Appropriate Technology

Technology designed to fit the particular circumstances of the people who are to use it; if they need a solution which is cheap to build, small-scale, made from local materials, easy to operate, simple to maintain and energy-efficient, then appropriate technology can set about providing it. It is adapted to the small scale of local skills and materials, as distinct from the large scale of mass production.

Unfortunately, appropriate technology has an identity problem. E.F. Schumacher, who developed the concept, preferred “intermediate” technology, so for the moment we will stay with that: we will come back to the matter of the name for it in a minute.A38

The principle of intermediate technology arose from Schumacher’s observation of what happens when communities in developing countries are persuaded to install equipment which does not match their needs and resources. Large-scale systems, supplied without thought for the consequences, can push them into debt and unemployment; their maintenance is beyond local capability, and if the equipment works as intended it produces on a scale beyond local needs, typically putting local producers out of business. All this can erode or destroy local autonomy, imposing the need for imported expertise and expanded markets which are invitations to takeover by outside interests. And it can demoralise communities, as the whole idea of local economic development turns sour.A39

But if the technologies needed for success in the international market are irrelevant and wrong in those situations, what is the alternative? Must the community stay with the very basic level of equipment that many of them have been using so far? Must they choose, as Schumacher put it, between “the hoe and the tractor, or the [sickle] and the combine harvester”?A40 He believes not, discussing an intermediate option . . .

. . . vastly superior in productivity to their traditional technology (in its present state of decay), while at the same time being vastly cheaper and simpler than the highly sophisticated and enormously capital-intensive technology of the West.A41

 

WAKE UP TO THE DETAIL
Extract from the article that first brought intermediate technology to the attention of the public and politics

The first task of any society is surely to avoid the extremes of misery and frustration. If “the people” are left out of development planning; if economic growth merely intensifies, as it tends to do, the appalling features of the “dual economy”—a small sector of opulence surrounded by an ocean of misery—then the final outcome will be disastrous.

The primary task of developing countries now afflicted by mass unemployment and mass migration into a few metropolitan areas would therefore seem to be clear: go straight into battle with these evils. This means:

1. Workplaces have to be created in the areas in which people are living now, and not primarily in metropolitan areas into which they tend to migrate;

2. These workplaces must be, on average cheap enough so that they can be created in large numbers without this calling for an unattainable level of savings and imports;

3. The production methods employed must be relatively simple so that the demands for high skills are minimised, not only in the production process itself but also in matters of organisation, raw materials supply, financing, marketing and so forth;

4. Production should be largely from local materials for local use.

These needs can be met only if (a) there is a regional approach to development [i.e., each development project should apply to the particular needs of the district], and (b) there is a conscious effort to develop what might be called an “intermediate technology”.

What stands in the way? . . . Is it lack of imagination on the part of planners in resplendent offices who find ratios and coefficients more significant than people?

E.F. Schumacher, “How to help them help themselves”, The Observer, 29 August 1965

He suggested that intermediate technology has four defining properties:

1. It is accessible—that is, affordable: it does not burden the community with debt.A42

2. It is small—that is, it does not require levels of energy, materials or a market on a scale greater than the community can supply.

3. It has the simplicity needed for local people to maintain and, ideally, build it themselves, using their own skills and resources.

4. It is non-violent in three senses: It does not make bigger demands (in terms of raw materials or pollution) than the local environment can support. It does not come at the cost of people’s mental and physical health. And it does not start a sequence of damage and repair, with clean-up commitments, repairs and costs extending into the future.A43

Reading that, you could be forgiven for wondering what it is all about. Surely local communities don’t want unaffordable, large-scale, energy-intensive equipment beyond the limits of what they can sell, maintain and renew? Well, surely not—unless, of course, they take advice from an expert. Schumacher has something to say about this:

There are countless development ‘experts’ who cannot even conceive the possibility of any industrial production unless all the paraphernalia of the Western way of life are provided in advance. The ‘basis of everything’, they say, is of course electricity, steel, cement, near-perfect organisation, sophisticated accountancy. . . . In the blind pursuit of [a] highly questionable utopia, these ‘experts’ tend to neglect everything that is realistically possible. More than that, unfortunately, they denounce and ridicule every approach which relies on the employment and utilisation of humbler means.A44

As he notes, many societies in the past have achieved a fair general level of wealth without that paraphernalia. Their technologies have been appropriate to their needs and resources.

And that brings us to the question of the name. In many ways, “intermediate technology” is the most comfortable name. It captures Schumacher’s sense of belonging in the middle ground—the “disappearing middle”, as he called it. It is the one he used in his famous article in The Observer (see “Wake Up to the Detail” sidebar above). It is widely recognised—having been used for the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), the charity which he founded with George McRobie and Julia Porter in 1965. And it does not have the problem that it sounds self-evident: surely all technology is appropriate to something?

The wide use of “appropriate” as the name for it today is due to insight about the need for considered choice on the technology to be used. It needn’t always be intermediate; there are occasions on which the most advanced and largest-scale means available are the right ones to use, and the simplest ones have their uses, too. It can be a difficult choice: a technology which is not capable of competing internationally may be best for the way the community is now, but not for the way it wants to be, or would be if it were able to attract the needed capital. The choice of technology must take into account the community’s vision, or expectation, of the future—yet there may be more than one vision.A45

In practice, the convention is that “appropriate” usually refers to a technology which falls well short of the most advanced and labour-saving available (i.e., intermediate technology), and it is used in this sense in Lean Logic. It looks to its technology to be a form of protection—of jobs, the environment and freedoms—and to be an accurate and realistic reflection of what the locality can commit itself to from its own resources.

And it is in these senses that the question of appropriate technology is central to the Lean Economy. The hypersophisticated, miniaturised energy and information systems of today are almost ideally suited to the necessary task of localisation. The “almost” is in there, however, because they depend on imports from centres of manufacturing which rely on a global industrial establishment. If local self-reliance is needed, that could be precisely because a global-scale manufacturing establishment no longer exists. And that would take us from local lite—where communities can buy in the equipment they need for localisation—to deep local, where they have to provide that, too, for themselves. Technologies may have to be chosen which are profoundly different from present expectations about what self-reliance means.

Whether the Lean Economy is actually going to be able to make choices about this, as distinct from accepting whatever it can get, is another matter. Reflection is needed on the level of self-reliance that we will have to cope with—and on the expectations, the education, food production and technology that, in the circumstances of the time, will turn out to be appropriate. But deep local is by no means an unrealistic prospect, and the technology appropriate to that should now be developed with the level of urgency currently directed towards visions of high-tech localisation.

 

Related entries:

Borsodi’s Law, Leisure, Productivity, Dollar-a-Day Fallacy.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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