Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Appropriate Technology

This posting is to introduce a new label, "Appropriate Technology". The label will be applied to postings on technologies that are available to poor people in developin nations, but underutilized, and which can help to improve their lives. I tried to think of a better label, one that captured the idea of a simple technology that could be used and maintained in poor communities, helping in some way to improve the lives of the community members. I finally decided that in honor of the Appropriate Technology movement of the past, I would use that term for the label.

Development takes place when people find a better way of doing things. Sometimes -- perhaps often -- that involves a capital investment, or at least a risk that the new approach will not work as well as expected, or indeed as well as that which it replaces. I will use the term for social innovations as well as for the hardware and software innovations that are more commonly described with the AI label.

Appropriate Technology is thus a technology that can be applied by or for a local community where the investment can be afforded. It is useful to consider the investment in cost-benefit terms. Not only should the cost be affordable, and withing the capacity of the community to finance (different ideas, thank goodness for microfinancing programs, which are helping to bridge the gap between affordable and financable) but the benefits should exceed the cost by a sufficient margin to make the investment attractive. Usually this means that the innovation must be durable, and thus that the technology must be locally operated and maintained. It seems obvious that a technology that has a very desirable benefit to cost ratio in one place need not be equally attractive in all places. Thus the technologies labeled "Appropriate Technologies" will be candidates for consideration for local adaptation.

Appropriate technologies can be simple, as are many pumps and tools. They may be quite sophisticated, such as appropriate vaccines or electronics. Thus the transistor radio was a hugely successful technological innovation for the poor when it was introduced, bringing information and entertainment in an affordable form to billions of people; yet the transistor radio was based on decades of research in solid state physics.

Often the appropriate technology will not be applied without the technological system in which it functions being in place and operational. The green revolution seeds did not work in places where there did not exist the system to produce local varieties tailored to local conditions, nor where irrigation systems were not developed, nor where the markets did not exist to distribute the seeds nor the chemical inputs that they required, nor for that matter where there were not credit sources to allow farmers to finance the investment in the improved inputs, markets for the expanded farm product, or advice on how to utilize the seeds and how to protect the crops against diseases and pests.

Here are a couple of appropriate technologies:
  • The Lifestraw portable water filter: This is a simple device that can be used by an individual to filter water to make it safe to drink. It should be more cost-efficient than boiling the water, and better than using chemical additives to the water.
  • The Playpump: A water pump that draws its energy from children playing on a carosusel.

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