The Death of Appropriate Technology I : If you can’t sell it don’t do it

by Paul Polak

The appropriate technology movement died peacefully in its sleep ten years ago. Launched in 1973 by Fritz

Fritz Schumacher

Schumacher and his lovely book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered in 1973, it inspired politicians as different as Pat Brown in California and Jawarhal Nehru in India, thousands of middle-aged dreamers like me and millions of people from all walks of life around the world.

What happened? How could such an inspiring movement with deep spiritual meaning have produced so little in the way of practical impact?

The appropriate technology movement died because it was led by well-intentioned tinkerers instead of hard-nosed entrepreneurs designing for the market.

Twenty years ago, I sat on a plane next to a young engineer who was very excited about a tool carrier he was designing for poor farmers to use in Africa.

“I’ve designed a new agricultural tool that turns three tools into one: a plow, a cultivator, and a cart,” he said. “You simply bolt the one you need onto a universal I call a tool carrier”

“Thats very exciting” I said. “How much does it cost?”

ITDG’s Beautiful Glowstar Solar Lantern originally designed for Africa- its current price starts at $110, far too much for African Villages

“I have no idea,” he said.

“But that’s an interesting question. I’ll have to give it some thought.”

I knew right away that his project was doomed to fail. If you don’t design to realistic customer-derived price points from the very beginning, any tool you design for a poor customer will never be adopted at scale.

The failure of the widely publicized African Tool Carrier Project several years later has now been fully documented. It cost far too much to be affordable to small African farmers and it relied heavily on donor subsidies for distribution. It eventually died after wasting millions of dollars.

Sadly, far too many of the tools developed by the appropriate technology movement are far too expensive to be affordable to the customers for whom they are intended.

It bears repeating: the appropriate technology movement died because it was led by well-intentioned tinkerers instead of hard-nosed entrepreneurs designing for the market.

With its passing, thousands of technically effective, often outrageously expensive tools lie gathering dust on the shelf

ATI’s Manual Sunflower Oil Press for Africa, $110 to $200+- It did the job but was too expensive, and more affordable presses took over much of the market

along with the pamphlets, articles and books that describe them and large numbers of appropriate technology journals, books, catalogues and more recently web sites.

As far as I know, only a handful of tools designed by the appropriate technology movement ended up in the hands of more than 10,000 people who need them.

Not surprisingly, many of the organizations that sprang up all over the world inspired by Fritz Schumacher have now either closed their doors or are barely able to keep their heads above water. Buttressed by contributions from a healthy mailing list of admirers of Small is Beautiful – the English appropriate technology organization founded by Schumacher – is still going strong. Presciently, it changed its name from the rather stogy Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) to Practical Action, the virtual absence of which doomed its sister organizations. But most other appropriate technology organizations have not fared so well. Faced with plummeting support from donors disillusioned by scant practical impact, the appropriate technology organizations in Germany GATE, (German Appropriate Technology Exchange) and Holland (TOOL) simply stopped operating. In the U.S., Appropriate Technology International (now EnterpriseWorks Worldwide/VITA) lost its funding from Congress and is a shadow of its former self.

DLight Kiran Solar Lantern now selling for $!0-13 in India

But new movements for the design of technology for the poor are emerging from the ashes. A new generation of designers is creating tools and strategies that release market forces to achieve impact and scale in initiatives to end poverty.

The Cooper Hewitt travelling exhibit, called Design for the Other 90%, showcases some of these new designs and university courses like Jim Patell’s Design for Extreme Affordability at Stanford and Amy Smith’s D-Lab at MIT are beginning to teach it.

What is required to address what went wrong in the appropriate technology movement is nothing less than a revolution in the teaching and practice of design, focused on market-driven methods to meet the needs of the 90% of the world’s customers bypassed by current designers and international businesses. The ruthless pursuit of affordability is an essential component of this design revolution, which in many ways stands on the shoulders of the appropriate technology movement. Most importantly, to be successful, the revolution in design for the other 90% has to develop disciplined ways to design for the market.

IDE’s Treadle Pump Retails for $25 US Including Installed Tubewell. More than 2.5 Million Sold (2)

Paul on Design For the Market


How to make charcoal briquettes from agricultural waste Amy Smith

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Comments

  1. Jawaharlal Nehru died in 1964, nine years before the beginning of the appropriate technology movement as you have dated it.

    In addition, Nehru is remembered in India in particular for his fascination for “big technology”: he was a staunch proponent of industrialisation and called mega-dams the new temples of India.

    If anyone is known in India to propagate what could be called “appropriate technology”, it is probably Gandhi (Nehru and he had massive disagreements on this). Of course Gandhi died in 1948.

    • Hi Anja

      Thank you for commenting

      Actually, while Small is Beautiful was published in 1973, Fritz Schumacher was working on his intermediate technology approach long before his book was published.

      For example, see the following quote from http://www.unm.edu/~varma/print/BSTS_Schumacher.pdf

      ” In 1961, J. L. Nehru, the first prime minister of
      India, invited Schumacher to be a part of the planning
      commission. Schumacher recommended “intermediate
      technology” to the Indian planning commission,
      which was welcomed but not put into place.”

      Schumacher and Nehru enjoyed long philosophical discussions together. Surprisingly, Schumacher disagreed with many of Ghandi’s views on technology

      Paul Polak

  2. Last Friday, I approved a comment asking for more information about the Intermediate Technology Group to Practical Action, however, the comment seems to be lost in the WordPress approval world. So, to try to help answer this question, here is a link to the Practical Action Website http://practicalaction.org/. There is a nice history found on this site about the early days of ITDG which can be found here: http://practicalaction.org/about-us/history. My apologies for the confusion. Please let us know if this answers your question.

  3. I can see how market led products make sense.

    I don’t know much about the AT movement. From what I know though I got the impression that some of these technologies were designed for local production (or were techniques rather than products?) which to me would appear to be the best solution, particularly considering the way that markets have been behaving lately!

  4. I bought this DLight Kiran Solar Lantern in one of my work travels there…it’s a very interesting tool.

  5. the second vid is absolutely amazing – technology without technology!

  6. paul, can you give me your email-id please ?
    i wish to exchange a few notes about A.T/I.T

    I live in Delhi/India

    surya/26-5-2012

  7. Hi Paul. Thanks for your great blog and inspiring career.
    Following your posts above I have written a short piece based on the growing opportunities for matching Chinese manufacturers with poor markets. I would also be interested in your comments on my critical piece regarding recent trends with carbon credits and water projects (continue scrolling down the blog).
    http://www.tanzaniawater.blogspot.com and our organisation http://www.msabi.org.

  8. Thanks Paul! This is really interesting! I encountered your blog when I was searching something on Wikipedia about “appropriate technology”……you are there!!! Congrats and thanks for opening my eyes on BUSINESS-based approach for ending POVERTY. I will be glad if the readers of this blog will also visit the below website that suggests that we can support people at the “bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid” WITH “DONATIONS”!!! Consider this KIVA’s bright initiative: http://tahudefoundation.org/Renewable%20Energy.html

  9. …………Sorry!
    I made a typo error in the about post! I mean we can support people “WITHOUT DONATIONS” – based, for example, on KIVA’s approach: http://tahudefoundation.org/Renewable%20Energy.html

  10. Prachi Joshi says:

    The author has written about AT without defining or explaining what AT is.
    In the article, there are a few cases where AT was not successful. Before making any BOLD or STRONG comments about the AT, a clever and logical approach might be to analyze (qualitatively and quantitatively) a large sample of AT-cases. How many AT-cases were failures, how many were success-stories?
    Ar all market-based approaches good or successful? What is data telling you (statistics)?
    There is a need of unbiased and rigorous research in this field before drawing any bold conclusions.

  11. I very rarely discuss these articles, but I thought this on deserved a thumb up

  12. Hi, great suggestion and an interesting article,
    it will be exciting if this is still the case in a few
    years time

  13. Extremely fascinating article

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