July 3, 2014

Should Outsiders Get Involved?

The Big Design Questions series has taken on some of the deep controversies and unasked questions over the last two months. The view that has emerged is one of tradeoffs that are inherent in any design. Now, Khanjan Mehta, a contributing editor at E4C and head of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program at Penn State, leads this series to a big-picture overview of the hard decisions that we make, including the biggest one: Should outsiders get involved at all?

As always, Khanjan offers his thoughts here and we’d like to invite the community to share your comments at the end.

Appropriateness and Tradeoffs

As the pursuit of appropriate technology continues, the tenets that make a design “appropriate” will no doubt continue to develop. However, innovators must realize that all of these tenets are in fact tradeoffs. They are questions that each technology venture must answer for itself.

These questions span the spectrum from cultural to financial to manufacturing and capital issues. The answers must be tailored to the context of the problem, the solution, the business plan and the stakeholders’ preferences.

To ensure that a technology achieves economic, social, environmental, and technological sustainability, developers must engage in open discussions with local partners. Communities should have a voice in these decisions to ensure that the designs meet their needs and result in a self-determined improvement of livelihoods and agency. However, consulting the community at every turn can lead to expectations and a sense of ownership. That sense of ownership is usually desirable, but it could also negatively impact the success of the venture and limit its scalability.

As you can see, there is often give and take and often the potential to cause harm. That leads us to the biggest design question so far.

Should outsiders be involved at all?

The root of all of this decision making is one fundamental line of questioning: Should outsiders create solutions for the developing world? Why is the appropriate technology movement trying to develop these solutions? What if it hurts the cultures and countries instead of helping them?

One answer is to consider humanitarian engineering or engineering for global development as a new wave of cultural imperialism: The West has found a new way to impose its worldview on poor countries. This is a valid viewpoint. But another perspective, and one that we prefer, is to think of appropriate technology as an exercise in co-creation. In that sense the distance between “us” and “them” starts to vanish.

We live in an interconnected world with complicated problems, dwindling resources, and shared solutions, and this series of design questions has highlighted some of that. We strive for empathy to understand the worldviews of those that we work with, and to break down cultural barriers to find practical, creative and sustainable solutions. A few ventures will succeed and many will fail. Cultures are robust enough to survive our spectacular failures while the world is waiting to celebrate and adopt the successful game-changers that improve the human condition.

We’re looking forward to hearing your opinion in the comments below.

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