Low-Tech, High Impact Innovation

Did you know that sometimes, a simple solution can be orders of magnitude more effective than an advanced, modern one?

The term for this is “appropriate technology” – and the concept of appropriate technology is particularly relevant when you want to innovate in a developing economy. But it can also provide a blueprint for innovation under any economic circumstances.

The World Bank, an assistance agency of the United Nations, provides funds to developing countries for projects that are not eligible for lending from institutions in other world markets. Although it was originally instituted to fund reconstruction projects after World War II, its projects to date include building power dams, improving sanitation, stimulating agricultural technology transfer (particularly for independent farmers), and stimulating technology transfer for all aspects of industrial technology in developing countries. Citing E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book as the source of the “appropriate technology” movement, World Bank research economists collected and gathered empirical evidence to test the notion that “intermediate” technologies adapted to local conditions that include lesser education and more widespread unemployment would be more effective in achieving local economic goals. (Weiss 2006)

They found that indeed, you could pick technologies to implement in under-developed countries that had excellent cost/benefit profiles – but those technologies would still not be adopted by the people (or they might adopt them, but the effect would be detrimental). Weiss traced the progress of four initiatives that considered this paradox using the principle of appropriate technology. The latest, greatest equipment to move earth and build villages faster looked like it had great innovative potential – on paper. But what really happened as a result of this study?

The researchers came up with some pretty enlightening examples of efficient appropriate technology in the field. For example, did you know that head baskets can be one of the most efficient solutions for moving earth over short distances on level ground? Did you know that donkeys provide a more effective solution for transporting materials short distances up steep slopes than heavy machines?

Adopting the perspective of “appropriate technology” is an excellent way to promote and increase innovation. Your solutions don’t have to be high tech, they just have to provide wide benefits – and taking this sometimes counterintuitive approach can be enlightening.

The concept of appropriate technology reflects both the ISO 8402 definition of quality, and the ISO 9241-11 definition of usability, each of which requires four elements: specified users (or people who benefit), specified goals, systems that are intended to meet those goals for those users, and a specified context of use. Too often we might neglect that final element, which really represents what we are trying to achieve when we consider the appropriateness of technology. If we strive to always take into account systems thinking, however, we should naturally account for many of these considerations as we accommodate a myriad of international and cultural differences.

Weiss, C. (2006). Science and technology at the World Bank, 1968-83. History and Technology, 22(1), March 2006, p. 81-104.


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  • Great post. Often the failure to adopt appropriate technology solutions results from 3 things. One, failing to understand the conditions where the solution will be applied. So failing to “go and see” in lean manufacturing terms. And the second, often very related, is short term thinking. The failure to see the challenges in maintenance. Appropriate technology solutions are often very simple, less sensitive (less moving parts to break…) and more easily repairable. Third, a common desire to use the cool new gadget and idea.

    Thinking about why appropriate technology is so effective but underutilized can help anyone improve the solutions they adopt. I would especially encourage people to stop looking for the newest management book and actually read and adopt and re-read and adopt and re-reread and adopt the excellent books from the last 50 years. Stop chasing some new shiny thing and adopt solutions that are effective even if they seem boring.

    I think people believe they can’t get ahead by adopting ideas that have been published in books for decades. This is a colossal mistake. Most of the ideas of Deming, McGreggor, Ohno, Ackoff, Scholtes, Christensen… are not used by you or your competitors. Just read their stuff and adopt their ideas and you will be far ahead of most everyone else.

    There is plenty of decent new stuff but hardly any that provides anything you don’t get from those writing decades ago. Some of Clayton Christensen’s work is actually significantly new, but in general you miss very little if you ignored all the trendy stuff and stick with the classics.

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