“Inappropriate” appropriate technology?

For some time things have been hotting up in the mobile for development space, and new tools are emerging all the time. But while these solutions extend all the way across the technological spectrum, almost all claim to be “appropriate” in one way or another. Clearly something isn’t right.

An appropriate use of Twitter?

For a while it was “scale”, and then “enabling environments”, and now it seems to be all about “appropriate technology”. I remember studying sustainable development at university, and coming to the conclusion that the term was so widely misunderstood and overused, it had almost become meaningless. I think we’re in danger of having the same thing happen with many of the terms we wildly band around in mobile. Part of the problem is that people are rarely asked to justify their positions or claims, so we never really quite know what anyone means.

In a recent PC World article I wrote, entitled “Appropriate Technology and the Humble Mobile Phone” funnily enough, I broadly defined appropriate technology as “anything that is suited to the environment in which it is used”. There are many factors that need to be considered in deciding how suitable something is – how complex it is to use, whether it can be used largely unaided, whether it can be fixed or maintained locally, how easily it can be localised, whether it can stand the field conditions, and so on.

You could also add to that whether or not the underlying infrastructure is in place for the technology to actually work. Makes sense, no? If we take anything that uses “the cloud“, for example, then I’d argue that it’s largely “inappropriate” unless you’re working in predominantly urban areas or in predominantly ‘developed’ countries. Many of the projects I see are aimed largely at the opposite – developing country and rural. On top of that, many of the areas where I’ve worked have little or no Internet access of any description, and very few people have devices that could access it, even if it was there.

In a recent must-read post – “The sun is shining in Africa” – Miquel provides some compelling arguments as to why “the cloud” is not an appropriate technology for much of the developing world:

The other big point missed in all this Cloud business is how it’s screwing the rest of the world outside of well, the US, and maybe Europe. This is the problem in how when people who proselytize a new technology don’t know understand the underpinnings of it, they often miss big gaping holes in the actual implementation of it

Maybe it’s no coincidence that there’s been a rise in use of “the cloud” and “appropriate technology” terminology at the same time. Let’s just get one thing straight, though. Technologies that use “the cloud” are not bad technologies, just as technologies which base themselves on simple SMS aren’t either. People that build and promote mobile technologies for developing regions just need to be clearer where their target audience are, and base their technology choice on what works – and what’s available – in the places where those people live and work.

63 thoughts on ““Inappropriate” appropriate technology?

  1. Caltech CRM says:

    As a rule the majority of technology is written for the mass market, the consumer with disposable incomes, largely the western market.

    The real work to actually further progress is done by smaller groups that never recieve the recognition or support they need or deserve.

    The Cloud is one of these examples, created for western business.

  2. shyder says:

    @Caltech CRM . The same SMS which work along GSM was made for the western market as well. When Mo Ibrahim quit his job at BT and sought to build GSM networks in Africa which later bore fruit to Celtel Africa, people thought he was crazy! At the end of the day business is business and it involves the same ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ transactions. Where there’s demand for services and approriate business models, technology will thrive.

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  4. Renjish Kumar says:

    Ken,
    I think you have answered on the question of whether Cloud is an appropriate technology for social development in the blog itself. The choice of technology indeed is, like you said, always based on the suitability to overcome constraints existing in a social scenario. Cloud is no exception. So, I really feel that discussion on whether cloud is appropriate or not is a non-issue. You need to assess it on a case-by-case basis and there is no one-size-fits-all. Besides, I haven’t seen the Cloud evangelists forcing it others in a social development context. Have you? As I understand, they are still in the process of getting it adopted in the mainstream…. Though proprietary solutions exist, the intiatives for standardization are in its early stage….

    I must also add here that Cloud has different categories, as you may know… So, it’s not only about Internet as a Cloud, but also private Clouds or hybrid Clouds which if extended in a social context would mean that the NGO can establish a local cloud which can address the latency issues… of course other things need to be taken care of in this case, such as the management cost….

    But, in summary, my view is that Cloud is simply another delivery mechanism which holds promise, and its suitability cannot be generalized but assessed on a case-by-case basis, as of now…..

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