Thursday, March 31, 2011By Steven H. VanderLeest
Engineering products so that the technology is a good fit for the customer is good business practice and wise design. The field of “Appropriate Technology” has a particular focus on this fit, especially for customers in developing countries where high-tech might not be the best solution.
Technology is a cultural artifact – that is the creation and introduction of technology into a society is a cultural activity that extends the existing culture. The new culture introduced by novel technologies can also be a culture destroyer as it displaces older technologies (and thus displaces existing culture). For example, certain social activities revolving around family dinnertime together began to disappear or erode with the introduction of the microwave oven, which made it easier to prepare meals on an individual rather than family basis. Certain social activities revolving around telephone landlines have started to disappear with the advent and subsequent ubiquitous use of cell phones – one no longer calls the family home and asks for the individual; one calls the individual directly (and thus misses the serendipitous opening conversation with other members of the family).
Appropriate technology requires the engineer to consider the stakeholders carefully, ensuring that introduction of the new technology does not disrupt their way of life. Technologies are evaluated to avoid products that potentially break down societal structures, erode community values, or shift societal values. Western world thinking tends to fix most problems with technology – even problems caused by technology. Appropriate technology does not throw out technology altogether in response, but rather takes a more cautious view, focusing on the simplest way to solve a problem, one that fits best in the community where it will be introduced. So use of local materials is preferred over far-flung supplies that must be shipped in. Tools that aid local labor are preferred over those that replace human labor. Products that work on their own are preferred over those that require an extensive support infrastructure.
This is not to say that appropriate technology cannot ever be high-tech or cutting edge. Consider that in many developing countries, such as Bangladesh, the communities have completely skipped over landline telephone communication infrastructure and have rapidly adopted cell phone communication. Unlike western societies where every individual has a mobile phone, in many cases businesses have sprung up that have one phone for a village that is rented out inexpensively to anyone in the community that wishes to make a call.
In our senior engineering design project course at Calvin, we ask students to consider the design norm of “cultural appropriateness” as one of their guiding principles. In many cases this leads teams designing for foreign locations to rather different designs than if they simply developed the product as if it would be fielded in the US. Cultural alignment is just one of many norms that can guide technology development. Check out some of my earlier blogs on norms such as humility, transparency, or justice.