Silent collaboration: low tech is also awesome


After those words of appreciation for tech, here’s a nice balance. It’s high tech by 20th century standards, but text chat is pretty basic tech in 2012.

In Collaborating in Virtual Silence, our friends at the Post Growth Institute describe their silent online meetings, held at least once per month. The meetings are held on Skype, but exchanges are typed, not spoken.

Having typed meetings makes our lives easier when it comes to transmitting information amongst the group. With an agenda already established via email, each of us bring pre-typed, dot-point updates and discussion items to meetings. This saves a great deal of time as pre-written text can be inserted quickly by copying and pasting…

Silent Skype eases the processes of decision-making and establishing next steps. Throughout the Skype chat we have a practice of typing ‘ACTION ITEM’ and ‘KEY RESOLUTION’ in capital letters as a way of noting these important moments…

silent Skype (is) a more viable method for people living and working in areas with slow Internet connections.

In a world of overwhelming noise, could silence be more powerful than we ever realized?

More benefits are described at the original post – worth reading if you have online meetings to run.

E.F. Schumacher would approve – they’ve chosen the appropriate tech for their needs, and in this case it’s not the highest tech available.

Appropriately big?


Appropriate technology is a concept we believe in – it’s really the unifying theme of Appropedia. It’s about understanding the context, and choosing the technology (or technique, design or process) which is most appropriate to that context.

E.F. Schumacher, in Small is Beautiful, also talked about intermediate technology – neither primitive and unproductive, nor high tech and expensive or polluting. But is that the same as appropriate technology?

Having a fixed idea about the “right” scale of the solution or the “right” level of tech is a problem. Small-scale intermediate technologies can be wonderful – especially in remote settings. Other times, there’s a lot to be said for the efficiency of scale, especially the large-scale infrastructure in cities. Doing things at scale means being able to afford expertise, monitoring, and backup systems. And the person living in a compact, walkable city, sharing a (very large) public transit system, getting their water from a (large) water utility and buying green power from their (large) electricity supplier, may have a smaller footprint than someone living close to nature with small-scale solutions, with solar panels and (because they’re so remote) a car. (There’s a big dose of “it depends” in such a comparison.)

Small is beautiful, yes. But let’s not be fixated on small for every solution. I wouldn’t want Appropedia to become solely for DIY enthusiasts building their own home-scale tech. As a living appropriate technology knowledge base, with an active community (including many students) Appropedia can bring together wisdom on many issues – including not only home greywater systems, but also the big infrastructure and planning issues we face. The appropriate approach is to take each approach on its merits, without an ideology favoring big or small scale.

Small is beautiful… but sometimes big is also quite good looking.

Socializing innovation


An experimental site called cross-innovation is exploring innovation in appropriate technology. Founder Jon Minchin asks “How can we improve / augment collaborative innovation online?” I like the question, and these are my thoughts:

To socialize hardware, think about social structure. Communities doing things on the ground are key to the physical activities that people participate in. That’s partly helped by networking – finding out (A) who else is near you who likes the same things as you, and (B) what building and tinkering is going on near you (in case it catches your interest). Uniiverse sounds interesting for that.
It’s also helped by information flow. This is my own focus – the socialized information. I’m hoping we’ll make the most of th possibilities of socialized information, by building a comprehensive library of how-tos, guides, designs and topical info (which is what Appropedia, a wiki for appropriate technology, is about).

I might be that person who only has a hammer and find that everything looks like a nail – but my feeling is that access to quality information, inspiring stories and great designs is actually central to making things happen.

wikiHow delivers (a baby)


Two stories from recent years got me thinking. (If you know the stories, you’re allowed to skip to the last paragraph.)

1. A British father helped his wife give birth at home. He’s not the first, and won’t be the last, but there’s a lot that can go wrong. You really want to get it right, and if you don’t have a midwife or doctor handy, and you (and the woman giving birth) never happened to learn how to deliver a baby, what do you do? Leroy Smith turned to the web, via his mobile phone. He found a wikiHow article, and by following the 10 steps, he did his part well.

2. Surgeon David Nott had a more complex challenge. A hippo had bitten off a boy’s arm, and faced death within days from infection. An amputation of his shoulder blade and collar bone would save him – but the doctor didn’t have any experience of this unusual and complex procedure, and no one he knew in the Democratic Republic of Congo could help. But a colleague in the UK could help – and did so via SMS. In two very long text messages he explained the procedure, and wished Dr Nott luck. The operation – carried out in a basic operating theater, without the equipment and support the doctor would have expected back home in the UK – was a success, and the boy’s life was saved.

In the appropriate technology for solving a problem, the key component is often information. Whether we’re talking about health services or development, the right information can be the difference between a good outcome and a failure.

I’m inspired to see wikiHow used in this way – as I am with the stories I hear of Appropedia being used in the field. It’s also true that making the best use of expert knowledge, as Dr Nott was able to do, supports good outcomes. Combining these ideas – enhancing ways of accessing knowledge, and making available the best knowledge – continue to guide our mission.

Appropedia Kiswahili


Chris Sam, a lawyer and teacher in Tanzania, volunteered to translate Appropedia articles into Swahili – or as it is known to its own speakers, “Kiswahili.” Starting in February this year, he has translated over 50 pages.

More than 50 million people in Africa speak this language – the potential value of translating appropriate technology information and other development resources is clear. Chris shares the progress so far:

I am very happy to announce that Appropedia’s Karibu Appropedia (Welcome to Appropedia) page has hit more than 1000 views. And I am more than happy for the steady growth of our Kiswahili readers. We still need more articles in Kiswahili and what should be put or translated to Kiswahili from you. Kiswahili is spoken in more than ten developing countries, if you have something suitable especially for the developing countries (article or anything that you think belongs to Appropedia) or want your project translated to Kiswahili or you have good Kiswahili content that you think belongs to Appropedia please suggest it here and play your part towards sustainability and richly lives. For Kiswahili help please contact me here or send an email to kiswahili Atsymbol.png appropediaDot.pngorg

‘Nina furaha sana kutangaza kuwa ukurasa wa Karibu Appropedia wa Appropedia umetazamwa zaidi ya mara 1000. Na nina zaidi ya furaha kwa muongezeko wa wasomaji wa Kiswahili. Bado tunahitaji makala za Kiswahili na nini kiwekwe au kitafsiriwe katika Kiswahili toka kwako. Kiswahili kinazungumzwa zaidi ya nchi kumi katika nchi zinazoendelea, kama unakinachofaa na hasa kwa nchi zinazoendelea (makala au chochote kinachofaa Appropedia) au unahitaji mradi wako utafsiriwe kwenda Kiswahili au unayo maudhui mazuri kwa Kiswahili na unadhani yanafaa Appropedia tafadhali orodhesha hapa ili kufanya kazi yako kuelekea uendelevu na maisha ya kitajiri. Kwa msaada wa Kiswahili wasiliana na mimi hapa au tuma barua pepe kwenda kiswahili Atsymbol.png appropediaDot.pngorg

A More Critical Approach to Our Toilets and Technologies


This post comes from Donnie Maclurcan and Andre Radan on the topic of “Ethical Technology,” originally posted at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies:

As with most mainstream technologies, pop culture in the West no doubt views the toilet as a useful invention. Effective in its disposal of human waste, the greatest stink created by this set-diameter bowl is the occasional need for a good scrub or available plumber.

But if we look a little deeper, the toilet proves a prime example for dispelling the dangerous mainstream assumption: that technology is inherently beneficial or, at worst, value-neutral.

As with all technologies, the toilet embodies and carries the biases of the contexts in which it was created. Such bias can extend to matters of history, geography, environment, health, gender, religion and culture.

The toilet’s creators, for example, considered the sitting position culturally superior and more dignified than the ‘primitive’ squatting position. The components of your toilet probably were built by exploited workforces in unhealthy conditions, in multiple workplaces many thousands of miles away. The energy used in your toilet’s production, distribution, and installation resulted in significant greenhouse gas emissions into the earth’s atmosphere.


In its ‘seated’ as opposed to ‘squat’ form, we increase our risk of constipation, bowel disease, and colon cancer and alienate women from a natural posture relevant to birthing. With each flush, prodigious amounts of useful phosphorous in our urine is wasted away. Forests have been cleared for the paper we use when going to the loo. And most toilets can be seen as reinforcing the ideologically-laden notion of ‘white’ as purity.

Yet, despite these subtle, inbuilt biases, the Enlightenment-driven belief in the ideological neutrality of science and its subsequent physical-form manifestations would appear to grow, daily, compounded by our increasing distance from the creation of the technologies we use. Through corporate and government spin, this physical distance is then married with ‘objective’ distance; we are tricked into thinking that technologies can only have negative impacts if they are misused or misappropriated — always by others.

Questioning carbon emissions tied to usage remains the only semblance of a value-based critique. This void feeds ubiquitous user-passivity, undermining attempts to redress broader power inequities because few of us recognise and accept that we can be both fighting for change, yet simultaneously preserving gross inequities through our submission to technocracy.

A more critical approach to technologies means the opportunity to explore and rectify societal bias in its many forms. It is time we take a good, hard look at technologies like our toilet and ask, “What really lies beneath?”

Donnie Maclurcan is an Honorary Research Fellow with the Institute for Nanoscale Technology at the University of Technology, Sydney. He is a passionate advocate for paths to global prosperity that do not rely on economic growth.

Andre Radan holds a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Sydney, where he majored in History. Of particular interest to Andre throughout his life has been the relationship between humankind and our environment. To understand how this relationship impacts and controls the way society has developed and is developing is the driving force through almost all his research.

The text of this post is shared here under our usual CC-by-sa license, with permission of the authors.

Design for the Other Ninety Percent: A Revolution in Design


Paul Polak is a psychiatrist, social entrepreneur, advocate for the poor, and an advocate for doing business with the poor.

He has established businesses, including IDE (International Development Enterprises), to develop practical solutions to poverty by harnessing the power of markets.

By Paul Polak

Ninety percent of the world’s designers spend all their time working on solutions to the problems of the richest 10 percent of the world’s customers. A revolution in design is needed to reverse this silly ratio and reach the other 90 percent. In my book, Out of Poverty, I talk about how this can be done. I pull stories from some of the 17 million people I’ve help lift from poverty with the organization I founded 25 years ago, International Development Enterprises. More recently, we have incorporated an organization called D-Rev: Design for the Other Ninety Percent, whose mission is to create the design revolution.

Transport engineers work to create elegant shapes for modern cars while most of the people in the world dream of being able to buy a used bicycle. As designers make products more stylish, efficient, and durable, prices go up, but people with money are able and willing to pay. In contrast, the poor in developing countries—who outnumber their rich, urban counterparts by twenty to one—have only pennies to spend on hundreds of critical necessities. They are ready to make any reasonable compromise in quality for the sake of affordability, but nothing is available in the marketplace to meet their needs.

The fact that the work of modern designers has almost no impact on most of the people in the world is not lost on those entering the design field. Bernard Amadei, an engineering professor at University of Colorado in Boulder, tells me that engineering students all over the United States and Canada are flocking to take advantage of opportunities made available by organizations such as Engineers Without Borders to work on problems such as designing and building affordable rural water-supply systems in poor countries.

If students can make meaningful contributions to design for poor customers, why does this area continue to be ignored? Is it because it is much more difficult than designing for the rich? I don’t think so.

When I started IDE twenty-five years ago, poverty workers saw multinational corporations as evil oppressors of the poor, and business as the enemy. Now many see them as white knights ready to slay the poverty dragon. But a multinational corporation is inherently neither one of these. It is an organizational structure for doing business. If most multinationals continue to operate the way they do now, the belief that big business will end poverty will remain nothing more than a tantalizing myth. However, if they immerse themselves in the design revolution, viewing poor people as customers will become a profitable reality.

You don’t need a degree in engineering, architecture or business to learn how to talk with and listen to poor people as customers. I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years. The things they need are so simple and so obvious that it is relatively easy to come up with new, income-generating products for which they are happy to pay. But these products have to be cheap enough to be affordable to the poor.

After speaking with poor people, discoveries of critical, affordable products and services that D-Rev: Design for the Other 90%, IDE and a few other organizations are developing. Here are some examples:

  • A global franchise business providing clean water for poor families. Recent development of a simple process creating water-purifying chlorine compounds by running a small electric current through salt water provides an opportunity to generate 5,000 liters of potable water a day, with a retail value in the range of $250, at a franchised kiosk requiring a capital investment in the range of $500, and a daily electricity cost in the range of 30 cents.
  • LED lights to replace kerosene lamps and candles. There are more than a billion people in the world who will never connect to the electric-power grid who would be interested in buying a ten-dollar solar lantern, made possible by advances in light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
  • Motorized rope-and-washer pumps for irrigation. Rope-and-washer pumps provide affordable water-lifting. Because it is difficult to use human power alone to lift the volumes of water required for irrigation, rope-and-washer pumps combined with microdiesel engines have potential to irrigate high-value crops from deeper water sources.
  • Lower-cost wind and solar pumping systems. Photovoltaics and wind energy have been too expensive for small farms, but ways of concentrating solar energy and making more-affordable windmills hold promise for small-acreage farmers.
  • Larger low-cost drip systems with pre-installed emitters. The dramatic drop in price for drip irrigation has made it profitable for small-acreage farmers to use drip systems on lower-value crops such as cotton and sugar cane, and some of them are even irrigating alfalfa for their milk buffaloes. I believe that low-cost drip systems like those developed by IDE will, over the next ten years, take over the majority of the world market for drip irrigation.

There is an even longer list for a range of consumer goods that poor people are eager to buy when they increase their income, and people who earn two to six dollars a day are ready to buy now. This includes the billion or so people who would be customers for two-dollar eyeglasses if somebody would design an effective global distribution and marketing system for them.

Designing products that are attractive to poor customers requires a revolution in the design process. My dream is to implement four initiatives at the same time:

  1. Transform the way design is taught in developed countries, to embrace design for the other 90 percent of the world’s population.
  2. Transform the way design is taught in developing countries, to embrace design for the other 90 percent of the world’s people.
  3. Establish a platform for ten thousand or more of the world’s best designers to develop practical solutions to the real-life problems of poor people.
  4. Give birth to international for-profit companies that profitably mass-market to poor customers critical technologies such as two-dollar eyeglasses.

Thinking of poor people as customers instead of as recipients of charity radically changes the design process. Poor persons won’t invest in a product or service unless the designer knows enough about the preferences of poor people to create something they value. The process of affordable design starts by learning everything there is to learn about poor people as customers, along with what they are able and willing to pay for something that meets their needs.

I keep asking why 90 percent of the world’s designers work exclusively on products for the richest 10 percent of the world’s customers. Willie Sutton, the infamous bank robber, was once asked why he robbed banks.

“Because that’s where the money is,” he said.

I suspect my question about the world’s designers has exactly the same answer.

I have no problem with people who make money by designing products for the rich. My friend Mike Keiser, with no more professional training than his love of golf and nature, designed a golf course and resort—Bandon Dunes, on a spectacular section of Oregon coastline—that quickly became the number-two golf destination in America. Such entrepreneurial brilliance deserves to be rewarded.

What astonishes me is that the huge, unexploited market that includes billions of poor customers continues to be ignored by designers and the companies for which they work. In this, however, they are following a well-established tradition.

Think about this. If 100 million small-acreage farmers around the world each bought a quarter-acre drip system for 50 dollars—a total investment on their part of over 5 billion dollars—it would amount to more than ten times the current annual global sales of drip-irrigation equipment. These 100 million small-plot farmers could put 10 million additional hectares under drip irrigation and increase current global acreage under drip irrigation by a factor of five.

It’s laudable that a small but growing group of designers is beginning to develop affordable products because they want to improve the lives of the world’s poor. But I think that the best and most sustainable engine for driving the process of designing cheap is this:

Because that’s where the money will be.

Multinational corporations can make dramatic contributions to the end of poverty and, at the same time, to their own bottom-line profits, but that too will take a revolution in how they define, price, and deliver their products. In spite of the fact that Johnson and Johnson, a company in the international pharmaceuticals business, has presence and manufacturing capability in India, the company has not introduced Tylenol, a major profit-maker in developed markets, to India. Why not? Because they don’t think they can make an attractive profit doing so. But implementing a price structure and a marketing-and-distribution strategy that compete in the Indian marketplace would be likely to produce attractive profits from higher volume even with lower-margin sales. It would also allow J and J to manufacture Tylenol at a lower price in India and export it to other countries

To expand rapidly and scale the products mentioned earlier into a flood of wealth-creating business opportunities, a new movement is needed to harness the energy of successful business leaders motivated to make a difference in the world, and of corporations familiar with the demands of high-end markets and the ways to gain access to them. We need nothing less than a new generation of successful enterprises linking the low-cost labor of the residents of slums to the high-end markets of the world where they can sell their products and services at a reasonable profit. Only then, will we see the revolution.
-Paul Polak

Excerpt with permission from an article in the Philadelphia Enquirer 2008
the full article is available here. More about Paul Polak and his work, including, by request of his followers, recent blog entries expanding on his theories:

Licensing note: By agreement with Paul Polak, this post is also licensed under this blog’s standard CC-BY-SA license.

Paul Polak’s New Blog

Irrigation in Senegal (source)

Paul Polak has an enormous store of experience and wisdom, which he’s sharing on his new blog, at Some snippets:

On our quest to help poor smallholders improve their livelihoods, we created useful tools such as treadle pumps and low cost drip systems. But they only addressed about 25% of the problem.

To solve the other 75% of the problem, an effective way to put these tools in the hands of millions of last mile customers had to be designed. – Design for the Other 90% and Wild Blueberries.

Paul goes on to tell a story I found fascinating, about finding one unusually successful blueberry farmer and learning his secret – about knowing when to let weeds grow, to increase blueberry yields.

In another series of posts, Paul makes some statements that will upset many appropriate technology advocates. Here’s one:

The appropriate technology movement died because it was led by well-intentioned tinkerers instead of hard-nosed entrepreneurs designing for the market.  – The Death of Appropriate Technology I : If you can’t sell it don’t do it

Then there’s a recent series of posts on sprinkling can farmers in Asian Africa. The title of one post, How to Triple the Income of Sprinkling Can Farmers in Asia and Africa, strikes me as exactly the kind of question that needs to be asked by aid and development workers.

Enjoy your reading.

Chiapas Rainwater

(This is part of a five project series on HSU Chiapas 2010 started here)

Part of rainwater team building a system in a community near Acteal.

Rain.  Coming back from a summer in Mexico, everyone expects me to be tanner. Like other assumptions about a country as big and diverse as Mexico, not necessary so…  San Cristobal de las Casas was gorgeous.  San Cristobal was interesting.  San Cristobal had great coffee, chocolate, people, languages, music and fun.  San Cristobal was not that sunny… in fact, it rained about an inch per week during the five weeks of Appropriate Technology classes. There is a dry season, we just weren’t there for it.  The rain is enjoyable, but the waterborne and foodborne illnesses that affect many (including me and the students) are not. It was in that context that we were so excited to have one of the five projects for the Humboldt State University – Chiapas 2010, full immersion in Spanish and Appropriate Technology, summer abroad program be rainwater catchment systems.
Rainwater Catchment At A Glance
Description: Catching rainwater (often before it hits the ground), filtering and storing it for future use.
Inputs: rain
Outputs: Usable, potable if filtered, water
Improvements: reduced run-off and erosion, increased access to clean water, reduced time spent collecting and transporting water, reduced mosquito breeding areas near home

The whole rainwater catchment team building in Chiapas.

A team of four students collaborated with local designers and community members to build three systems: one with the appropriate technology demonstration home of Juan Hidalgo in San Cristobal and two with a community near Acteal. The student designers went through a few iterations at the demo house, testing and finding leaks, until they got it right. They then used that information to design and build the systems with the more rural community.  They also worked with Otros Mundos to start the construction of two 20,000 liter ferrocement tanks for storage.  Here is their rainwater system documentation in English and Spanish.  Here is some of the needed math for design.
Their innovations:
  • Using a first flush in Chiapas (I haven’t seen it other places here)
  • Using a PVC cap with one hole drilled high (for drainage and a cord for removing it) as the drain of the first flush. Having this hole high on the end-cap of a 90 degree elbow will keep it from plugging soon and keep the spray away from the house and into a bucket for reuse.
  • Using used vegetable oil to protect the wood supports.
  • Using costales (earth bags) for the base of one system.
  • Using tamped sand, instead of concrete, for the supports of one system.
  • Using wire to keep bent roofing metal in a channel shape.
Next steps:
  • Finish the ferrocement tanks in the community.
  • Revisit the systems in one year to see what went wrong.
  • Innovate!
  • Build a database of local rainwater systems (see image) and feedbacks.
  • Re-Innovate!
  • Workshops and community meetings on rainwater collection and water in general.
different (and probably better) way to use PVC with Rainwater Catchment
*This image is not our rainwater system, but it is the coolest way I have seen PVC used as a gutter (which is usually a big pain and doesn’t work all that well). We are going to try out this system at Otros Mundos.  In this image, Tania and Claudia are assessing its construction.  Now take that system and get a first flush on it and you’d probably have one great system!

HSU Chiapas 2010 Follow-up


A monument to the December 22, 1997 Masacre in Acteal

After the Zapatista armed uprising in Chiapas during the 1990’s, you may find it surprising that the Humboldt State University, Spanish and Appropriate Technology, summer abroad program had to move from Coahuila in Northern Mexico to Chiapas in Southern Mexico for safety reasons.  Yet, that is where we found ourselves this year… with the drug war ravaging much of Northern Mexico we were unable to return to our friends, colleagues and projects in the beautiful oasis town of Parras de la Fuente, Coahuila, Mexico.

For those same safety reasons, after four consecutive years, we had cancelled the 2009 program completely. This year we moved it to the ethereal San Cristobal de las Casas and surrounding villages in Chiapas, Mexico. This summer’s projects were very exciting. Thanks, in large part, to the great organizations we worked with, especially our incredible project and community liaison – Otros Mundos.
Over the next two weeks, I will share the inputs, outputs, improvements, innovations and learnings from each of the following HSU Chiapas 2010 projects:
  • Improved cookstoves
  • Microhydro feasibility study
  • Windbelts
  • A biodigester
  • Rainwater catchment systems

some of the HSU Chiapas 2010 students studying microhydro