Appropriate Technology

Posted by : Cat Kutay Aug. 20, 2022

Contact : cat.kutay at Maps

This chapter is focused at the academic and practical aspects of developing technology that is appropriate to context, in the environment of remote, rural, and urban Aboriginal Australian communities. In this context it is important to understand western technology, and the limitations of its artefacts, derived from their design by western engineers, scientists and users, who do not share the thoughts or experiences of the people for whom they are designing. It is also important to be aware of examples of how this affects such technology in practice. To change the technology we live with, we need to consider its impact on the user, and the constraints it places on such usage.

We are in the era of increasing technological adaptions (consider the growth of Artificial Intelligence), which are being designed and built within the same cultural norms that developed colonization of other nations and slavery. This chapter questions what we, as engineers, need to question and what to accept in our designs and how to question the impact of all technology.

Appropriate technology is a term used to describe the transposition of technology that was design for western cultures into new environments for which it was not designed. The term has been adapted as Appropriating Technology by Aboriginal communities in Australia[1]. Appropriate technology as a discipline arose from the experiences of engineers working in the field with remote communities. It became evident that specialist training is required to implement and maintain such technology and that this would not be available once the engineers returned home. This emerging awareness led to engineers becoming involved in the redesign of technology to suit social, physical and economic environments where they were working, and inevitably exposed them to the principles informing the cultural base of these communities.

Technology is never culturally independent. All aspects of design, choice of technologies, and the requirements which are to be prioritized in designs are embedded in cultural assumptions, beliefs, and practices. Hence a technology may not transfer well or easily to a new context. Appropriate technology emerges when engineers work with designers and community to ‘appropriate’ an existing technology and adapt it to work in a new context. Appropriate also means it continues to function well within the new physical, sociocultural and economic environment. This approach applies to technologies for supply of water, power and waste disposal all of which are important in the daily life of the community.

For engineers adopting this stance the focus begins with a shift to identifying valid and invalid assumptions when considering design options. The initial efforts to identify what is appropriate in technology for Aboriginal use, relied on consultations with community to overcome incorrect assumptions by engineers and misunderstanding in communication in design and implementation. It became clear that the focus for communities is to develop the skills and language to engage effectively with the technology being offered to them.

Various groups including the Remote Area Development Group (RADG) at Murdoch in Perth, the Centre for Appropriate in Alice Springs and Cairns and previously Pundulmurra College in Port Hedland have all developed consultation processes and training for community to engage with technology. Also, Higher Education is moving more into this domain, with two-way learning approaches (Yunupingu and Watson, 1986). All these programs employ thoughtful listening and long-term community engagement to overcome the gaps in understanding about the needs of different cultures and their peoples.

The ATWORKER program (Seaman & Talbot, 1995) was developed to train community members in maintenance and installation. It arose from recognition that limited funding would not ensure sustainable use of equipment in remote communities (washing machines, stove, water heaters, water pumps, toilets, etc) unless appropriate adaptations were made, and suitable maintenance could be provided in the harsh conditions (see Chapter 27).

In this chapter I consider therefore not just the technology, but also the processes required for its continual re-creation in communities, including training and knowledge sharing. Thus I look in this chapter at how new technology is being developed as well as how traditional technology is reused.

[1] Term coined by Peter Renehan, Chair of the Centre for Appropriate Technology, Australia

Extract from Chapter 13, Indigenous Engineering for an Enduring Culture, edited by Cat Kutay, Elyssebeth Leigh, Juliana Kaya Prpic and Lyndon Ormond-Parker. Published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Author: Cat Kutay

Location: Port hedland, WA