high science and low technology

Consider the word “technology”. It conjures up images of gleaming research labs, busy robotic factories, and smooth, shiny consumer goods. However, at its most fundamental, technology is simply the application of knowledge to craft[1] – something that pervades every human endeavour, from the poorest village to the International Space Station.

Science and technology go hand in hand, of course – science provides a civilisation the knowledge that drives its technology, and technology provides that civilisation the resources and the luxury to engage in science. Conversely, societies so poor that the struggle for existence consumes the major part of their energy and resources – the so-called developing world – have little opportunity to indulge in scientific research, and thereby lift themselves up the technological ramp.

Increasing globalisation has opened up a brand new way to attack this problem – applying the science of the developed world to the technology of the developing one. This is not as simple as a “technology transfer”; modern technology requires an infrastructure without which it is useless, and developing that infrastructure requires resources and technology, leading to the bootstrap problem all over again. What is needed is new research, and new innovation, targeting existing problems and implementable under existing conditions. To provide a concrete example, in many parts of Africa, people spend considerable time and energy hauling water over long distances from rivers and streams to their homes and fields. We surely know how, in pure engineering terms, to provide running water to even the remotest village – the science behind water pumps and pipelines is well known. Of course, such a project is clearly impossible in the short term; it would require resources that the local economies cannot provide. The Hippo Roller, on the other hand, simply provides a more efficient way to manually transport water – low tech, no doubt, but it is improving people’s lives here and now[2].

One of the more prominent figures in the world of high-impact low-tech is MIT Professor Amy Smith. Dr. Smith travels extensively to the world’s poorer areas, studying first-hand the problems faced by the locals, and returning to her lab to develop solutions that blend cutting-edge science with engineering and materials accessible to rural populations. Her sugarcane charcoal project is a perfect example of this marriage of high-science and low-tech. The people who need to burn charcoal for fuel would not be able to do the research required to turn waste sugarcane fibres into efficient charcoal briquettes. The people capable of doing the research, on the other hand, have no need for the charcoal (and, indeed, no sugarcane waste to dispose of). This is, in a sense, charity done right – using the resources of the first world to help the third, but extracting far more leverage out of those resources than any charitable donation could have accomplished.

Some other interesting initiatives:

[1] From Wikipedia: The word technology comes from the Greek technología (τεχνολογία) — téchnē (τέχνη), ‘craft’ and -logía (-λογία), the study of something, or the branch of knowledge of a discipline.

[2] There are several fascinating aspects to the design and development of the hippo roller; it deserves, and will get, a post of its own soon

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