: Appropriate Technology [April, 2015]

Three-Stone Fire

[Three-stone fire. By Erik Sjödin at Flatbread Society / Slow Space Bjørvika in Oslo 2014. Photo: Erik Sjödin]

A three-stone fire is one of the simplest arrangements for cooking food over fire. Unfortunately three-stone fires are very inefficient cooking solutions. As little as 5-10 percent of the heat a three-stone fire produces is transferred to the cooking pot.

It is estimated that around three billion people worldwide still cook over open fire, such as three-stone fires, or using rudimentary biomass burning cookstoves. These kinds of cooking solutions are major contributors to global warming, pollution, and deforestation, and every year millions of people die prematurely and fall sick from having breathed in smoke while cooking. Inefficient cookstoves are also a source of inequality since it is mainly women who cook and gather fuel, at the expense of studying or pursuing income generating work.

Rocket Stoves in Haiti

[Rocket Stoves in Haiti 2010. Photo: Global Giving]

The photo above shows women in Haiti learning to use rocket stoves delivered as aid after the devastating earthquake in Haiti 2010. Rocket stoves use a vertical chimney as a high-temperature combustion chamber to achieve almost complete combustion before the flames reach the cooking surface. Because of this rocket stoves can reach thermal efficiencies up to 40% percent, which is four to eight times better than an open fire and more than three times better than electric stoves. Rocket stoves can be made quite easily and cheaply from used materials such as metal pipes and empty barrels or gas containers, or mass produced using industrial processes. Because they are so much more efficient they solve a lot of problem associated with open fires or ineffective biomass burning stoves.

Rocket stoves are one of the most famous examples of “Appropriate Technology”, a term that came to be quite well known in the 1970’s and 1980’s but is less well known today. However, many of the ideas that define appropriate technology are now key concepts within open source technology, do-it-yourself technology and sustainable technology. Social design is term which is becoming more common that also encapsulates many of the ideals of appropriate technology.

Appropriate technology can be described as technology intended to increase the standard of living in the poorer and less industrialised, parts of the world without causing injustice or environmental damage. Usually appropriate technology aim to solve problems related to the very basic necessities of life, such as access to clean water and food, basic sanitation, and problems associated with unemployment and urbanisation.

Obviously no one would argue that rocket stoves are mainstream cooking solutions in the wealthier, industrialised parts of the world. However the philosophy of appropriate technology is also valid there. Looking at appropriate technology solutions for poorer countries also helps to put living in the wealthier parts of the world in perspective.

The idea of appropriate technology can be traced back to 1955 when the British economist E.F Schumacher came up with the concept “Intermediate Technology” after visiting Burma (Myanmar), which at the time was an unindustrialised country.

Schumacher defined intermediate technology as technology that, in terms of capital intensity, labour intensity, and scale, is somewhere in-between technology in the western industrialised world and technology in so called developing countries. He argued that intermediate technology is what developing countries need, rather than the same technology as in the west.

In 1973 Schumacher published “Small is Beautiful” in which he argued against Keynesian economics and the idea of growth based on fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources. To get on he argued that we need an “economics of permanence”. This, he further argued, implies a reorientation of science and technology so that scientists, engineers and designers, produce methods and equipment which are:

– cheap enough so that they are accessible to virtually everyone
– suitable for small scale application
– compatible with man’s need for creativity

In “Small is Beautiful” Schumacher further discusses various, in his opinion, desirable properties of technology under headings such as “Technology with a Human Face” and “Appropriate Technology”.

In the chapter “Technology with a Human Face” he argues that it would be better if people were more directly involved in production, instead of “doing jobs that are not directly productive, or just killing time more or less humanely”. Schumacher estimated that in 1973 productive time in society was about 3.5% of total time, the rest was unproductive work.

Schumacher argued that the drift of modern technological development is to reduce production time towards zero, but he entertained an idea, which he admitted could be perceived as utopian, of what life could be if productive time instead of being decreased was increased six-fold, to 20% of the time.

If this would be done Schumacher argued that; “There would be six times as much time for any piece of work we chose to undertake – enough to make a really good job of it, to enjoy oneself, to produce real quality, even to make things beautiful. … Everybody would be welcome to lend a hand. Everybody would be admitted to what is now the rarest privilege, the opportunity of working usefully, creatively, with his own hands and brains, in his own time, at his own pace … People who work in this way do not know the difference between work and leisure. Unless they sleep or eat or occasionally choose to do nothing at all, they are always agreeably, productively engaged.”
Soft Technology Society


[Some utopian characteristics of soft technology. Click for full list. Text: Robin Clarke]

In the 1970’s “intermediate technology”, “technology with a human face” and other labels for alternatives to industrial technology were brought together under the umbrella of “appropriate technology”.

Some of these labels were:

Soft technology
Democratic technology
People’s technology
Alternate technology
Adaptive technology
Capital-saving technology
Labor-intensive technology
Self-help technology
Village-level technology
Community technology
Progressive technology
Indigenous technology
Light-engineering technology
Light-capital technology

In 1983 OECD – The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which includes most of the wealthy countries in the world, defined appropriate technology as technology with “low investment cost per work-place, low capital investment per unit of output, organizational simplicity, high adaptability to a particular social or cultural environment, sparing use of natural resources, low cost of final product or high potential for employment.”

As I mentioned earlier appropriate technology is usually focused on solving problems in developing countries and in areas where there is extreme poverty, which often mean rural farming areas or urban slums. In these contexts appropriate technology often focuses on solving problems related to the very basic necessities of life, such as; access to clean water and healthy food; food production, food storage and cooking; as well as basic sanitation such as toilet facilities and waste management.

Three inventions and designs that are examples of appropriate technology are “The Hippo Water Roller”, “The Universal Nut Sheller” and “The Peepoo Bag”.

The Hippo Water Roller

[The Hippo Water Roller. Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID]

The hippo water roller is a device for carrying water more easily and efficiently than traditional methods, such as carrying water in buckets on the head. It consists of a barrel-shaped container which holds the water and can be rolled along the ground using a handle attached to the axis of the barrel.

It is claimed that using the hippo water roller approximately five times the amount of water can be transported in less time and with less effort than carrying water on the head. The roller can also be used to distribute other things than water, such as for example food and medical supplies, and it can be airdropped into disaster areas.

The Universal Nut Sheller

[The Universal Nut Sheller. Photo: Unknown]

The Universal Nut Sheller is a device for shelling nuts. Every year, in Africa alone, women spend about 4 billion hours shelling peanuts by hand. For many of the poorest families, peanuts are the only protein they can afford and the crop they take to the market. But there is little or no value in the shell. When shelling peanuts by hand 1 kilo an hour is a normal shelling rate. The Universal Nut Sheller does peanuts 50 times faster, at the rate of 50 kg/hr.

The Universal Nut Sheller has been designed as a kit that is easy to assemble, and once one has been assembled local builders and welders can replicate the device and make more of them.

The Peepoo Bag

[The Peepoo Bag. Photo: Ashley Wheaton, Sustainable Sanitation Alliance]

The Peepoo bag is a compostable bag which is put in a bucket an used as a toilet. After it has been used it is taken away and composted and eventually used as fertiliser for growing food crops.

Globally more than 2,5 billion people have no access to basic sanitation. 40% of the world’s population lack access to even the simplest latrine. Human faeces contain viruses, bacteria, worms and parasites which kill and infect people with serious diseases. In densely populated areas such as slums and refugee camps lack of sanitation can cause epidemics to brake out.

The peepoo bag is a relatively new product but it has for example been used in refugee camps in Syria and it seems to be working well.

The PlayPump

[The PlayPump. Photo: Unknown]

The PlayPump is an example of an appropriate technology invention that has received a lot of critique. Just like any new technology, appropriate technology inventions often fail, and some things catch on and get a lot of traction for the wrong reasons. Often because the marketing is better than the actual product. The PlayPump is an example of this.

The PlayPump is a roundabout which pumps water. The idea is that kids play with it and when they play water is being pumped up. The PlayPump looks both fun and useful, and it got a lot of attention when it was launched and quickly received support from celebrities and philanthropists.

However after some time it was discovered that the PlayPump often didn’t work well because kids don’t necessarily play when water is needed, and as a water pump designed for adults it’s not the most practical solution. Of course, if kids are forced to play on the PlayPump to pump water it’s more child labour than play.

It also seems like the advertisers greatly exaggerated the efficiency of the pump. The Guardian calculated in 2009 that children would have to “play” for 27 hours every day to meet PlayPumps’ stated targets of providing 2,500 people per pump with their daily water needs. However it does seem like the PlayPump can work well in some locations and circumstances, such as on school playgrounds.

Many other inventions fail because they are technically flawed or because they are not designed with an understanding for the contexts they are to be used within and the people they will be used by.

In his classic book “Design for The Real World”, first published in 1971, Victor Papanek lists more or less good ways of working with design and technology for the needs of underdeveloped and emergent countries.

“The simplest, most often employed, and probably shabbiest, is for the designer to sit in his New York, London or Stockholm office and design things to be mad in say, Tanzania [for consumption in the West]. … Should the economy of the wealthy Western country fail, the emergent country’s new economic independence fails with it.”

Ideally, Papanek says, the designer should spend time in the country and develop designs really suited to the needs of people there. The designer would also train designers to train designers. This way there would eventually be designers that are “firmly committed to their own cultural heritage, their own life-styles, and their own needs.”

Although appropriate technology usually is used in the sense of technology intended for developing countries and the concept is rooted in the 1970’s, the philosophy of appropriate technology is equally valid in industrialised and developed countries today.

I hope the term appropriate technology receives a revival and is used more often also in relation to design and technology developed for the wealthier parts of the world. Both because of the design principles and thinking it has come to encapsulate, but also because the word “appropriate technology” in itself forces us to consider the seldom straight forward question of what is appropriate.

In the 1950’s the famous British / American physicist Freeman Dyson was part of a group that intended to build nuclear explosion propelled space ships to take people to Jupiter and beyond. Today most people would consider nuclear explosion driven space ships that would contaminate the earth with radioactive fallout to be pretty far from appropriate technology. Given what we now know about radiation Freeman Dyson himself admits that nuclear propelled space ships would be a bad idea. However, if one day an approaching meteor threatens to extinct life on Earth the idea might seem very appropriate.

The two wheeled pedal powered bicycle is my favourite appropriate technology and I want to end with some rather hopeful thoughts from Freeman Dyson, on bicycles, technology and failure:

“You can’t possibly get a good technology going without an enormous number of failures. It’s a universal rule. If you look at bicycles, there were thousands of weird models built and tried before they found the one that really worked. You could never design a bicycle theoretically. Even now, after we’ve been building them for 100 years, it’s very difficult to understand just why a bicycle works – it’s even difficult to formulate it as a mathematical problem. But just by trial and error, we found out how to do it, and the error was essential.”

[This post was originally written for a lecture as visiting tutor at the Interior Architecture and Design Programme at Konstfack – University College of Art, Craft and Design in Stockholm]