JOHN F. KENNEDY once said, “Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners, and necessity has made us allies. Those whom God has so joined together, let no man put asunder.” The world we live in is a world lived together. Yet, not everyone lives the same life. There are the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, and the literate and the illiterate. Some ride in a Mercedes-Benz, while some cannot afford a car. Some get the new iPhone 5, while some do not even know what it is. Appropriate technology is made for the latter. It pursues development for the whole of mankind. It aims to design a world that is truly lived together.
Technology with the face of humanity
Nicholas George Carr, a renowned futurologist, once stated that the cost humanity has paid for gaining technological power is “isolation.” Of 7 billion dwellers on Earth, 1 billion do not have access to modern technology. While people on the other side of the world are showered with cutting-edge technology that surpasses their imagination, these 1 billion are deprived of the basic technology necessary for living. What good is a Mercedes-Benz to them? What good is a high-tech digital camera? Not everyone, not every environment is ready for high technology. The poorest and excluded 1 billion need technology applicable to their own specific environments.
What is, then, a desirable application of technology for the isolated? According to Kim Chan-jung (Founder and CEO, Sharing and Technology, Inc.) and Kim Jung-tae (Secretary General, Appropriate Technology Future Forum), the answer is appropriate technology. Appropriate technology employs the right knowledge, skills and materials specific for the receiver, be it a group of people or an environment. This way, people who have been up until now alienated from the influence of modern technology are given new attention and opportunities to experience what technology can offer in their lives.
The New Alchemy Institute and Farallons Institute, two institutions based in the United States that research and practice appropriate technology, have agreed on five qualities appropriate technology should be defined by. It should be affordable, easy to use and to repair if it is broken, applicable for small groups of people, creative, and lastly, eco-friendly. Solar Aid, invented by Godisa Technologies of Botswana in 2003, is an example that satisfies all five qualities. It is a hearing aid that employs solar energy to charge its battery. Currently used in Latin America, Africa and Asia, Solar Aid is popular mostly because of its affordability. Usually, what makes hearing aids unaffordable is the cost of charging the batteries. Solar Aid is designed to be simple enough for children with hearing problems to be able to wear to school. It is applicable for specific regions and groups of people. It is not a universally used hearing aid, but it is applicable for people who need it. The idea of using solar energy is original, and it is eco-friendly because it reduces the amount of batteries thrown away and the electricity consumption used in charging them.
Barriers on the way
The products designed by appropriate technology are the evidence that prove to us how powerful and helpful appropriate technology can be. Yet, although it has benefited thousands of people around the globe, appropriate technology is not without difficulties. To list a few of these problems: appropriate technology is not financially profitable for those who actually have the power to achieve it. People agree with the changes appropriate technology can bring; yet, the reality tells them that it is doubtful that companies or even governments would invest money in projects related to appropriate technology.
For instance, what brings benefits for Samsung is not technology that can solve agrarian problems in the countryside. What benefits designers is not designs for products like Solar Aid and Life Straw (a straw that directly filters water through several filtering processes), but a design for a high-price suitcase that would sell for thousands of dollars. Because the purpose of appropriate technology is to benefit those who are outside of the influence of cutting-edge technology, it may not seem ideal for those who benefit from the current development of technology. Hence, appropriate technology is often seen as more idealistic than realistic.
The right decision
Yet, just because there are barriers does not mean that appropriate technology should not be pursued. The key lies in using the proper and right technology to help those cut off from cutting-edge technology. In fact, there are many areas that await the help of appropriate technology and design. It is true that many examples of the receivers are in developing world countries, but there are also many around us here in Korea.
Take Seoul as an example. What’s visible of Seoul is a façade of modern splendor; hidden are the endless rows of slums called *Jjokbang* or *Daldongnae*. As development projects have been poured into the city, the original dwellings of laborers, senior citizens, and many more suffering in poverty were driven to the very corners of Seoul. People do not want to live near the slums because of their visual unattractiveness and pungent odor in the summer. They are not easily seen, yet their existence is undeniable. Appropriate technology and design are for this kind of problem: country-specific and environment-specific. To design a village that will benefit both the people living in the slum area and those outside the village is homework yet to be done. Building apartments will not help solve the problem, because people living in slums cannot afford these. Inexpensive, efficient, visually engaging and permanent housing options should be devised. For example, using solar energy as the energy source, building solid houses with eco-friendly and yet inexpensive materials, accommodating several families in a big house and creating visual unity by using a few colors are a number of possible methods that could be adopted.
Appropriate technology can change not only the housing environment for the slum areas in Seoul but also many different fields, such as agrarian development, education systems for schools in the countryside, and accommodation for the elderly. The right attention for the right people and environments is the key.
A world made beautiful by all
Although a very recently introduced concept in Korea, there are many established organizations and institutions that support and apply appropriate technology. Examples include Sharing and Technology, Inc., Energy Farm, Team and Team, and Hanbat University Appropriate Technology Research Center. Just as is necessary to achieve any major change, the change that people who design products and projects based on appropriate technology pursue is one that requires cooperation. There are appropriate technology forums organized by Appropriate Technology Future Forum and many other organizations, including the ones mentioned above.
Worldwide, the potential receivers of appropriate technology amount to 0.4 billion, according to C.K. Prahalad (Prof., Stephen M. Ross School of Business, Univ. of Michigan). They are called Bottom of Pyramids, the poorest group of people around the globe. Appropriate technology is not only necessary but also inevitable. Cutting-edge technology, according to “Design for the Other 90%” by the Smithsonian Institution, benefits the top 10% of the population on Earth but does not benefit the other 90%. Appropriate technology does not demand that technological development should come to a stop; rather, it calls for the use of technology appropriate for each receiver, so that all people can benefit from technological development. Baby steps, including awareness and education about appropriate technology and design, will lead to greater steps that will eventually resolve social problems.
* * *
“The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, and all forms of human life,” said John F. Kennedy in his new year’s speech in 1960. We are the living witnesses of the power of technology that can change people’s lives. Technology has the power strong enough to end poverty, but the same power can also destroy people’s lives. Renowned inventor and futurologist Ray Kurzweil once stated that technology, at some point in the near future, will be out of people’s control. Before that point comes, people should make the right decisions. It may be impossible to design a society where no person is isolated; but it is possible to design one where people grow together. The growth may be slow, but it will be warm.
* Appropriate technology in Reality
Appropriate technology and design is used in various fields to solve problems, especially those relating to drinking water, energy, health, education and housing/environment. The following are examples of each.
1. (Drinking water)- Q Drum
In many third world countries, women and children travel several kilometers to get drinkable water. Because there are limits to their physical strength, there is only so much water they can carry at one time. Also, the weight of the water usually results in health problems caused by strains on the carriers’ necks, backs and waists. Q Drums were invented by the Hendrix brothers of South Africa in 1993 to solve this problem. In the device, there is a strong rope that goes through a doughnut-like water container made of plastic. With this container, even a child can carry 50 liters of water by pulling the string. It expands the amount that can be carried manually by a factor of five. It is made of Low-density polyethylene (LDPE), so that it can last for 15 years. It is mostly used in Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania.
2. (Energy)- G-saver
Created by Lee Man-gap in 2010, G-saver was originally devised to strengthen greatly the maintenance of heat from the traditional stoves in Mongolia. Many Mongolians suffer under extreme cold because they live in traditional yurts made of wool and fabric. Containing elvan, mud, and oxidized steel, the alloy box is of a 20-liter size. When put on a stove, it reduces heat consumption by up to 40% and increases the average temperature of the room to about 5-10 degrees. Currently, an NGO called Good Neighbors is constructing a G-saver factory in Mongolia that will be able to produce 10,000 to 20,000 G-savers each year.
3. (Health)- PermaNet
PermaNet is a net which not only wards off mosquitoes, but also acts as an insecticide. It can be used for four years and can be washed more than 20 times. This product was recommended by the WHO in 2007 to prevent Malaria. It was devised by Vestergaard Frandsen in 2000 and is made of polyester. The PermaNet is used widely around the globe, especially in Bolivia, Ecuador, Haiti, Guatemala, Vietnam, the Philippines, North Korea and Sudan.
4. (Education)- Kinkajou Microfilm Projector
This projector is designed for people who study late at night, especially in regions where there is no electricity. Created by Design that Matters, MIT professors and students, in 2004, it is solid in its material and inexpensive. This portable kit has an effective LED that has the ability to store microfilm. It can be used anywhere, and it draws solar energy for power. It is mostly used in Mali, Bangladesh and India.
5. (Housing/Environment)- Money Maker Block Press
Devised by Kick Start in 1968, Money Maker Block Press is a block maker that effectively produces blocks made of soil. This makes the block making process easy and simple; 5-8 people can produce around 400-800 blocks each day by using this press. It presses a little bit of soil and cement together. Dried for around ten days, strong and durable construction blocks are made. The size of the block and the strength of the press can be adjusted, so people can make blocks for each specific use. They are mainly used in the Republic of Congo, Kenya, and many East African countries.