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6. Product Design and Appropriate Technology

The concept of "Appropriate Technology" (AT)—defined below—was first made popular by the writer E.F. Schumacher in the book "Small is Beautiful" in 1973. The concept has been closely associated with Intermediate Technology group, an international Development NGO. The concept of AT is now widely accepted by such institutions as the World Bank and Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and many governments. Notably, during the 1980s President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania tried to promote AT. Nevertheless, there is much debate and criticism about the concept and its application. Appropriate Technology (AT) is defined by Water Aid (1996: 7) as:

An Appropriate Technology is one which meets a locally defined need using locally available materials and resources, which are themselves managed in a sustainable manner.

A more elaborate definition is given by Niklas Sieber (1996: 7) of the International Forum for Rural Transport and Development as:

An Appropriate Technology is one which is designed to optimally satisfy demands by taking into account the economic and social situation of its users, and the natural environment of its operation. In comparison with conventional technologies, AT is affordable by a large number of users, decreases social inequalities, and creates environmental sustainability. AT will be vital in the next Millennium because it helps to increase the welfare of the South without massively degrading the natural environment.

From the above definitions it can be seen that a great deal is demanded of an "Appropriate Technology". H.G.W. Pierson of Spain (1996: 7) has a contradictory view:

The name Appropriate Technology is basically a nonsense, which should never have been embraced in the first place....most of the practitioners of AT assume that the very appropriateness of their technology makes them priests of some higher order, and thus not bound by the normal considerations of cause and effect, market forces, and pragmatism. Perhaps it is useful to remember that weapons of mass destruction are extremely appropriate for their purpose.

In the context of design, however, the concept of appropriate technology is much clearer. This is because, 'good' product design is concerned with fulfilling defined human needs within a wide range of criteria. Therefore, product design should always be appropriate. It should be clear from the description of the design process in Section 5 above, that the designer must consider many of the factors which are advocated by those promoting AT such as cost, ease of use, reparability and design for manufacture. Therefore, investment in product design in LDCs ought to lead to more appropriate technology.

6.1 Appropriate production technology and appropriate products

The term Appropriate Technology often covers two separate and quite distinct terms, namely, Appropriate Production Technologies and Appropriate Products. Appropriate production technologies usually refer to those that are labour intensive. Kirkpatrick (1984: 216) describes why labour intensive technologies are suited to LDCs:

Given the relatively labour abundant/ capital-scarce resource endowment of most LDCs and assuming that the market prices of the factors of production reflect social opportunity costs, it is argued that LDCs should select technologies that utilise most intensively their relatively abundant factor (labour) and economise on the scarce factor (capital).

The Committee for Economic Development (CED) argues that governments in LDCs should avoid policies which encourage the purchase of capital intensive production. Over-valued exchange rates or concessionary loans for the purchase of machinery and equipment should be avoided (CED, 1981: 9).

With regard to product design and appropriate production techniques, the designer has a choice of designing products for the available production facilities and labour skills, or designing products which will require the firm to invest in more sophisticated machinery. The choice of the designer is usually not as clear cut as this. The next section describes a case study involving appropriate production techniques.

Appropriate products, can be loosely defined as products which are designed for their intended markets. In LDCs many products on the market were designed or copied from designs intended for Industrialised country markets. These markets have very different characteristics to LDC markets. The CED describes how this mismatch occurs when technology is transferred through Transnational Corporations (TNCs) (CED, 1981: 51).

With respect to products, the concern is that they may be too sophisticated, too highly designed, and too elaborately packaged to meet the needs of most of the people in poor countries. Such products which reflect the tastes and standards of the home country, are often said to cater largely to the consumption demands of the elite in the host country.

Weiss (1988: 240) however, argues that technology transfer to LDCs results in significant technology adaptation and can lead to technological innovation and learning:

Even where technology is received from abroad through formal mechanisms there is evidence from a range of countries that significant efforts have been made to adapt it to the prevailing economic conditions of the recipient countries.....their successful introduction in some industries has led to the development of new products or processes, so that relatively simple technical change arising from production experience using imported technology can contribute to more complex higher state technical change.

In designing appropriate products either within LDCs or for LDCs, designers must focus on the following design parameters (Pugh: 1990, 48-64):

  • The cost of products - whether the products will be affordable to the people who will use them
  • Ease of use - are users familiar with the technology (Whether users are literate; if so, are instructions available in the users language)
  • The product environment—the conditions under which products will be used—including transportion, storage, continuity in power source, dirt, ambient temperature, handling.
  • Maintenance and repair considerations - availability and cost of spare parts and qualified maintenance personnel, ease of repair, mode of failure .
  • Social/cultural/gender factors—how a product fits in with local social, cultural and gender conditions—who will use it, how will it be used, if it will replace or compliment existing activities, how will it look.

All of these are specifications which are included in the PDS. Therefore, as emphasised in the previous section, the systemic application of the product design process leads to the design of more appropriate products.

6.2 Appropriate Technology–A Case Study

In 1997, Pierre Yves-Panis, a Belgian Industrial Designer working in Harare, set up a design co-operative (Design Co-operation) in the Mbare Siya-So production site in Harare. The aim was to improve the incomes of furniture makers in the sector. He achieved this through designing higher value added products, which were more suited to available markets and the existing production environment. Yves-Panis designed a new range of furniture products which drew on the strengths of the craftsmen, the working conditions and the available markets. Previously, wire framed tables and chairs were being produced by the craftsmen, but profit margins were being eroded due to the importation of mass produced furniture from South Africa and elsewhere. New attractive designs were produced based on:

  • The new products were be aimed at a more sophisticated market
  • Products were designed to be produced with existing equipment and under the prevailing work conditions
  • To be produced from available materials
  • They were to be of uniform quality
  • They were to be profitable

In an interview with Yves-Panis in the summer of 1997, he stated that the new designs took into account of the craftsmen's skills - for example, simpler joints were used, straight pieces of wood and slats replaced one-piece components, wood oils instead of varnish produced a better quality finish at a cheaper price.

The result, according to Yves-Panis (1997) was as follows:

"The project proceeded slowly with artisans reluctant to change their practices until they could ascertain the benefits of innovation. Eventually, a range of products were established which became very successful and demand now outstrips supply. Artisans also began to add their own designs and innovations to the furniture which they were producing."

Further reading:

Wikipedia provides an interesting overview and links on Appropriate Technology.

Next:
Product Design, Industrialisation and the Environment

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