Innovation, Here, There and Everywhere: Developing Appropriate Technology to Improve Quality of Life and Retain Cultural Diversity
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Anthropology
What would life be like without choices? What if we had only one type of food, music, art, or religion to choose from? What if there was only one right way to think or act? While this sounds like the stuff of nightmares or a seriously oppressed country, it is what globalization is creating. This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but despite the growing number of products and services on the market, how many of them are unique or truly different? Take, for example, the typical American breakfast cereal. How many varieties of cereal are available in any typical American supermarket? There may be a hundred different varieties, but fundamentally, they are really very similar. They are grain based and are shaped to fit on a spoon. If you have traveled abroad, one of the first things you might notice is that cereal is not a universal breakfast food. In Germany, you might find a variety of cold sandwich meats and cheeses, while in Vietnam a spicy beef soup would be on the menu. None of these breakfast foods are fundamentally “right” or “wrong” – just different. What we consider to be “correct” breakfast foods depends on our culture, not our biology. So while we may sometimes think we have a variety of choices, when viewed from a multicultural perspective, we soon find that we do not have as many as we might like to think we have. What will happen if one product or way of doing things becomes the universally acceptable norm?
Cultural Diversity, Technology and Innovation
Our culture not only affects what we eat, but also what we invent, which policies we implement, and which rules we enforce. Culture shapes our knowledge base, our ways of thinking, and our perception of the natural and manmade world. Technology, like culture, is holistic; all the parts are inseparable and co-dependent. Technology provides us with the resources to control our environment, and it helps us understand and explain the world in which we live. Technology is not only the physical process of changing raw materials into a finished product; it originates from, and propagates through, the beliefs and behaviors of people.
Not all technology is universally beneficial. When a new technology is introduced into a culture, it produces a ripple effect that can disrupt the environment and the culture’s long- established social and cultural equilibrium. Some of these effects are immediate and apparent, such as the impact on the natural environment, while other effects take years to manifest. It is these less obvious, indirect consequences that can be the most damaging. The reduction of traditional technologies and products are often observed early on, and are soon followed by the loss of knowledge. While gaining new knowledge is generally beneficial, the loss of traditional knowledge, though inexcusable, is avoidable. To lose native and indigenous knowledge is to lose cultural diversity.
It is imperative that we strive to promote cultural diversity because it increases our quality of life by enriching our world on an everyday basis. Diversity gives us variety of cuisines, music, clothing and art styles. Cultural diversity also provides the inspiration for new products and technologies. Perhaps most importantly, cultural diversity offers us different perspectives and alternative ways to think about the world, the natural environment and human situations. This knowledge was gained through life experiences over tens of thousands of years in response to a multitude of situations, including developing ways to deal with everyday and extraordinary conditions such as maintaining health, preventing sickness, minimizing conflict, dealing with disasters, managing natural resources, devising economic policies, and conceiving methods of social control, to name a few. The tragic fact is that once diversity and indigenous knowledge are lost, they are lost forever.
Soft, Hard and Appropriate Technology
Technological and cultural change is inevitable and an important part of what makes us human. Technology has two inseparable aspects: a “hard” or tangible aspect, which corresponds to the equipment and the physical products, and the “soft” or intangible aspects corresponding to the associated ideas and practices that always accompany the “hard“ technology. Hard technologies include the physical and chemical changes that take place during the innovation, production, distribution, consumption, and elimination of a product and the accompanying byproducts, such as pollution, associated with each phase. Soft technology includes the theories, beliefs, policies, and services associated with every aspect of a product. This includes research and development, human and natural resource management, business and economic policies, legislation and consumer issues. There is an inseparable reciprocal relationship between the hard and soft aspects of technology, and when one changes, the other changes as well.
Since technology has both physical and ideological components, technological change is inseparable from cultural change. New hard and soft technologies develop out of previous ones, and we are indebted to our technological and cultural heritage for giving us the foundation upon which we build our current society and all the things in it. Indeed, future societies will be founded on those used today. Technology also changes what people perceive as “value,” and this influences the direction of research, government and economic policies, in addition to an individual’s behavior. The growing number of sustainable, “green,” and cradle-to-grave initiatives are testament to this fact.
Today, the technologies (products and ideologies) of so-called “developed nations” are being imposed onto emerging and developing countries, rather than integrating them into the existing culture. This is causing a “Westernization” of the world, and includes an increasing prevalence of “Western” technologies and the accompanying products and ideas. As a consequence, this Westernization of the world is annihilating the tangible and intangible heritage of native and indigenous cultures, and is thus creating a decrease in the overall cultural diversity of the world. The rapid loss of cultural heritage is such an important issue that in 2007 UNESCO began initiatives to preserve intangible as well as tangible cultural heritage.
Furthermore, the loss of cultural heritage is linked to the loss of an individual’s identity. Loss of identity has been linked to an increase in mental illness (Mossakowski, 2003), violence (Nolte, 2004), and drug abuse (Bhattacharya, 1998). If we want to develop new products and policies that increase our own quality of life and that of people locally and abroad, we need to educate our future leaders about the influence that our own culture, and that of others, has on innovation, creativity, knowledge and behaviors. In order to do this, we must teach our students, and the greater Hofstra community, about appropriate technology principles.
Appropriate technology goes a step beyond environmental and economic sustainability by striving to improve people’s quality of life now, as well as in the near and distant future. Appropriate technology seeks to create a balance between technology, the environment, and the needs of the intended community. It typically requires fewer resources, is easier to maintain, has a lower overall cost and less of an impact on the environment, and endeavors to retain tangible and intangible cultural heritage and diversity. It is a holistic approach, which takes into account not only the natural environment, but also the social, cultural, and economic needs of the people for the purpose of developing new products, policies and services that are a better “fit” for the target community, locally and abroad
An Example: Good Intentions, Bad Implementations
Newspapers and journals are not short on presenting methods used by organizations, businesses, governments, and agencies to introduce new technologies and business practices into developing, emerging, transitioning, and non-industrial societies. While sometimes the motive for entering these markets is solely monetary profit, other times it is purely humanitarian. No matter what the goal, the objective remains the same: to successfully introduce something new into the community to meet a need. However, while they may be successful in reaching their objectives, history testifies to the fact that too often it is at the expense of the environment and/ or people.
For example, in Moyo’s recent book Dead Aid, the author presents a case study of an African mosquito net maker (Moyo, 2009, 44-45). There was a local entrepreneur who started a business and created about 500 nets a week. He employed 10 local people, who used this income to support 15 relatives. In a humanitarian effort to reduce malaria in Africa, a Hollywood celebrity persuaded Western governments to send 100,000 nets at a cost of a $1 million (Moyo, 2009). The nets reached the location, and instances of malaria declined, thus the short-term objective was reached. However, the goal of helping to slow cases of malaria ceased in the longer term because the “technology,” in the form of the production and distribution methods, was inappropriate. Within five years, the mosquito nets were no longer effective. New nets could not be acquired locally because the influx of foreign-produced nets destroyed the native African’s mosquito net business. Thus, not only did cases of malaria rise once again, but in addition, the entrepreneur was no longer in business, his workers were now unemployed, and the 150 relatives who the business indirectly supported once again felt hardship.
However, if appropriate technology principles were applied, perhaps only a fraction of the million dollars would have been needed to grow the local business. The business could then have been used as a successful model to set up other mosquito net makers elsewhere in Africa. The natives would have had a renewable supply of nets, in addition to assisting the growth of the local economy. The short-term objectives would still have been reached, but the result could have been an increase in the quality of life and self-reliance, for a greater number of people, over a longer period of time. This is just one case study out of thousands that illustrates how the introduction of inappropriate technologies can be horribly detrimental to the community in the long term, despite how noble the original intentions. It is imperative that the Hofstra community works together to create an environment that facilitates the development of appropriate technologies that balance the need for technological advancement and economic growth, with the needs of the environment, and the social and cultural needs of the community.
Our goal is to develop a Consortium for Appropriate Technology (CAT) to enhance students’ Hofstra experience, while providing an environment and opportunities where we can create more appropriate products and services. The CAT will consist of a real and virtual social networks of like-minded individuals and organizations, as well as a physical space in which to undertake CAT research and projects, and hold activities and events. It will also be a place where students can go out of class time to explore other interests and gain exposure to different cultures, technologies, and academic disciplines, many of which they would not otherwise have the opportunity to discover. The CAT will promote and foster multidisciplinary collaborations and “real-world“ experiences, while encouraging creativity and increasing cultural awareness and acumen, within and outside the Hofstra community. The CAT will be the first consortium of its kind and promises to become a model for other universities to emulate.
We have begun by creating a collaboration between the Anthropology Department and the Engineering Department, with affiliates in the Zarb School of Business and Fine Arts Department. This alliance will enrich students’ education by offering experiences that have the real potential to increase the quality of life for many communities, locally and abroad. All departments, organizations, and individuals are welcome and encouraged to join us.
The idea began in March 2009, during the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) Conference in Washington, D.C. The purpose of NCIIA is to support technological innovation and entrepreneurship in higher education to create experiential learning opportunities for students and successful, socially beneficial businesses. I was there to present a paper on a new technique for facilitating innovation and creativity, and to learn about initiatives at other universities around the country. There were two aspects that really stood out. First, that in most instances, inventors, policy makers and businesspeople did not fully understand the short- and long-term direct and indirect effects and consequences of culture on the invention, production, distribution, and acceptance of new products and services into the target markets and communities. The lack of cultural awareness was a particular issue when developing new products and services for non-industrial, developing and emerging economies in places such as rural Africa, and intercity America. Second, it occurred to me that Hofstra University, with its strong undergraduate and graduate programs, dedicated faculty and alumni support, coupled with our diversity, “green” and sustainability initiatives, was perfectly suited for creating an environment that fosters the development of appropriate technology.
We envision creating a “classroom of the future,” which would be a multidisciplinary environment where the Hofstra community can meet, share their own knowledge and experiences, and learn about different cultures, technologies, and ways of doing things. It would be an atmosphere that fosters creativity, tolerance and diversity, and acts as a center in which to undertake appropriate technology activities. It would be loosely based on the University of Tulsa’s Studio Blue. Hofstra’s “classroom of the future” would consist of five activity zones. A high-tech zone containing computers and related high-tech equipment would be used to conduct research, create projects, and network with people and organizations within and outside of the Hofstra community. There would be an intermediate tech zone containing intermediate technology such as woodworking and metalworking equipment. These are available in many developing economies and would help students understand the level of technology available in these places, in addition to assisting their own appropriate technology creations. A low-tech zone would contain basic resources such as clay and paper. These materials would encourage creativity and help students better understand the benefits and limitations of these lower cost materials. Next, there would be an activity zone, consisting of moveable desks and chairs, which would provide a space dedicated to undertaking lectures, group activities and ongoing projects. The final area would be a relaxation zone with items such as a TV, games, sofa, chairs, refrigerator, etc., to promote relaxation, foster creativity, and encourage the development of interdisciplinary and multicultural friendships and collaborations. We are currently seeking to acquire the necessary funds and supplies to create this “classroom of the future.” Please help us make this idea a reality.
Bhattacharya, G. (1998). Drug use among Asian Indian adolescents: Identifying protective/risk factors. Adolescence, 33 (129), 169.
Mossakowski, K. (2003). Coping with perceived discrimination: Does ethnic identity protect mental health. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 44 (3), 318-331.
Moyo, D. (2009). Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. New York, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. http://nciia.org/
Nolte, I. (2004). Identity and violence: The politics of youth in Ijebu-Remo, Nigeria. Journal of Modern African Studies, 42 (1), 61–89.
University of Tulsa, Studio Blue. www.stateofcreativity.com/index. php?id=76&uid=1984
UNESCO Cultural Heritage Initiative. http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/ ev.php-URL_ID=34325&URL_ DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_ SECTION=201.html