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Technology for 10 billion people
I wish you, reader of this story, a long life. But -as a start- please realize, you are going to share this planet in your old days with ten billion people. Five billion of whom are expected to be unacceptably poor. Will your old days be quiet ones?
Ecologically it seems impossible while making use of our current commercial and industrial system (think again over 40 years, in 2040) to raise the income or welfare of these 5 billion people to our current level.
Sharing our affluence with them, we will not do. Our globalized market system does not allow that.
Can we maintain our democracy, integrity as a nation and safety in the public domain? Can we maintain our moral standards, while their life standard is unacceptable? It doesn't seem probable. So there is a problem. Is it a design problem?
A smart design solution would come up with something amazing, really unexpected, not another one of the look-alike suggestions. It would mobilize a forgotten and improbable resource.
So would you ever have thought that the deepest poverty could be the core of the solution? The development of "Technology within Poverty"? Meaning the present technological base of people living in poverty? Meaning what we encounter when we visit a shanty town, workshops under tin roofs?
People -within poverty- survive, thanks to a different technology, let us call it 'Technology within Poverty'. This 'Technology within Poverty' is the way of cooperating, the working methods, the tools and materials with what two billion 'people within poverty' are able to survive. Sometimes it is called informal technology.
But what about the low effectiveness of 'Technology within Poverty', as compared to Western technology? Technology within Poverty with its roots in traditional crafts, is cut off from further development. Neither with the rich or with the poor lives the expectation that a further development is possible. The existence of such a Technology within Poverty is not even recognized or is denied as not relevant.
So an important feature of Technology within Poverty is overlooked: it is based on information. A kind of technical information that is applicable without capital investment and without infrastructure.
This characteristic difference with capital intensive modern technology gives 'Technology within Poverty' the potential to develop into a technology of a new generation, comparable to information technology.
As a start, technology within poverty has two clear advantages over modern technology:
- everywhere it is immediately applicable
- it is fundamentally environmental friendly.
If 'Technology within Poverty' resembles Information Technology, would it then be possible to let it profit from the same rapid development IT has shown? This indeed could be the case as the following examples indicate, where a different design approach was applied.
"All this is Design" For those who search, there are inspiring examples.
- In his book "Design for a real world," Victor Papanek shows in a genial and all comprising scheme, how the recognition of the problems asks for a necessity to design.
Clusters of key-words indicate "No-one escapes from the necessity of aids", "What people really need" , "What people is told they should have", "How false aims are achieved", "How sensible aims are obstructed" and "How to change this", concluding "All this is design".
- In the field of agriculture, the book "Two Ears of Corn", published by 'The World Neighbors' describes very large improvement in crop yields by stimulating the innovative capacity of farmers, by helping them with information otherwise remaining out of their reach.
- A farmer in Japan, Masanobu Fukuoka, runs counter to all usual practices and results in extreme high crop yields, but without pesticides, irrigation and artificial fertilizer. His research leads to "Do nothing farming" as described in his book "The One Straw Revolution".
- A million copies are sold of the book "Where There Is No Doctor". This book, written by David Werner, describes how health care in village-level is backed up by new medical methods.
- "LETS" a method for exchange of services within smaller communities, shows that money is not a necessary condition for a reasonable degree of welfare. The LETS method originated in Australia, is popular in England and Canada now, and is applied recently in both the Netherlands and in a project for the improvement for life-circumstances in townships in Durban (South-Africa).
- The strength of the foundation "The 12 Ambachten" in Boxtel is their tenacity in the developing of environmentally friendly designs. In dialogue and with help of the readers of their newsletter, these designs matured from ideas into trendsetting realities. Two of their dozens of initiatives are the home-build tile kiln and water purification with reeds.
How our NGO "Demotech, design for self-reliance" worked towards achievement with her design for the rope pump
A development worker asks Demotech to design a water-pump for irrigation.
To irrigate their plot in a location in the Air mountains in NIger, farmers use a setup consisting of a scoop, made from car inner tires, rope, sticks and stones. In our workshop in Amsterdam our prototype, using the same materials, works well. We study how in a similar way wind-, animal- and human power can be put to use. We experiment with a pump using a broad canvas strip instead of rope, as cotton strip is locally woven in cottage industry. In Amsterdam this pump works excellent.
But not in Burkina Faso! Cotton strip bought in Burkina is not strong enough and too expensive. We find out about the shortcomings of an other Appropriate Technology design, a chain pump. Contrary to our expectations we find at the local market plastic rope and PVC-pipe for a locally affordable price . Out of these three experiences the rope pump comes into being.
The sprocket of the chain pump is replaced by a pulley made out of a discarded car tire. Instead of a cotton belt or a chain, we use again a rope. Instead of pulling up scoops, we attach rubber disks to the rope. Cranking the wheel makes the rubber disks shift the water upwards. Everyone is amazed that such a basic setup works so light and delivers so much water. Effective use of cheap modern materials resulted in this durable construction at a locally affordable price.
Application on Java. The idea is successful. A student organization spreads the idea of rope pomp in Java. We find that some details need improvement. The pump axle can -- and-- is not always possible. A farmer takes the initiative to make wheel and construction wholly from wood.
A colleague developers' worker introduces the Rope pump in Nicaragua. The Rope pump is well received. People can afford the cost and can install the pump without special tools in bore holes up to 80 meters depth. At present there are over 100.000 rope pumps in use.
A program in Thailand. Thai farmers are efficient wood workers. They consider a rough wooden setup sufficient. The women take care of the installation of the pump and its maintenance. What is striking is the speed with which the pump is copied after introduction.
Although the number of one hundred thousand water pumps at present in service of the poor indicate a successful approach, many millions more of such water pumps are needed. At Demotech ongoing research is directed at
- getting better functionality out of a reduced set of information and
- multiplying the speed of introduction of this improved set of information. As a construction manual, this set of information has to be tested and actively introduced to representatives of people in need. Modern media as video with DVD players are cheap and effective compared to development instructors. On Internet, modern text layout formats as pdf's assist the spread of printed material directly to the user.
Participation and feedback for the further development of the rope pump is invited in an "Open Source" approach of information sharing.
Can designers make a break through?
Designers have the task to contribute to change and development, but then in the modern world. They have been trained for that work. Work for industry and fashion provide them with experience. When the designer wants to contribute to Technology within Poverty, training is needed to get connected mentally and associatively.
Nevertheless the design process differs little. It is harder though and takes more time.
One is bothered by prejudices, it is difficult to fight one's way out of the usual. It takes time to develop a package of basic-tricks, which serve as standard building stone for design or design approach.
It is necessary to let go of the idea of fixing the idea in one phase. It's place is taken by a quick follow-up of the two-unity of idea forming and prototype building. On concrete execution, the idea appears to be only partly executable. At that very moment however praxis shows what adjustments are possible.
But this is only visible for the team or the person who has chosen the idea from a fog of many vague ideas. Task-splitting between idea-forming people and those who do the prototype-building destroys the possibility to change a basic idea in this way. That's why the design-process then halts.
With the integrated task, the designer is flooded with new possibilities that meet the criteria better and better.
The selection, the assessment, and through-development of these new possibilities form most of the work.
- Make sure to create a "self-maintaining system", that fits in what is now reality within poverty.
- Make sure new facilities are affordable. What is asked is more than the 1:5 reduction from the Brundtland report. (WG ED 1987). It is at least 1:20, the demand for sustainable technology. (1:10 to 1:50 according to the Dutch 'Raad voor Milieu en Natuuronderzoek' in 1992). For half of the world's population even higher, 1 :100, because that is the cost level of current technology-within-poverty in relation to the cost level of modern technology.
- An explosive increase is needed in the speed of development and gained results, to overtake the increasing growth of poverty.
- The functionality of new designs should be better or no less than comparable to what serves the same goal now.
- External assistance consists out of instruction and assisting with the local adjustment of the design. Additional financial aid proves to be counter productive. Further distribution goes on its own strength.
- Product development profits from information where (ever) made available. Information is free at Internet and spreads where people meet in person.
- Many designers may work independently on the same assignment, but make sure they exchange new information.
The first 3 guide lines exclude all the usual, but give full freedom to do it differently. This freedom is not little. No marketing, no need for styling, no distributing costs, no overhead as each small (mostly informal) production unit takes care of its own business. What indicates the quality of the designs is: do people copy the idea after the first introduction, do they keep using it and do others take over the idea for their own use?.
Mutual benefit from interaction between technology as applied in the imformal sector and in modern industry
For spreading practical knowledge Internet came into existence. From there infomration can spread via market place, tea house and pub. Then the start of industry or the traditional industry as concerns application of knowledge will soon decrease. When for manufacturing their will neither be special machines necessary, traditional production will be superior.
This is also an example of the rope-pump; although ten times cheaper, the rope pump has become superior by information-development to each factory-pump with a similar function. Someone has to pay the designer. It's likely that the government of farmers' organisations or consumers' organisation assign to modern technology available for small-scaled connections. Then amazingly efficient units can arise that are extremely economic with material, energy and labour.
It looks like the process of development of practical knowledge from interaction between- and industry is an autonomous, self-quickening and self-strengthening process.
Provisions for basic needs are the field of-and do-it-yourself activities. An innovative approach in this field will inspire the industry, because of which bulk products and high technology products can be manufactured much more efficient.
The exponential growth of poverty and environmental waste can now be overtaken by a quicker growth line of more efficient and economic use. With that a solution comes in sight for the economical and technical aspects of poverty and environmental degradation.
This article was originally written by Reinder van Tijen for the periodical "Vormberichten" of the Dutch Union of Designers, BNO in 1993 and re-edited in 2005. Last review 02/11/07