May 20, 2014

The Big Design Questions | Can a technology that hurts some groups of people still be considered appropriate?

This is a switch for a water filter and chlorine doser. Technology like this benefits many people but it could hurt clean water vendors or other people with jobs in clean water supply. Is it truly an appropriate technology? Photo by Erik Hersman / Flickr.

Welcome to The Big Design Questions, a weekly series that tests and challenges the design principles for creating appropriate technology outlined in our Introduction to Engineering for Global Development.

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 this week’s question in a paper published in the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. Khanjan offers his thoughts below and we’d like to put the question to the entire community if you would please share your comments at the end.

Technologies mentioned here and many more besides are available for review and comparison in our Solutions Library.

Is a Technology Appropriate if it Benefits Some People but Hurts Others?

Technology solutions may sometimes help some groups of people while hurting others. The reason why could be inadvertent or sometimes deliberate. Regardless of the intention, is a technology truly inappropriate if it compromises the livelihoods of certain people?

For example, a venture that provides people with safe drinking water at low costs can benefit many people. However, it might reduce the profits of bottled water and soda companies, or compromise the livelihoods of water vendors or racketeers.

Similar challenges arise in food value chains and supply chains for all kinds of products. Customers may prefer to purchase a solar oven and make their own food instead of frequenting a street vendor.

And Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), especially cellphones, can make supply chains more equitable and efficient, but do so by eliminating middlemen.

Ultimately, technologies will affect different people in different ways, and some may view the consequences as negative. My view, however, is that developers must avoid engaging in cultural imperialism and applying their own definition of negative (or positive) impact to the situation. Technology is merely a tool. The customers and communities should be able to decide whether they want to adopt the technology or not.

Societies can address the needs of those who are negatively impacted in many ways – by teaching them how to leverage the same technology, through re-education or re-skilling programs, or by innovating to find new opportunities for value creation. A technology that negatively affects a certain subset of the population could actually serve as an impetus to increase human capital and systemic efficiency by encouraging the displaced workers to thrive in another field.

What are your thoughts… can technology that hurts some people still be considered appropriate?

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