the complexities of what they do, so he can apply their knowledge to his design of prosthetic limbs.

It is a form of communication that involves not only intelligence and field-specific expertise, but also a genuine yearning to process information that will create social value. 

Sengeh, a native of Sierra Leone, grew up in the midst of that country’s brutal, 11-year civil war that left more than 50,000 people dead, and according to some estimates, more than 4,000 people who had had limbs crudely amputated as a form of political terror. 

He says he does not need to be an amputee himself to feel empathy for those who are. For his entire life, he has been a witness to the human condition of people who have carried on with their lives despite the economic, social, and emotional difficulties associated with such a traumatic disability.

His naturally inquisitive mind and inherent compassion converge on one seemingly simple question: Why are the prosthetic devices used by amputees in Sierra Leone — or anywhere in the world, for that matter — so uncomfortable?

Typical prosthetic devices are ill-fitting, creating pressure and discomfort that diminishes the quality of amputee’s life, a situation that Sengeh says is “completely unacceptable in our age.”

Ideally, what lies on the other side of a simple question — such as the one posed by Sengeh — is an explanation that will satisfy. The person providing that explanation must impart knowledge in a way that others will be able to understand. Sengeh has found that people are normally generous in their willingness to answer questions, but that sometimes they simply don’t know how to communicate what they know. 

“I have a collaborator, a good friend, and I ask him questions about what he does, and sometimes he can explain it and sometimes he can’t,” Sengeh says. “It’s hard for people when they can’t explain what they do.”

Even so, that habit of questioning must start somewhere, and when Sengeh is not working on the design of prosthetic limbs, he goes back to Sierra Leone to create conditions in which the inquiring and empathic mind can be developed. He says that the talent and mentorship needed to nurture innovative thinking is severely lacking in his home country, where there is a pervasive cultural attitude that help will come from the outside. Even those Sierra Leoneans, like himself, who are making change there have gone away and returned.

“There isn’t a high concentration of people who are taking the lead in solving very practical problems,” he says of Sierra Leoneans. “They are not experiencing the joy of problem solving.”

Through his international nonprofit, Global Minimum, Sengeh aims to provide resources and experiences that nurture innovation among young people who need to get their hands dirty, solving problems from scratch at an early age. “We should allow our kids to explore, to play, and to break things every now and then,” he says.

Sengeh anticipates that, with proper training, the problems young people solve will have “global importance and local relevance,” because the questions that absorb the inquiring, empathic mind will always be significant.

“Who am I to judge what is important to somebody? But at the end of the day, what we create must have a positive social value.”