Appropriate Technology

Imagine, if you would, the world.

There’s a lot out there, and no two parts are quite the same. Each one boasts a unique blend of geography, culture, resources, and so on. There are an indeterminable number of factors that define the regions of our world.

There are also a lot of problems, that’s plain to see. Somewhat more difficult to see, however, are appropriate solutions to these problems. Make no mistake: potential solutions are often abundant for issues in the developing world.

But not all solutions are created equal.

Our topic today concerns Appropriate Technology – its definition, its process, its challenges. Appropriate technology is just that: appropriate. But before diving into what that means, please watch the following video demonstrating AT in action.

At this point, some people might be scratching their heads. The guy put water and bleach in a Pepsi bottle… How does that constitute some amazing technology? Well, that’s the thing with appropriate technology: it’s all relative. Each part of the world has different characteristics, different strengths and weaknesses, which must be accounted for. Would it make more sense to supply this community with lightbulbs? They lack the necessary resources and infrastructure. Likewise, Demi’s solution would be ineffective in an area where nighttime light is needed or where the buildings are multi‑storied.

To aid our comprehension, I requested a little help from Professor Barrett Hazeltine of Brown University. Professor Hazeltine is something of a legend at Brown, having taught engineering and engineering management all over the world, including Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Thailand. On top of that, he’s one of the most cordial people you’re ever likely to meet (for more information, see http://www.engin.brown.edu/people/Faculty/facultypage.php?id=1106970190).

Region specific and environmentally sound, appropriate technology is a solution that is “simple enough to be maintained by the user’s local community.” Hazeltine added that it is set apart by a “concern for the user in many aspects – not just cost.”

Pretty straightforward, right? Well, easier said than done. Tailoring a solution to a region requires a certain familiarity. Take Vort Port International’s recently announced Bamboo Bicycles Project in Uganda. With it, we hope to provide a sustainable, economically feasible transportation solution. For American engineers, this means constant communication with future users. What are the roads like? How much bamboo is available? What is the average family income? They provide the parameters; designers provide the technical know-how and training to make it self-sufficient.

Coming from a first world background, developing an appropriate solution often requires non-conventional thinking. This can often lead to projects not being taken seriously, Hazeltine pointed out. Consider the Bamboo Bicycles Project. One of the challenges we face is demonstrating to investors (and users) that yes, bamboo can be an effective material for bicycle construction in this region and, furthermore, it is a far better solution than supplying metal framed bicycles which locals have no means of manufacturing or repairing.

To develop appropriate technology, one must design beyond basic function. There is a personal element that pervades the entire process. Will this solution work? Will users be able to sustain it indefinitely? It’s a lot of work, but when implemented correctly, the results can change that big, wide world.

This blog post was written by Nicholas Imbriglia, a member of Vort Port International’s India Solar Lamp Team. He currently resides in Washington, DC.

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