Even something as simple as a water pump might not work if it requires parts or power not readily available where it’s installed. Credit: World Bank, CC BY-NC-ND
Technology can be a wonderful servant but a terrible master. As we know, its applications are not always beneficial to people or to the environment.
Recently we have seen concerns raised around fracking in rural Queensland, nuclear waste, or perceptions of health problems from wind farms in South Australia.
The situation in developing countries is just as concerning to many people, where technologies are transferred to communities ostensibly to improve their quality of life, but are often rolled out without consultation with the community.
According to electrochemist and pioneer of the “appropriate technology” movement, Amulya Reddy, technology can be compared to genetic material): if placed in a new environment, it will reproduce the society from which it originally came.
Humphrey Blackburn, an engineer, commenting on one of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation technologies also warned:
It will cease working when parts break, chemicals are not readily available, power fails, the technical expertise is not around, or the financial assets are not reliably available.
Clearly, technology needs to be made appropriate to its environment, and to the culture and community it is intended to serve. This has been known for quite some time, but it’s still not widely put into practice today.
The notion that technology can fail when airlifted into a different environment resonates with my own experience. When I was teaching in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in the 1970s, an attempt was made to “help” the local villagers to pump water using a hydraulic ram.
Previously, the women had carried the water from the river. So when the ram failed because it wasn’t maintained, the women had to revert to carrying water. This was an example of the university staff determining what the villagers needed without adequate consultation.
Soon after that experience, E. F. Schumacher published Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, and the emphasis changed to what was dubbed “appropriate technology”.
To be appropriate, a technology must be appropriate to the environment, the culture and the economic and educational resources of the people.
It should meet the technical, social and economic needs of the community by: being a capital-saving, employment-generating technology; being a small-scale technology; using local materials and energy resources; using existing or easily transferable skills; minimising social and cultural disruption; producing goods appropriate for mass consumption in adequate quantity and acceptable quality; and involving a rational sustained use of the environment.
So when a request came from another local PNG village for electricity, a micro-hydro project was initiated in which the villagers contributed to the project with money and labour.
Following this, a group came together and produced a book of appropriate technologies for PNG called the “Liklik Buk”. The aim of this book was to make people throughout PNG aware of what was available and where help could be obtained.