Technology carries the knowledge, perspectives and lifestyles of the people who helped create it.

To improve design, maybe we should start with the principles that we have adopted to guide our work.
The community of engineers for global development has adopted a core set of principles to govern the design of appropriate technologies. Those principles are not set in stone, however, so to improve our designs and serve people better, we may need to question some basic assumptions. With that in mind, we present this latest installment of our ongoing series, The Big Design Questions.

Khanjan Mehta, a contributing editor at E4C and head of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program at Penn State, and his students first posed many of these questions in a paper published in the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. Now, we’d like to put these questions to the entire community. This week, Mehta asks us to consider the effects of culture and how we derive information on our designs. We would love to know your thoughts in the comments below.

Should technology solutions leverage Western or indigenous knowledge?

Technology carries the knowledge, perspectives and lifestyles of the people who helped create it. Traditionally, appropriate technology theorists differentiated these lifestyle concepts into “indigenous,” which encompasses local traditions, and “Western,” which derives information scientifically usually within the cultural context of the developed world. Often, new technologies challenge local traditions and champion a Western perspective.

New ideas can help generate appropriate solutions that meld Western and indigenous knowledge.

It is possible to catalyze change and generate appropriate solutions that meld Western and indigenous knowledge. However, excessive deviation from indigenous perspectives often leads to the failure of a project. How can we strike a balance between the two kinds of worldview?

One example of such a balance is KickStart’s manual treadle pump, which allows communities to access clean water quickly and easily.

The initial design of the treadle pump caused women to move their hips in a provocative manner, leading many communities to reject it. The designers then began to research indigenous perspectives and knowledge and changed the pump’s pedal geometry to integrate it better into the communities’ culture.

Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) in Uganda took on the problem of young women missing school due to lack of sanitary pads during menstruation.

SHE adopted a more Western perspective, advocating against this status quo by making sanitary pads affordable and accessible to schoolgirls. Then they leveraged indigenous knowledge to make pads from eco-friendly natural materials like banana bark and employed traditional cooperative business structures to integrate this product into the local marketplace. They successfully improved the girls’ school attendance while stimulating the local economy.

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