Stories About Appropriate Technology

Let us briefly describe first what appropriate technology (AT) is. It is technology that has been designed with special consideration to the environmental, ethical, cultural, social and economical aspects of the community it is intended for. Typically, it required fewer resources, is easier to maintain, has a lower overall cost and less of an impact on the environment, compared to industrialized practices (from This definition implies the design of experts in research departments, but some people, -mostly in the Third World- can invent, create and contribute to this technological concept much more than experts do. That is because they understand their needs, they deal with them everyday and know exactly how to prioritize them, at least in the small scale at the local level.
When I was reading Robert C. Wicklein’s conference about Appropriate Technologies (see reference below) I remembered a conversation that I had with my friend and colleague architect Rodolfo Rotondaro, a couple of years ago.
Wicklein makes a list of criteria to judge appropriate technology. Item 2 is “Image of Modernity”, he refers to the citizens of many developing and industrialized countries who, in his criteria, want to perceive themselves as modern and progressive. And he follows “There is an innate desire within most of humankind to feel important and be perceived as worthwhile. It follows, therefore, that an image of being modern is important to the success of any technology”. It looks to me that he mentions item 2 as a sinequanon condition for AT.
Coming back to my conversation with Rodolfo, who is an expert in earthen architecture, he told me that he has seen a very interesting case in the North of Argentina, of a wino living alone (he said “borrachin”) whose main technology in the solitude of the arid North was his own bottles. He had developed a kind of structural system of connection between the walls (I believe they were mud walls) and the wood roof rafters in his shack dwelling using the bottles in a horizontal position, one next to the other. Architect researchers proved that his solution was great, specially for thermal insulation. Then, he explained to me that in some cases, the government provide houses “chalet” style to the indigenous people in the North, what he saw as very inappropriate, people felt uncomfortable in the new dwellings, they kept on living in their old impoverished dwellings and rented the “chalets” to other neighbors. As we can see, the image of “modernity” is not an universal condition.
The technology and cultural critic Neil Postman stated that new technology tends to favor some groups of people and harms other groups, statement that I find applicable to Rodolfo’s story about “chalets”: the government gained in politic propaganda, but people were not really helped in their needs.
“Tire building is an alternative construction technique that uses discarded tires and dirt as building materials. The tires are filled with dirt found on the property and then stacked to form walls” from…/rammedearthhouse.php
Tire house.…/rammedearthhouse.php
Cultural attributes play a substantial role in providing human satisfaction of needs. The appropriate technology has to be also adequate for people’s culture, knowledge, and most important, they have to accept it!.
I have another culture related story, this time coming from architect Victor Pelli (Cesar’s brother) in a course at Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urbanism of Buenos Aires. He was showing slides to a large public of architects, of interesting wooden structures for domes that his group had thought would be the appropriate technology for roofs in some houses in El Chaco, Argentina. He told us his group built one as a test, there was no technical issue, and (as far as I remember), they prepared more domes structures and left the inhabitants to continue. The inhabitants not only despised the domes, but also dismanteled the ones ready to be located on the houses. When a perplexed Victor asked the reason of this behavior, local inhabitants said they thought these domes had the shape of “feminine breasts” (Well, maybe they did not use these literal words…). The story was terribly funny for us, the listeners, but it was an excellent lesson and I will never forget the moral.
“The first idea is that all technological change is a trade-off. I like to call it a Faustian bargain. Technology giveth and technology taketh away. This means that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage. The disadvantage may exceed in importance the advantage, or the advantage may well be worth the cost.” (Neil Postman: Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change)
Floating classroom in Entre Rios, North of Argentina. Designed for flooded areas, to attend the necessities of children that could not go to school due to floods. Isn’t it a case of appropriate technology, though they are not trying to be modern? Web download
Clifford, Michael J. Appropriate Technology: The Poetry of Science. In Science and Christian Belief, Vol 17, No1. 2005
Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology, New York: Vintage Books (1993).
Wicklein, Robert C. Design Criteria for Sustainable Development in Appropriate Technology: Technology as if People Matter. The University of Georgia, USA.
Neil Postman online articles

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