Publications / Responsibility in Economics and Business Conference

Responsibility in Technology

The following remarks were made for the conference “Responsibility in Economics and Business: The Legacy of E. F. Schumacher” convened by the European Spirituality in Economics and Society Forum.

Good afternoon. My name is Simon Trace and I am the Chief Executive of the international development NGO Practical Action.

Practical Action, formerly known as the Intermediate Technology Development Group, was founded by Fritz Schumacher in 1966 with a mission to help poor people in the developing world use technology to fight poverty and transform their lives. Today we work across 10 countries in South Asia, Sub Saharan Africa and Latin America helping people improve food production, establish sustainable livelihoods and gain access to basic services such as water, sanitation, energy, housing and transport. Our work touches the lives of around 1 million people each year.

I want to talk today about responsibility in relation to the use and development of Technology. Given my organisation’s interests a lot of my remarks will relate to the technology in the context of the developing world, but I believe that the general principles I will discuss have wider relevance.

The pursuit of modernisation through the access to ever more sophisticated levels of technology has, together with economic growth, underpinned ideas of development for the last half century. In his book Science & Technology for Development the Edinburgh based academic Professor James Smith traces the way views of how this is supposed to happen have changed over the years. In the 1960s one school of thought saw development in terms of a linear process of modernisation, whereby countries pass through a 5 stage model from “traditional society” via industrialisation to an “age of mass consumption” with “widespread affluence, urbanisation and the consumption of consumer durables”. More recently the alternative idea of “technological catch-up” whereby countries can develop their skills base and use new technologies to leapfrog stages of the linear model and catch up or even overtake richer “leader” countries has been an idea “that many countries aspire to”.

Schumacher challenged this received wisdom on growth and technological progress more than 40 years ago, essentially on both environmental and human grounds and it’s his views on technology that I would like to begin with.

Schumacher started off Small is Beautiful with the environmental argument that the traditional discourse on economics is fundamentally flawed because it is based on the idea that development relies on perpetual economic growth which, in turn, relies on ever increasing consumption of material resources.  He introduced the concept of ‘natural capital’, talked about the finiteness of natural resources and used the field of energy to demonstrate how the consumption patterns of Europe and North America could never be replicated on a global scale.  His conclusion was that humanity was on a collision course with nature and needed to take action quickly. Schumacher identified technology as one of the areas in which we needed to take action to avoid environmental catastrophe, on the grounds that:

…the technology of mass production is inherently violent, ecologically damaging, and self-defeating in terms of non-renewable resources.


But Schumacher made it clear the he believed the prevailing model of development is not only inherently violent to the environment but also to the human spirit. In Small is Beautiful he argues that traditional economic thinking fails to get beyond its vast abstractions of:

…the national income, the rate of growth, capital/output ratio, input-output analysis, labour mobility, (and) capital accumulation;

And that because of this it fails to make, in his words:


…contact with the human realities of poverty, frustration, alienation, despair, breakdown, crime, escapism, stress, congestion, ugliness and spiritual death.


Again he identified the nature of technological progress as being partly to blame. He claimed that the technology of mass production is “stultifying for the human person”  and that modern technology, “has deprived man of the kind of work that he enjoys most, creative, useful work with hands and brains, and given him plenty of work of a fragmented kind, most of which he does not enjoy at all.”

In his second book, Good Work, Schumacher expanded his critique of technology, suggesting that it was not ideologically neutral but something that bore the hallmarks of the society that developed it. As such, he saw technology development and transfer as a fundamental formative force in society. The technology choices we make, he believed, can shape the values, norms and culture of the society we then get. In Good Work he used a quote from the Prime Minister of Iran who, in 1976, said:

“here are many aspects of the West we particularly wish to avoid in the industrialisation of Iran. We seek the West’s technology only, not its ideology.

To which he (Schumacher) then responded:

The implicit assumption is that you can get a technological transplant without at the same time getting an ideological transplant, that technology is ideologically neutral; that you can acquire the hardware without the software that lies behind it, that’s made it possible, that keeps it moving. Isn’t that a bit like saying I want to import eggs for hatching, but I don’t want chicks from them but mice or kangaroos?

Schumacher went on to suggest that:

It’s a great mistake to under-estimate the effect of ….(technology)….on people’s lives, not just their standard of living (but):

How they produce, what they produce

Where they work, where they live, whom they meet

How they relax or ‘recreate’ themselves; what they eat breathe and see

And therefore what they think, their freedom or their dependence

Schumacher’s argument was that some technologies are so inherently ideological that they can cause society to reorganise itself to accommodate them. For example, if society chooses a form of agriculture based on mechanisation, fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and hybrid seeds, that can in turn determine a whole range of societal outcomes because we have to organise ourselves in a way which allows that technology to operate (on its own terms) ‘efficiently’. Choosing such technology can then determine ‘optimum’ farm size, agricultural labour force size, and therefore the size of population that can be sustained in rural areas, the quality of life there and the rate of urbanisation, the ecology of the countryside, the economics of food distribution system, what we eat (and therefore our health), how much of our income is spent on food, the size and location of our shops etc etc.

Schumacher’s solution to all of this was, of course, a new form of ‘economics as if people mattered’, which he called ‘Buddhist Economics’. The central purpose of this new economics, in his view, would not be to create growth per se, but to create ‘right livelihoods’ – jobs which bring meaning to people’s lives, which do no violence to the environment and which allow them to produce goods that are consumed within the community in which they live (so as to strengthen societal relations and build a sense of community). In order to establish ‘right livelihoods’ Schumacher believed that technologies were needed that were human in scale and which could be owned, understood and managed by those who used them; technologies “with a human face”.  He also argued that a theory of economics that put the creation of employment at its heart had to consider the cost of establishing each new workplace as more important than a crude calculation of the productivity of each worker. From this he came up with the concept of a different form of technology which he sometimes called “Intermediate Technology”

…to signify that it is vastly superior to the primitive technology of bygone ages but at the same time much simpler, cheaper, and freer than the super-technology

And sometimes called:

…democratic or people’s technology – technology to which everybody can gain admittance and which is not reserved to those already rich and powerful.

So was Schumacher right to be so concerned about the use and development of technology?  In my view the answer to that question is a definite “Yes”. Human development has gone hand-in-hand with technical change. Technology development and adaptation enables people to achieve well-being with less effort and drudgery, or at lower cost and with fewer resources. Innovation is essential for people to be able to make more effective use of the resources available to them and to respond to social, economic and environmental changes.  Improved technologies can make a huge difference to people’s lives – providing access to basic services such as water, energy, transport and housing; helping in the development of sustainable livelihoods and providing for reliable and sufficient food supplies; providing the platform from which improvements in health, education, income and well-being can be achieved. In short, though the development and use of technology has not always been for the good of all, we know access to improved technology can be an effective lever out of poverty and that conversely, its absence is almost always a key feature of living in extreme poverty.

Schumacher was not only right to point out the fundamental importance of technology choice in development but also to highlight that fact that, although we know improved technology can make a huge difference to people’s lives, it is clear that technology has not solved the problems faced by a large part of the World’s population so far. The consequences of this failure can only be classified as a great injustice. Access to the basic services that are taken for granted in the developed world is far from universal in the developing world, for example. 1.6 billion people do not have access to electricity; 2.4 billion people still depend on traditional biomass for cooking; 1.5 billion people still live in inadequate shelter; 1.3 billion people still have no access to safe water; and 2.6 billion have no sanitation. Technology is clearly critical to filling this gap and ensuring access to basic services for all, but has failed to do so to date. You could easily make the similar points, for example, in the field of health or agriculture and food production.

Why is this the case? Why has technology largely failed to work for the poor to date?

One answer to this question is that the withdrawal of the public sector from research and development over the past few decades has meant that research agendas are now driven largely by commercial concerns and that, as a consequence, the vast bulk of technology innovation now occurs around issues that are irrelevant to tackling the problems of the poor. In the health sector, the Global Health Forum estimated has estimated that only about 5% of the world’s resources for health research are being applied to the health problems of low- and middle-income countries, where 93% of the world’s preventable deaths occurred.  Bill Gates probably summed the problem up most concisely when he claimed that we live in a world today where more money is spent each year on researching a cure to male baldness than on finding a vaccine for malaria.

This disparity in application of funding for research can be seen across many other sectors too. In the agricultural sector, for example, Professor James Smith of Edinburgh University argues that we are currently witnessing an enormous shift in the balance of power in research and development from the public to the private sector. He notes that “the five largest technology-led multinational companies – Bayer, Dow Agro, Dupont, Monsanto and Syngenta spend $7.3 billion per annum on agricultural research”, twenty times the budget for the world’s largest publicly funded agricultural R&D system for developing countries (CGIAR). Smith believes that this shift to private funding of research is problematical in that in the area of R&D “the market does not and indeed cannot respond to the needs of the poor”.

The lack of a pro poor technology development agenda however is not the only reason poor people lack access to the technologies they need to achieve a reasonable basic standard of living. Interestingly, much of the technology that is needed to address these problems already exists, which leads to some puzzling questions. For instance, the health benefits of clean drinking water and sanitation facilities have been understood for centuries: the Romans had piped water for their public baths and the Victorians in Britain had their sewerage systems. So why have the basic technologies needed to provide clean water and sanitation not yet been spread to everyone? Edison invented the electric light in 1880, so why is it that almost a quarter of humanity still has no access to electricity?

The answer to these questions is that, in many cases, the issue is often less to do with the need for further technology development and more to do with poor people’s lack of rights of access to existing technologies.

The slum settlement of Kibera in Nairobi is home to several hundred thousand people. Although the situation is beginning to improve, historically the citizens of Kibera have had no access to mains water. This is not because the technology is unavailable – many of the residents of Kibera live within a few metres of a water main. Neither is it because of their inability to pay – most households in Kibera buy water from water vendors at a price per litre that is several times that paid by the middle class Nairobi consumers who are connected to the city’s water supply. It is because the residents of Kibera do not officially exist, they have no formal rights of tenure to the land their slum occupies and no power or voice to argue that they should have a fundamental right to access a service that is critical to life.

Another explanation also exists. For some, a lack of right of access to technology can be explained as a consequence of an economic model of development that still prioritises growth of GDP over everything else and which is still tied to a trickle down approach to poverty eradication. In sub Saharan Africa 60% of the population rely on small scale subsistence farming for a living. However official aid for agriculture by and large deliberately ignores small farmers on less fertile lands and instead focuses on commercial farmers on the most productive areas and on the use of large scale industrial technologies – fertilisers, pesticides, mechanisation, and on production for export. This myopic view of development not only denies technical support to improve the efficiency of the cultivation techniques used by the 60% of the population, but also often promotes industrial technologies that compromise soil fertility and the conservation of water and which are potentially environmentally unsustainable.

We live in a world where the gap between those who have access to the technologies they need to live a decent quality of life and those who don’t is growing into a yawning chasm and where the developed world’s attention has largely moved on to meeting the ‘wants’ of consumers rather than the ‘needs’ of the poor.

We live in a world that is fundamentally, technologically unjust. And that technology injustice is not just manifest in the gap between poor and rich countries. It also now manifests itself in an intergenerational injustice. Our own addiction to fossil fuel based technologies in the developed world for example will leave a very difficult legacy for our children and grandchildren to deal with in the form of climate change.

Schumacher’s ‘Buddhist Economics’ was, I would argue, fundamentally about two things: Firstly it was about putting human well-being and not growth as the central concern of development.  Secondly it was about finding a path to a new equilibrium –a rebalance of our efforts at technological innovation away from meeting the ‘wants’ of consumerism towards meeting the basic needs of the 2 billion people in this world who still live in abject poverty as well as a better recognition of the rights of future generations alongside those of our own.

Those ideas have stood the test of time and are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago. Our responsibility to current and future generations must be to put human well-being back as the central purpose of economics and development. But in doing this we need to heed Schumacher’s challenge to create an economics that makes contact with the human realities of poverty, frustration, alienation, and despair.  We therefore need to make sure that our definition of well-being goes beyond people’s material concerns (for food, shelter, access to basic services such as water and energy, education and health, and an income to pay for all of this) and includes also critical relational aspects of well-being (a sense that you as an individual have a degree of control and power over your own life, that you can be a part of decisions that have a major impact on the way you live, that you can live in dignity, that you have the respect of your fellow citizens, and that you can live in peace with your neighbours).

If we are to do this we will need, again as Schumacher suggested, to re-think our very relationship with technology. The choices we make in our development and use of technology play a huge role both in shaping our society today and in determining whether mankind has a sustainable future. Our governance of technology is therefore a critical issue requiring much thought. It is Practical Action’s belief that to ensure equity for current and future generations our governance of technology will have to be founded on a principle of Technology Justice. This principle would combine a right – that all people should be able to choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value – with a corresponding responsibility – that this right could be enjoyed only so long as that choice does not compromise the ability of others and future generations to do the same.  Our challenge locally and globally is to find a way to govern the development and use of technology so that it better meets the principle of Technology Justice in the future.


Publication By

Simon Trace

Simon Trace is an independent consultant and writer on international development and technology. His book Rethink, Retool, Reboot: Technology As If People and Planet Mattered was published by Practical Action Publishing in July 2016. A chartered engineer with an M.A. in anthropology, Trace has 35 years of experience working in the international development sector on … Continued

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