[EAS] Appropriate Technology

Peter J. Kindlmann pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Thu Feb 8 02:23:35 EST 2007

Dear Colleagues -

In my education that term came, I think, from E.F. Schumacher 
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._F._Schumacher>, the British 
economist who died in 1977, just when his ideas become more widely 
known. His best-known book, "Small is Beautiful: Economics as if 
People Mattered" (1973) deals with the value of work, and technology 
sustainable in the developing world -- an economics with conscience. 
He wrote about India on numerous occasions.

I run the risk of conflating his ideas with those of another hero of 
mine, Victor Papanek <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Papanek>, 
whose "Design for the Real World" (1983) also deals with responsible 
design, which he practiced for close to 20 years with his design team 
at the Univ. of Kansas. Responsible design in the developing world 
that means technology with locally sustainable growth.

What brings on these recollections? A palpable and growing 
condescension toward terms like "appropriate technology" in the light 
especially of India's and China's startling industrial and 
technological growth. So heated is India's growth that the current 
Economist expresses concerns about its sustainability 
Other instances of condescension arise from African countries 
propelled into the communication age via cell phones, after 
hopelessly languishing with dismal land-line wiring.

China's and India's are indeed remarkable accomplishments, but what 
came to my mind is a New Yorker article by Michael Specter 
<http://www.newyorker.com/printables/fact/061023fa_fact1> about the 
world-wide shortage of fresh water in all those countries engaging in 
technological leaps:

>Even in the most prosperous neighborhoods of cities like Delhi and 
>Mumbai, water is available for just a few hours each day-and often 
>only as a brown and sludgy trickle-forcing millions of middle-class 
>Indians to stumble out of bed at three or four in the morning to 
>turn on their taps. Then, with the help of electric pumps, they push 
>the water to storage tanks on their rooftops. Battles over the water 
>supply have become so common that Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, the 
>Minister of Water Resources, sometimes describes himself as the 
>Minister of Water Conflicts.

The Economist and New Yorker articles are highly recommended for 
their sobering statistics, and the reminders that problems with 
water, its scarcity and wasteful use, are very old and the situation 
is dire and worsening.

>Half of the hospital beds on earth are occupied by people with an 
>easily preventable waterborne disease. In the past decade, more 
>children have died from diarrhea than people have been killed in all 
>armed conflicts since the Second World War. Simply providing access 
>to clean water could save two million lives each year.

We very much continue to need appropriate technologies 
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appropriate_technology>, for efficient 
forms of irrigation (which accounts for two-thirds of water use 
world-wide), for clean drinking water made available efficiently. A 
fine example of appropriate technology that would have delighted 
Schumacher and Papanek is the play-pump from a South African 

There are many other heartening examples in the categories of water 
supply and water treatment. Perhaps more engineering students will 
take an interest in such design undertakings. They are often starkly 
simple compared to computer design, communications and high-end 
consumer products. But the world's needs are great, and so can be the 
satisfaction of a successful design.

Let's hear it for appropriate technology.


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