Technology as if people and planet mattered – by Simon Trace

With a short foreword of the epNetwork team: As member of the empowering people. Award jury in 2012, Simon evaluated many of the varied low-tech products and solutions entered. In his role as then CEO of Practical Action, he was able to identify the value and sustainability of these innovative technologies in developing regions. His latest publication, Rethink, Re-tool, Re-boot, examines our relationship with, and use of, such technology. The book is as fascinating as it is insightful – see what you think…

I’m an engineer by training and have spent my entire career, some 33 years to date, working on the role technology lays in the field of international development. I have worked mainly on either natural resource management (soil and water conservation and agro ecological approaches to food production) or access to basic services (water and sanitation and basic energy supplies). Over the years I have become more and more convinced of three things:

  1. Access to technology is an essential component of the goal to establish a basic minimum standard of living for everyone on the planet.
  2. Our use of technology however is often the root cause of some of the biggest environmental challenges we face.
  3. We have no effective governance approach for technology; in a word we have lost control of technology, or rather abandoned any sense of responsibility for shaping technological progress and instead left that to the vagaries of the market.

Last year, with the help of the INGO Practical Action, I was fortunate enough to be given the space to research these ideas and to write a book on the subject: Rethink, Retool, Reboot: Technology as if people and planet mattered. The following is a short summary of why I believe we have to rethink our relationship with technology and why we need a new approach to overseeing access to and use of existing technology and a more effectively way of guiding our collective efforts to develop new technologies.

Let’s start with some examples. Take energy. We need energy to heat and light our homes, to cook, to refrigerate, to communicate. We need energy to power livelihoods and provide basic services. In other words, access to energy is an essential building block of a basic standard of living. And this is an old technology – Edison patented the incandescent light bulb in 1879. So surely it’s an injustice that, nearly 140 years later, 1.1 billion people are still living in the dark with no electricity and 2.9 billion people are still cooking over open fires? How have we not managed to find a way to provide universal access to a technology that’s been around for close to one and a half centuries and that is so essential to a basic standard of living?

Such injustices are not confined to energy services. The Romans had piped water supplies, as the lead pipes found in the remains of their public baths attest. They also had rudimentary sanitation in the form of latrines. So why, 2000 years later, do we still have 750 million people without access to clean water and 2.5 billion still having to defecate in the open? Likewise, why is it that 30% of the world’s population still doesn’t have access to the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines? Or that the vast majority of farmers in the developing world have no access to technical advice to help them improve their productivity? Or, given the rising importance of digital identity and access to information, that 60% of Asia and over 70% of Africa cannot access the internet?

Clearly we still have a long way to go to achieve universal access to the basic set of technologies necessary to achieve even a minimum standard of living for everyone on the planet. Technology injustices are not limited to issues of access though. The way technology is used by some today can itself impact on the ability of others to live the lives they value, either today or in the future. The most obvious example of this is our current addiction to fossil fuel technologies and the hugely negative impact that climate change is already having today, and will continue to have on future generations.

But there are many other, less obvious examples. In the health sector the misuse of antibiotics is one. We persuade our doctors to prescribe them when we shouldn’t be using them. In the developing world their cost leaves many unable to afford a full course of treatment and so to under-dose. And in the field of agriculture, antibiotics are used with abandon in animal feed not just to prevent infection but also as a growth promoter. 80% of all antibiotics used in the US are administered to animals as prophylactics or growth promoters. As a result of the over and improper use, bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to existing antibiotics. Alarmingly, the hey-day of antibiotic discovery was in the 1940s and 1950’s. Only 3 new classes of antibacterial drugs have been discovered in the last 40 years, with a complete discovery void since 1987. Unless this dearth of discovery can be reversed, it’s predicted that global deaths from antimicrobial resistant bacterial infections could grow from 700,000 a year today to 10 million a year by 2050, exceeding annual deaths from cancer.

The agriculture sector provides another example of the use of technology leading to injustice – notably the long term impact of industrialised farming technologies and techniques on the genetic base for our food system. The Green revolution’s focus on wheat, rice and maize and commercial breeders’ focus on soybeans, alfalfa, cotton and oilseed rape has pushed other traditional food crops into the margins since the 1960s. But the focus on yield has also meant that even within the world’s leading crops it’s estimated that genetic diversity has been decreasing by 2% per annum since the 1990s and that perhaps three quarters of the germplasm pool for these crops is already extinct. This severely limits the genetic pool we can draw on to develop crops that can cope with new climatic conditions and new pests and diseases in the future.

Clearly, although we need to promote access to technology to achieve a universal minimum standard of living, we also urgently need to find a better way to govern the use of technology.  Electricity only became widely available in domestic households in the UK after the 1930s. Antibiotics were first used in the 1940s. The green revolution in agriculture only started in the 1960s. Yet today there is a very real danger that some of the key technological advances that have enabled rapid improvements in the standard of living for billions of people could be rendered unusable just 50 to 80 years after their first introduction.

So what about technology innovation? Is that helping with these twin great challenges of environmental sustainability and ending poverty? Can we see technology justice here in terms of innovation process finding solutions to pressing social problems? Sadly, the answer to that question is also, often, a resounding “no”!

Take a look at technological innovation in the health sector as an example. 90% of the global spend on health research takes place in the developed world. But according to the Lancet, only around 1% of that $214 billion a year is spent on research on neglected diseases of poverty –  diseases such as HIV AIDS, Malaria, Tuberculosis, Diarrhoeal disease etc.  The interesting thing to note here too is who is making the investment. The Glaxo-Smith Klines of the world account for 60% of global health research and development (R&D) spend, but only 15% of the spend on research into the diseases primarily affecting populations of the developing world. As Bill Gates noted in 2013 – There is no market incentive to develop drugs to treat the poor.

Similar stories around technology innovation pointing in the wrong direction exist in other sectors too. In agriculture for example, the richest 22 countries in the world together spend around twice as much on R&D as 117 developing countries combined. And once more private sector investment dominates R&D in the former but is almost entirely absent in the latter, meaning that the global innovative effort focuses mainly on the greatest financial return rather than the greatest poverty or environmental need. Likewise, in the energy sector the public investment to advance renewable energy options is dwarfed by public subsidies to support fossil fuels.

Humanity has lost control of technology, or rather relinquished it to the vagaries of the market, assuming its ‘invisible hand’ will ensure the most efficient development and dissemination of technology that best meets people’s needs. The result is failure. Failure to provide universal access to a set of basic technologies that are key to achieving a basic standard of living and a minimum social foundation. Failure to control the use of technologies to avoid the risk of breaching planetary environmental boundaries. And failure to guide technology innovation in a direction which addresses the massive challenges of global poverty and environmental sustainability that the world now faces. We have to reboot our relationship with technology. This is not incremental change but a radical shift in the way oversight and governance of innovation and access to and use of technology is provided.

Rethink, Retool, Reboot: technology as if people and planet mattered We need a new approach to the governance of technology to guide humanity’s technological efforts today, if we are to achieve a sustainable and equitable future for everyone on this planet. We need an approach that will point us in the direction of Technology Justice – a state where everyone has access to the technologies that are essential for a basic standard of life, in a sustainable manner that doesn’t prevent others, now or in the future, from doing the same. That lens of Technology Justice then has to be used to recognise that some choices are more likely to lead to the creation of a safe and equitable space for human development, whilst other choices are more likely to lead in the opposite direction. Responsibility needs to be taken for those decisions rather than hoping market mechanisms can make them by default and without intervention. Ideas on how we might do that are covered in my book.

Rethink, Retool, Reboot: technology as if people and planet mattered is available for purchase as a paperback or ebook, or as a free PDF download from:

About the author:

Simon TraceSimon Trace is an independent consultant. Formerly the Chief Executive of Practical Action (2005 to 2015), he has nearly thirty years’ experience in international development.  A Chartered Civil Engineer with an MA in the Anthropology of Development from the School of Oriental and African Studies, his career has focused on the practice of technology in sustainable development. Prior to joining Practical Action he spent 20 years working for the NGO WaterAid, firstly on soil and water management, drinking water and sanitation in South Asia and then on a series of posts at its headquarters, including six years as International Operations Director. He has worked across East, West and Southern Africa, South Asia and Latin America.

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