Appropriate technology refers to technology that is suited to its context.
It is not only technology that needs to be appropriate. Rather, the world needs:
- Appropriate development to create abundance and end poverty. This is participatory and sensitive to the context.
- Appropriate living - another way to say green living, perhaps, but with more awareness of context.
Certain approaches work better in certain climates than others. This applies to both macroclimates and microclimates. Modern residential developments are often built with no reference to solar orientation. Thus many suburban homes do not benefit from passive solar heating or cooling, or may have roof faces that do not effectively support solar panels. Likewise, different plant species have different requirements for optimal growth. Brassicas produce more in cool conditions, while tomatoes do best under direct sunlight.
- See also Community participation.
Solutions which are imposed are generally not appropriate, in that they are often unsuitable and the stakeholders do not feel ownership. The result is a lower likelihood of successful outcomes. Aid workers sometimes deploy a technique which ends up not being widely adopted or used in a local context due to unanticipated cultural or practical reasons.
Appropriateness over time
The terms "sustainability" and "permaculture" imply something that can last over long periods of time, potentially indefinitely. Some technologies are best used in short bursts as necessary while others may run continuously with little cost. Photovoltaic and hyroelectric power systems are more sustainable than fossil fuels, but back-up petroleum generators may sometimes be necessary. In the permaculture community it is often argued that because petroleum is a limited resource with high energy return on investment it is wasted on menial tasks like transportation, but is better invested in tasks like creating earthworks which endure much longer. Perennial plants may be preferred over annuals as they are less labor-intensive. Planned obsolescence is an approach to design that deliberately creates short-term unsustainability in many common products.
Local and global appropriateness
Local relevance and local needs are often considered key to appropriateness. A technology or practice is considered "appropriate" if its costs and benefits are appropriate to the locality in which it is used.
However, pollution can have far-reaching effects, e.g. by polluting a river, thousands of kilometers of ecosystems and livelihoods may be affected. In particular, greenhouse gases have a global effect, negatively impacting people thousands of kilometers away and decades into the future, then that technology is not "appropriate" for its distant victims. Any zero-carbon technology or lifestyle change adopted today, especially by developed nations, is "appropriate," especially for vulnerable inhabitants of developing nations who then not be affected by the greenhouse gases which are displaced. Technology which mitigates a potentially disastrous impact is appropriate, whether local or global.
Even in a more narrow sense, the climate in a given region is one factor that determines which technologies are appropriate. Given that human activity is now a leading cause of climate change, if not the leading cause, anything which impacts climate change impacts appropriate technology.
Organizational, legal, and economic appropriateness
Perhaps the most difficult thing to appropriately design are organizational structures. Their functioning is not as readily apparent as physical systems or technologies. Further, they often create vested interest groups that resist reform to the system. Critics have noted that conventional economic systems, whether based on markets or centralized planning, can have detrimental effects on society and the environment. Legal jurisdictions are not based exclusively on natural systems. Thus different countries that share a common watershed need to work together to manage their shared resource. Worldwide issues such as global warming have been especially difficult for the world's nations to work together on.
Inertia is less difficult to overcome on a local level. New types of community organizations are being pioneered, including: land trusts, worker and consumer co-operatives, credit unions, social benefit corporations, and local currencies. As these organizations and legal structures are adopted and developed their failures should be noted as well as their successes to determine appropriateness.