Appropriate Technology

In 1973 a second term appeared, in the book Small is Beautiful by Buddhist economist Ernst Schumacher 1. He first used intermediate technology, to describe technology designed with special consideration to the environmental, ethical, cultural, social, political, and economic aspects of the community it is intended for. The term changed to Appropriate Technology (AT) and became a movement encompassing technological choice and application that is about ’enoughness’, robustness and sustainable living. Although many associated projects involve the introduction of technology to developing countries, it is practised in a variety of contexts.

The movement had its peak in the late seventies to early eighties. After that it was replaced with the term ’Environmentally Sound Technologies’. In 1983, an OECD report described AT as "low investment cost per work-place, low capital investment per unit of output, organizational simplicity, high adaptability to a particular social or cultural environment, sparing use of natural resources, low cost of final product or high potential for employment." 2 Because of its focus on adaptation to the needs of the community it is intended for, it could also be described as decentralised and small scale.

AT fell into disuse in the late eighties. It was mostly used in the context of Western aid in developing countries through technology. In their essay Appropriate Measures, Jackie Brown and Philippe Mesly point out that social transformation doesn’t happen through technology, not without a clear political agenda to accompany it 3. They point out that AT didn’t engage with the reasons why the Global South was struggling and the Global North was overconsuming, and instead aimed at fighting symptoms rather than the disease.

There is somewhat of a resurgence happening, with a growing number of organisations adopting Open Source Appropriate Technology (OSAT) such as the Open Source Ecology project which is working towards a Global Village Construction Set (GVCS), with blueprints "for the easy fabrication of the 50 types of industrial machines that it takes to build a small civilization with modern comforts" 4. They apply open design principles to AT. A big potential of OSAT is that designs are free as in gratis and as in libre, they can be peer-reviewed with iterative improvements which can stimulate development, increase quality over time and generate adaptations to specific local needs.

  1. Ernst F. Schumacher. 1973. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered. HarperCollins, New York.
  2. Nicolas Jequier and Gerard Blanc. 1983. The World of Appropriate Technology. Technical Report. Development Center of the OECD, Paris. 9 pages.
  3. Jackie Brown and Philippe Mesly. 2021. Appropriate Measures.
  4. Open Source Ecology. 2018. Machines: Global Village Construction Set.