Appropriate Technology

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From wikipedia -

“Appropriate technology (AT) is technology that is designed with special consideration to the environmental, ethical, cultural, social and economical aspects of the community it is intended for. With these goals in mind, AT typically requires fewer resources, is easier to maintain, has a lower overall cost and less of an impact on the environment compared to industrialized practices.[1]

In developing nations, the term is usually used to describe simple technologies suitable for use in developing nations or less developed rural areas of industrialized nations. This form of appropriate technology usually prefers labor-intensive solutions over capital-intensive ones, although labor-saving devices are also used where this does not mean high capital or maintenance cost. In industrialized nations, the term appropriate technology often refers to engineering that takes special consideration of its social and environmental ramifications.“

The type of appropriate technology most closely tied to the P2P movement is Open Source Appropriate Technology.

The following table outlines the different schools of appropriate tech it was originally compiled by Mitra Ardron.

School People Notes, Challenges & Critiques
Collapse Peak Oil (usually Western) Marcin Post Carbon Institute Some transitioners
  • Based on idea that oil will run out, and civilisation collapse and we need to be able to survive in a post-industrial world.
  • Graceful collapse is unlikely unless all your neighbour are also thriving
  • Makes things more difficult than need be, because won't rely on external oil, or other resources
  • Might be good for developing world, except may not be designed for price
Customise and Adapt (Developing World & Hobbyist) Steven Lee (x AIDG) Catapult Most hobbyists Mouhsine Serrar & most Stove
  • Based on the idea that technology has to be customized and adapted to cultural and individual needs
  • Tends to rely on a high level of (western) expertise - often voluntary.
  • Doesn't scale to large populations because of shortage of above
  • Doesn't get cost benefits of large volumes because each customised
  • Most effective when focuses on training & enterprise development in developing countries
Base of the Pyramid Paul Polak IDE Martin Fisher - Kickstart
  • Work with the absolute poorest (<$3/day)
  • Solutions optimised for low cost of labor, higher cost of capital
  • Very hard to find solutions that the market can afford, so often rely on subsidies of each unit.
  • Very hard to source investment as hard to make a profit
Scale Mitra - Natural Innovation
  • Focus on innovations that can scale
  • May be open-source or proprietary but must scale without per-unit subsidy.
  • Focus on developing world (low capital cost, higher labor)
  • Look to balance local input with mass production to get costs down
  • Difficult to justify customising each installation
  • May not work in a post-collapse economy.
Western cleantech Cleantech Forum
  • Use VC for large scale solutions for developed world
  • Western technology often doesn't translate well to low capital / high-labor
  • Relies of large government subsidies to balance those given to fossil fuels and nuclear
  • Tends to support large centralised rather than decentralised
  • Decentralised tend to have a high cost of ownership and be based on personal commitment to environment rather than economics.

Within these schools there are also two approaches to licensing which I find are also important. I'm working on a third option (Humanitarian Licenses) which I will write up on another occasion

Open Source Marcin,

Chris Watkins (Appropedia)

  • Makes it easier for people to build for themselves
  • Allows for people to build on each other's design
  • Almost impossible to raise investment, as hard to generate a return.
  • Improvement is incremental because of above
  • Often designs aren't finished to the point where others less technical can use them.
Proprietrary UES


  • Raise investment to develop large improvements to technology
  • Don't allow others to build and adapt on the technology.
Humanitarian Natural Innovation's Humanitarian License
  • Proprietrary in the west, but free license in developing countries.


Two Types of AT: Traditional vs Modern

Alex Jensen:

"Traditional/original AT, based on communal social arrangements, hand-crafted from local, natural materials that cultures have used since centuries mostly for subsistence purposes, satisfies practically all of the principles of deep sustainability. One can think, for example, of traditional collective hand harvesting and processing of crops versus the mechanized harvesting of industrial agribusiness, or the traditional water mill still in common use in villages throughout regions like the Himalayas versus fossil fuel-powered mechanical mills. These traditional mills are constructed of local stone, wood and soil based on ancestral knowledge; communally owned, utilized and repaired; running on non-polluting gravity-fed water; pollution and waste free; operating at relatively slow speeds and low temperatures; and so on. In addition to these attributes – and contra modernist prejudices – traditional tools and crafts are incredibly effective, practical and still relevant today against their high-tech counterparts and replacements, and superior once externalized costs of the latter are accounted for.

What I call modern AT (aka Intermediate Technology) – comprises tools and machines that may use materials from the industrial economy (thus, occasioning some indirect pollution), but otherwise shares many characteristics with traditional AT, especially economic independence, political democracy and social cohesion. Both Gandhi and Illich saw a role for as much industry as necessary to produce, for example, bicycles and manual sewing machines – obviously, with provisos that those industries too should be as small-scale, non-polluting, democratically run etc. as possible; also, some of those industrial materials may be substitutable by biological materials (e.g. bamboo bicycles) and may not therefore necessitate any heavy/intensive industry. Gandhi’s main economic program was for village swadeshi (self-reliance), based on village industries. But he meant something very different by ‘industry’ (e.g., small-scale manual cloth weaving cooperatives such as still exist across much of India), and welcomed “simple tools and instruments and such machinery as saves individual labour and lightens the burden of the millions of cottages”.

Suffice it to say that many modern ATs have been eagerly adopted by traditional cultures, because such technologies graft well onto and enhance the subsistence economy while responding to novel challenges of modernity, and maintaining critical qualities like autonomy and cooperation, even if some of them necessitate entanglement with the cash economy. For example, in Ladakh, such modern ATs as solar cookers and water heaters, rocket stoves, ram pumps, trombe walls and other passive solar building techniques are widespread.

This belies misconceptions of traditional cultures as static and closed; indeed, traditional ATs themselves are the result of centuries of careful refinement and innovation.

Still, the chief disadvantage of both traditional AT and modern AT vis-à-vis modern high-tech is precisely in their non-mystifying nature: less privatized convenience borne of cost-shifting. This lack of ‘convenience’, conventionally conceived, and the physical muscle input required in its use have been the very features of traditional tech long denigrated as backward, and a pretext for colonial intervention and domination. This domination continues, as both traditional and modern ATs are being quickly displaced by industrial products and materials, and traditional cultures are eroded by incorporation into the extractive global economy. This is of particular concern at a time when living examples of AT and sustainable modes of social organization are so desperately needed as lighthouses by which to navigate the downscaling of industrial society. A major challenge is saving and reviving them before they disappear, for, as Illich once remarked, the great advantage of a place like rural Guatemala or India is “still being muscle-powered enough to stop short of an energy stroke” of the sort suffered by the over-developed societies.

Isn’t a reversion to simpler, manually-powered AT impractical because of the exertion and labor required? Isn’t praise of traditional AT mere romanticization? To these common objections, one need only recognize the fact that the obsessive pursuit of convenience through mechanization and automation under the banner of technological progress has produced not well-being, but contributed instead to epidemics of both physical and mental illth for individuals, to say nothing of social problems like unemployment, and ecological devastation. The very things we are coming to realize as essential to good health – movement and exercise, social connection and connection to nature, control over our own lives, etc. – are the very conditions being undermined by over-dependence on industrial technologies and the technological paradigm.

Conversely, manual labor using AT, when done cooperatively in groups (thus preventing the labor from becoming onerous for any one person) and in conditions of economic security – conduces to health precisely because of its relative lack of ‘conveniences’, facilitating reasonable and necessary bodily exertion and movement, connection to nature, and alleviation of loneliness.These are the qualities characterizing traditional AT, and in this way ‘traditional’ cultures point the way to a more sustainable and healthier future, if we can accept the lesson.

The modern AT movement, intermeshed with the degrowth movement, is doing exactly this sort of ‘reverse development’, re-peasantization and deliberate in-conveniencing, motivated both by ethical objections to the socialized harms of high-tech, and by practical ones of independence and autonomy, especially from centralized energy grids and fossil fuel oligarchies. The less-visible but more durable advantages – personal, social and ecological – of AT are proving resilient against the hegemony of the dominant system. Some outstanding examples include: L’Atelier Paysan, a French cooperative that works with farmers to design machines and buildings appropriate to the unique needs of small-scale agroecology, in the pursuit of “technological sovereignty”; Maya Pedal in Guatemala, a social enterprise building pedal-powered non-electric bicycle machines for numerous practical household and small farm applications; and Can Decreix, a center for putting degrowth principles into practice, based on low- or no-tech living in France; among many others.

Beyond tools, movements working to rebuild community and decommodify life through projects of sharing and repairing are also pointing the way towards a ‘social AT’: repair cafes, remakeries, tool-lending libraries, and reskilling hubs. Movements politically resisting corporate practices of ‘planned obsolescence’ and criminalization of repair are also important elements of the broader AT shift, as are those focused not on ever more innovation, but rather ‘exnovation’ to dismantle harmful technologies and technological systems that are incompatible with eco-socially just futures."



In Conclusion, by Alex Jensen:

"There is no AT in traditional cultures independent of traditional community-based social arrangements: reciprocal labor sharing and care, mutual aid, and the like. The two are mutually constitutive. Just as sustainability cannot be achieved merely by adding renewable electricity technologies to an otherwise unchanged consumerist-industrial growth economy, neither can AT in isolation make significant impact situated within an otherwise congenitally unsustainable system. Part of the essence of AT emerges from, in and for community life. Unsustainable substitutions are often ushered in on the wake of community disintegration, and cause further such disintegration in turn, because by nature they obviate the community element, privatize the use and shift dependence to global industrial supply chains. AT is therefore not just a matter of tools and artifacts, but requires supportive social and political-economic conditions. For AT to thrive will require transcendence of globalization and capitalism-industrialism and a return towards smaller-scale, more localized, sufficiency economies, and AT will be necessary to enable such economies in turn.

As the dominant techno-industrial system drives the planet over the precipice of ecological catastrophe, and deepens social maladies of alienation (from our own labor, ourselves, other people and nature), the need to downscale, decentralize and de-grow the economy becomes ever more apparent and urgent. The ‘original AT’ of traditional cultures and its contemporary applications and modifications offer important contributions to this pressing task of subordinating the economy and its technologies to social and ecological survival."


More Information

Appropedia (homepage) is an appropriate technology wiki with lots of useful documentation on low-tech and sustainable solutions. See the [ Appropriate Technology Portal.

See Also