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Technology for Ten 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 day be a quiet one?
Ecologically it seems impossible -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? Could the core of the solution lay in the development of "Technology within Poverty", meaning the present technological base used by these people? Meaning what we encounter when we visit a shanty town, their workshops under tin roofs?

Recognize this: 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. These ideas are present in the works of Victor Papanek and Ernest Friedrich Schumacher.

But what about the low effectivity of 'Technology within Poverty', as compared to Western technology? Technology within Poverty with its roots in traditional crafts, presently lacks institutions to support its further development. Neither the rich or the poor expect or believe that a further development is possible. The existence of such a Technology within Poverty is not even recognised or is denied as not relevant, apart from a very few cases described later.

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 is the characteristic difference with capital-intensive modern technology. And, this difference gives 'Technology within Poverty' the potential to develop into a new generation of technology. By learning to harness technologies requiring neither capital nor infrastructure, sustainability can be attained at a very fast pace. This new paradigm would be analogous to information technology both in its swiftness of development and its small need for capital.

People in impoverished situations do not survive by government support, or by foreign aid, but with this technology. The efficiencies and advantages of 'Technology within Poverty' are waiting to be harnessed as a model for a sustainable technology. 'Technology within Poverty' as a guide for environmental survival

As above stated, the world is faced with the challenges of depletion of resoures, exponential population growth, and environmental damage. This situation threatens our standard of living in both the short and long term. How can “Technology within Poverty” as it has been identified be used as a method towards answering these challenges? As a start, technology within poverty has three clear advantages over modern technology:

  • it is immediately applicable as it is based on tricks, and not on stuff.
  • it is fundamentally environmental friendly, as there are no resources used, and thus no waste.
  • The transfer of information is a part of daily life.

These advantages have already been recognized and tested by a small body researchers. These people, overcoming the cultural biases, have drawn very interesting ideas into practice in poor as well in rich countries. They continue to make headway in the field of informal technology, as shown by this list of 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 Neighbours' 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 practises and results in extreme high crop yields, but without pesticides, irrigation and artificial fertilizer.
    His research resulted in "Do nothing farming" as described in his book "The One Straw Revolution".
  • A million copies are sold of the book "When 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 has 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.
  • Scientists at Switzerland’s Federal Institute for Environmental Science and Technology have been promoting a cheap solution to the WHO fears for over a decade.
    Solar water disinfection, or Sodis, is already in use in 20 countries, and is a cheap alternative to expensive water purification systems.
    People can clean water in clear plastic bottles, simply by filling them up, shaking them and then leaving them in the sun for at least six hours, if possible on a sheet of corrugated iron or a roof.
    The radiation from sunlight and the increased temperature of the water are enough to kill many forms of bacteria and viruses.
  • Demotech’s rope pump design, copied over two hundred thousand times, is another example of the use of such technology. To view the history and future prospects of this project, go to: RopePump.

It is important to emphasize that these examples are not developing Technology within Poverty itself, but instead use it as a TOOL to support meaningful change in today’s world. If this tool is implemented broadly, ten billion people will live more comfortably into their, and your, old age forty years from now. How can that be achieved?

If 'Technology within Poverty' resembles Information Technology, would it then be possible to let it profit from the same rapid development IT has shown?

Yes, the conditions for such a takeoff are available. Such methods have been used before, and current communications technology makes such a paradigm entirely possible. Whether or not such a change will start, is another question entirely. See paper Can Designers Make a Breakthrough for discussion on this issue.

Future peace and prosperity asks for a paradigm shift in technological development. Technology within poverty gives the guidelines of a technology, resembling information technology, that leads to sustainability without compromising standard of living and comfort. If indeed we are to share the world among 10 billion people, then it is up to us to embrace a way of living that makes such sharing not only possible, but attractive.

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Page last modified on January 28, 2010, at 09:10 PM