1 Appropriate Technology

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The theme of appropriate technology is closely related to that of convivial tools. E.F. Schumacher, the best known advocate of appropriate technology, published "Small is Beautiful" in 1972, the same year that Illich published "Tools for Conviviality". Both books present the case for an alternative approach to the use of technology.

There are however significant differences between the concept of appropriate technology and the concept of convivial technology. The principal difference is that appropriate technology is oriented towards technology for developing countries, while convivial technology applies as well to technology in developed countries, including notably the latest digital innovations.

Terms Related to Appropriate Technology

There exists a whole family of terms closely related to "appropriate technology". The list below presents these different terms in the order in which they will be discussed in this article, and includes in addition a final section on current trends:

The apparent meaning of each of the above terms is set out below.

Intermediate Technology

Schumacher originally named "intermediate technology" the approach that he advocated for use in what was then called the "third world". In a 1965 article (which was later incorporated into "Small is Beautiful") he described as follows the type of technology that would be most appropriate in developing countries:

    An Intermediate Technology would be immensely more productive than the indigenous technology (which is often in a condition of decay), but it would also be immensely cheaper than the sophisticated, highly capital-intensive technology of modern industry ... The equipment would be fairly simple and therefore understandable, suitable for maintenance and repair on the spot. Simple equipment is normally far less dependent on raw materials of great purity or exact specifications, and much more adaptable to market fluctuation than highly sophisticated equipment. Men are more easily trained; supervision, control and organisation are simpler; and there is far less vulnerability to unforeseen difficulties.

Schumacher’s thus saw "intermediate technology" as a half-way compromise between insufficient "indigenous technology" and overly sophisticated "capital-intensive technology".

He described it in specifically economic terms as technology that is at least an order of magnitude (10 times) more expensive than that prevalent in a developing nation yet at least an order of magnitude less expensive than that prevalent in a developed nation offering aid.

Appropriate Technology

Schumacher’s idea of "intermediate technology" has been expanded so that it might also be applied in highly developed countries, and the name accordingly changed to the more general "appropriate technology." Thus in Wikipedia, "intermediate technology" redirects to "appropriate technology."

The Wikipedia article defines appropriate technology as follows:

    Appropriate technology is technology that is appropriate to the environmental, cultural and economic situation it is intended for. An appropriate technology, in this sense, typically requires fewer resources, as well as lower cost and less impact on the environment. Proponents use the term to describe technologies which they consider to be suitable for use in developing nations or underdeveloped rural areas of industrialized nations, which they feel cannot operate and maintain high technology.

The Wikipedia definition thus retains the original orientation towards developing nations. However, it does indicate that the term also has broader connotations:

    What exactly constitutes appropriate technology in any given case is a matter of debate, but generally the term is used by theorists to question high technology or what they consider to be excessive mechanization, human displacement, resource depletion or increased pollution associated with industrialisation. .... One approach to the term, among advocates of voluntary simplicity (sometimes termed neo-luddites), is that "appropriate technology" is technology whose risk/cost/value tradeoff is compelling enough to justify continued use. Examples might include a clothesline, small kitchen gardens, home composting, better thermal insulation, or commuting by bicycle rather than automobile .... Another commonly encountered approach to the term "appropriate technology" is when it is used to describe specific technologies, like wind power, that provide an alternative to fossil fuels.

The Wikipedia also mentions another, highly specific, use of the term "appropriate technology," to refer to public domain software created in collaborative environments, which in this case is opposed to "appropriative technology," i.e. proprietary software.

Alternative Technology

The Wikipedia article on alternative technology
defines this as follows:

    Alternative technology is a term used by environmental advocates to refer to technologies which are more environmentally friendly than the functionally equivalent technologies dominant in current practice.

The article also notes that "alternative technology" is sometimes confused with "appropriate technology", but that while there is significant overlap, the terms differ. The major difference is that "appropriate technology" emphasises the importance of low cost and ease of maintenance for developing country applications, whereas "alternative technology" emphasises the environmental aspects, with less concern for cost and ease of use.

The term "alternative technology" was reportedly coined by Peter Harper, one of the founders of the Centre for Alternative Technology in North Wales in the 1970’s. Harper also used the term "radical technology."

The definition given above suggests that the term is used primarily to refer to technology that is environmentally friendly. However, the Wikipedia article notes that when "alternative technologies" have become widely adopted, they may no longer be considered "alternative" (an example is the widespread acceptance of the use of wind turbines to produce electricity).

Sustainable Technology

In Wikipedia, "sustainable technology" redirects to "sustainable design". The definition of "sustainable technologies" is then found buried half-way down to the bottom of this long article. The definition is as follows:

    Sustainable technologies are technologies which use less energy, fewer limited resources, do not deplete natural resources, do not directly or indirectly pollute the environment, and can be reused or recycled at the end of their useful life.

It can be seen that "sustainable technology" means environmentally friendly technology. The term is thus generally synonymous with "alternative technology" (see above) and "environmental technology" (see below). "Sustainable technology" appears however to be currently the politically-correct term for this topic, judging from the size and pertinence of the corresponding Wikipedia articles.

The Wikipedia article on "sustainable technology" also observes that there is a significant overlap with appropriate technology, which emphasizes the suitability of technology to the needs of people in developing countries. However, "sustainable technology" may have high cost or maintenance requirements that make it unsuitable as an "appropriate technology," as that term is commonly used. Moreover, a technology that is most appropriate to a developing context may not be the most sustainable one (for example simpler technologies may in some cases be more highly polluting).

Environmental Technology

The short Wikipedia article on "environmental technology" defines this as follows:

    Environmental technology or "green technology" is the application of the environmental sciences to conserve the natural environment and resources by curbing the negative impacts of human involvement.

This article goes on to say that "sustainable development is the core of environmental technologies". It thus seems likely that the Wikipedia articles on "environmental technology" and "sustainable design" should be "merged", as Wikipedia would say.

Current Trends in Appropriate Technology

It is instructive to look at the list of Wikipedia pages given under the
Appropriate Technology Category. There are 64 of them, as follows:

Akash Ganga
Appropriate technology
Ceramic water filter
Classmate PC
Clay pot filter
Clockwork radio
Cloth filter
Cob (material)
Compressed earth block
Cook stove
Digital Textbook
Dutch brick
Earthbag construction
Fog collection
Fonio husking machine
Hand pump
Hippo water roller
Honey bucket
Malian peanut sheller
Micro hydro
Moringa oleifera
Orangi Pilot Project
Papyrus sanitary pad
Personal Internet Communicator
Phase-change incubator
Pico hydro
Portable water purification
Pot-in-pot refrigerator
Rainwater harvesting
Rammed earth
Reed bed
Roughing filter
Roundabout PlayPump
Safe bottle lamp
Screenless hammer mill
Single-wire earth return
Slow sand filter
Soft energy technology
Solar Powered Desalination Unit
Solar chimney
Solar cooker
Solar still
Solar water disinfection
Spring box
Super Adobe
Treadle pump
VIA pc-1 Initiative
Village Level Operation and Maintenance (pumps)
Whirlwind wheelchair
World Habitat Awards
XO-1 (laptop)

The above list clearly shows the orientation of appropriate technology towards the developing country context.

It is interesting to note that the list of Wikipedia pages given under the Sustainable Technology Category contains 117 pages, nearly twice as many as those listed under the Appropriate Technology Category. Moreover, only the following 3 pages are found on both lists: rammed earth, soft energy technology, solar chimney.

A good resource for surveying current trends is the Wikepedia article on Appropriate Technology. At the end of the Wikipedia article are lists of organisations, people and external links dealing with this subject.

One particularly well-made site dealing with appropriate technology, offering downloadable documentation, is:

There are also two relevant wikis dealing with appropriate technology issues:

  • Appropedia: a wiki aiming to be "a living library of appropriate technology"
  • Howtopedia: a wiki gathering practical knowledge including how-tos on simple technologies