Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

The Community’s Role in Appropriate Technology

I am greatly privileged to be invited to speak at this meeting of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics nearly ten years after Small is Beautiful was published and nearly five years after Schumacher died. I feel particularly privileged to speak to you in such distinguished company as Robert Swann, Kirkpatrick Sale, and Elise Boulding, three of the many people who are developing and enlarging on Schumacher’s ideas and showing that small is possible.

I propose to approach my subject by looking at some of the forces that have shaped and are shaping technology and community. We all know that our lives are influenced by ideas, our own and other people’s, ideas that are reflected in our values, our relationships, and what we see as the purpose of our lives. It is one of Schumacher’s legacies to have awakened an awareness in many of us that our lives are not only shaped but dominated by ideas which, if we understand them properly, we find in varying degrees objectionable. Even more important, however, is that he taught us we can do something about it. I think that is the great power of Small Is Beautiful: it crystallizes what many people know in their hearts and in their souls, and at the same time it gives them hope that they can do something about it.

To be a little more specific, I refer to the fact that most of the world as we know it, both in the rich and the poor countries, has been created by wealthy white men. Not by poor white men or poor black men or poor white women or women of any condition but by wealthy white men. We don’t need to speculate about the motives of these wealthy white men. They have created an economic system, a structure we can see wherever we look, that is designed to serve a very efficient system of production and consumption and to discourage people from developing the capability to look after themselves.

The structure has been built by means of competent manipulation of the factors of production, and we are told these are land, labor, capital, and the managerial skills needed to organize them; all this makes sense from the standpoint of those who command land, labor, capital, and managerial skills and who compete with others in command of these factors of production. Economic activity can thus be regarded as a battle conducted by generals against the interests of other generals; all the rules and evaluations are seen from this standpoint.

One of the obvious factors of production is of course people. The role of all those people who have no—or virtually no—command over land, labor, capital, and managerial skills is quite simply to serve the generals. People are lucky if the generals need them, but if they are not needed, then they are left out in the cold—unemployed and, it is said, unemployable. Because the objective is efficient production and high productivity per person (no one ever seems to think in terms of high productivity per capital), there is continuous pressure to eliminate people from the process of production. The ideal of the owners of capital is production without employment, and one wonders why they object if a large number of people say their ideal is income without work. Whatever else this structure leads to, it is not to a harmonious society.

This is one of the characteristics of modern economic life, a structure that says we must eliminate people from the process of production. Of course, people are still needed as consumers, so even if trade unions had not pressed for unemployment compensation, industry would still require people to be paid when they are unemployed because although we are not wanted as producers, we are needed as consumers. That is the first characteristic of modern economic society. The second characteristic is illustrated by a favorite dictum of Schumacher’s, that there are basically only three rules of economics: nothing succeeds like success; nothing fails like failure; nothing stagnates like stagnation. Students of economics please take note—once you have grasped this, you have got the whole thing!

This dictum explains the fact that the gap between rich and poor countries and between the rich and the poor within countries is continually growing. If you have one group of people who are very successful, and they forge ahead, then the other group will be left further and further behind. In other words, there is nothing in the economic system we have created that restores equilibrium under those conditions. It is a system that creates disequilibrium between the rich and the poor, the big and the small. There is nothing in it that will narrow the gap. All ideas about what is economic, efficient, and normal are based on the principle, to those who have shall be given.

It is in the light of these two characteristics of our modern economic system that I would like to look at the development of technology and of community, both overseas and at home.

An economic system that progressively eliminates people and has built-in tendencies towards disequilibrium between rich and poor and between city and country can only be described as antidevelopment. It was this observation that first lead Schumacher to the concept of intermediate technology. I don’t need to advance his argument in detail here. Its essence is that technology is not a fixed or given factor in economic development; rather, it is an instrument capable, if we so will, of being altered to adapt itself harmoniously to the economic, social, and cultural conditions of any country or community.

The cultural conditions are particularly important. Science and technology are supposedly culture free. Nothing could be further from the truth. The technology exported to poor countries is loaded with the culture of the countries that produce it. In many developing countries you can find institutions that are being corrupted in order to meet the needs of the technology: family and community are obvious examples. What Schumacher was saying was that a technology that sets out to make people more productive, giving them precedence over the production of goods, can begin to change the system.

Large-scale capital and the energy-intensive technologies of the rich countries, when applied to developing countries, clearly do not provide solutions to their problems of mushrooming urban growth and increasing underemployment and unemployment. In fact, if development is concentrated in the cities, the problem of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer is aggravated. It is hardly surprising that Gandhi (and Schumacher always said he was basically a pupil of Gandhi’s) could see what was happening to his people under the impact of Western technology. When asked by a reporter what he thought of Western civilization, he thought for a moment and then replied, “I think it would be a very good idea.”

Like Gandhi, Schumacher believed that in order to address rural poverty in a developing country, we have first of all to create very large numbers of workplaces in the rural areas, where anywhere up to 80 percent of the population lives, and not in the cities, to which they tend to migrate. Statistics indicate that this process of migration is proceeding faster than ever. It is predicted that Mexico City will have a population of 30 million by the end of the twentieth century and several other cities will approach the 20 to 30 million mark. This may or may not happen, because the number of people that can live in a city depends on how many people it takes to feed them. If it takes eighty people to feed one hundred people, you can’t have more than 20 percent of a country’s people living in cities. So urban growth may in fact slow down under the impact of starvation; however, the present trend is toward mushrooming cities and stagnating, impoverished rural areas.

Schumacher said that the requirements for his concept of intermediate technology to succeed are the creation of jobs where people are actually living and the introduction of technologies simple and inexpensive enough to be provided extensively without causing problems of foreign exchange or introducing the need to mobilize savings. These should be predominantly technologies that use local materials for local use, not technologies that call for exporting more and more. I think this is an area where developing countries are always misled. They are urged and pressured by the rich countries to export more, but that is not in their best interest.

Thus, the two preconditions Schumacher laid down for the successful increase of production in developing countries were the deliberate development of an intermediate technology and a localized approach to development. An entire country is too big to focus on, for it involves abstractions such as gross national product. Only if you focus on local groups of people within their communities can you in fact begin to talk about the needs of real people and take into account local resources of all kinds. Well, nearly seventeen years after Fritz Schumacher and I and a few of our friends formed the Intermediate Technology Development Group, I’ll give you a bird’s-eye view of where the movement stands overseas.

Now in 1982, The Intermediate Technology Group employs over sixty people, forty of whom are engineers competent in various technologies that have to do with agriculture, building materials, energy supplies, and a wide range of manufacturing. There are now similar groups in Canada, the United States, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. Most of them have some measure of government support. Our own group now receives almost 50 percent of its income from the Ministry of Overseas Development, and we don’t think it should be any greater than that. In the developing countries themselves—in Africa, Asia, the South Pacific, and Indonesia—there is now a network of organizations working on appropriate technology (the equivalent of Schumacher’s term intermediate technology). A recent survey estimates that there are over 250. At least 200 of them consist of three staff people trying to start something on a small scale whereas only twelve to fifteen are effective organizations with their own research and development facilities, their own capacity to do field testing and to develop small-scale technologies. The work of these groups, along with our own group and similar groups in rich countries, has proved that it is possible to develop appropriate technologies by scaling them down or scaling them up, according to local needs.

Thus, today there is a growing number of efficient, small-scale, and low-cost technologies available in agriculture and water supply, building materials, energy, manufacturing, and processing. They conform to our definition of appropriate technology because they are small scale, simple, capital saving instead of labor saving, and nonviolent towards people and the environment. I am thinking here of technologies used in a sugar-processing mill one-fortieth the size of a traditional mill, in brick works one-hundredth the size of conventional brick works, and in cement plants producing twenty tons per day instead of two thousand tons. I am thinking of energy-producing devices that use renewable energy which can produce between 3 and 50 kW of electricity and therefore are suitable for very small communities and villages.

This change has come about over the past ten years, and I think we have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that as far as the technology itself is concerned, it can be adapted to make things small, efficient, and human scale. This can be accomplished by turning the minds of good engineers not to labor saving, which is the total preoccupation of conventional modern technology, but to the challenge of capital saving. This turns the conventional concept of engineering upside down, because for 150 years engineers have been told to save labor. But the Intermediate Technology Group has told them to save energy and to save capital, and the result has been some of the most interesting and in some cases the most elegant pieces of machinery one could imagine.

Now, as the developing countries are being crushed by rising indebtedness and increasing unemployment, there is a growing realization that self-help technologies, technologies that enable communities and countries to make things for themselves, are really the only route left toward creating employment and gaining economic independence. What has happened to countries in the developing world is that they have gained political independence at the expense of falling into the trap of total economic dependence on the rich countries, with the result that some are less economically independent now than they were during colonial times. This is a sort of neocolonialism. Practically every developing country (with the exception of China) is up to its neck in debt. Many of them are having to borrow money, and this may have the effect of throwing our own banking and monetary systems into turmoil. What is needed now is to put small-scale technology into the hands of more and more communities in the developing world. This is the next stage of work for groups like our own.

Nongovernmental groups are the only organizations that are actually in touch with the needs of poor people, although not always successfully. No government organizations and very few United Nations organizations are in touch with the needs of poor people. Therefore, we have to work increasingly closely with nongovernmental organizations, both in the developing countries and in our own society. There is, for example, the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka that now covers three thousand villages and one million people—the biggest community development organization in the world—and that is steadily moving toward community ownership of the means of production. They started with a cultural, not an economic, approach, setting out by opening preschools. The young women who ran the preschool groups then graduated to running community shops, because the whole community trusted them. Now they are beginning to help run small industries.

Currently there are many other organizations in the developing countries that are working effectively in rural areas with rural people. One that I have recently worked with is the International Liaison Committee for Food Corps Programs. It was started by Ruth Morgenthau of Brandeis University and draws its inspiration from the Plan Puebla in Mexico. Its aim is to train farmers—in Mali, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Peru—to become their own extension officers and ultimately to establish farming groups that can run their own affairs and employ scientists. Instead of scientists telling farmers what to do, farmers should be telling scientists what to do. Can we work toward communities of small farmers who begin to employ scientists and say, Here is a problem; can you come and solve it? We may be a bit away from that yet, but this is how these kinds of groups are thinking. There is another group that is quite outstanding: the Save the Children Federation, which has dozens of community development projects in different parts of the world and is increasingly integrating appropriate technology into the activities of their field operations. Some of these technologies are spreading under their own steam; others will take some effort.

Recently I was in Zimbabwe, and the Director of Education in the area came to me and said: “I’m a great supporter of intermediate technology. The development of roofing sheets for our use has enabled me to build twice as many schools as I could ever have done with my budget, because roofing is usually our highest cost in building.” Technologies like this are beginning to spread, but they need much more encouragement, and they need support from volunteer agencies, both at home and abroad. I could go on telling you about different technologies, but I want to look now at what is happening in the way of appropriate technology in the affluent countries.

In 1968, not long after we started our Group, the first meeting on the subject of appropriate technologies for the poor areas of rich countries was held in Newfoundland. Representatives came from the Appalachian mountains, from North Norway, North Sweden, the west of Scotland, and from Canada’s middle north and eastern seaboard. They all said the same thing: large-scale technology has totally bypassed us.

Here, operating at full force, is the second characteristic of modern economic life that I referred to earlier. The faster the metropolitan areas grow, the faster the peripheral areas are destroyed. The cities suck people away from the rural areas but do not offer them any form of productive activity.

A good example is what happened on Prince Edward Island, where there used to be hundreds of villages that were essentially self-sufficient in the basic necessities of life. Until recently there were hundreds of multicrop farms, but now virtually nothing is produced except for potatoes grown on a few large farms. What is worse, farmers are selling their land to visiting American tourists. The sale of good agricultural land to outsiders must be the ultimate degradation for a rural community, but now at least an attempt is being made to do something about it.

The representatives from poor areas at the Newfoundland meeting recognized that they needed a new technology, one that was small and relatively simple and gave members of the local community the capacity to organize and run things for themselves. Two outstanding examples of such communities are Prince Edward Island, which once had the most comprehensive appropriate-technology program this side of the Atlantic, and Sudbury, Ontario, which was a single-industry town. The industry left, leaving behind a large community without any work at all. The people there have really tried to do something about recreating economic activity on their own. 1

Soon after the intermediate-technology movement began and people were saying, “We need new technologies for the poor areas of rich countries,” it also became clear that it wasn’t only the poor areas that needed it. First the idea had been applied to the developing countries, then to the poor areas of rich countries, and now we know that the rich countries themselves stand badly in need of a new kind of technology. As Schumacher once put it, “There is no doubt, as an industrial society, we are now on a collision course with human nature, with the environment and with the world’s stock of natural resources.” People have been pointing for many years to the negative impact industry has on the worker. Adam Smith recognized it, and he said that is the price we pay for progress. Marx recognized it, and he said the same thing. Growing numbers of people are recognizing the devastating effects of modern technology on people and planet, and they are saying, “We don’t like it.” Pioneers of this group are of course Gandhi and Schumacher.

De-skilling people results in a society we don’t like to look at and don’t like to live in. Modern industry has de-skilled people and produced what is probably the most helpless society on the face of the earth. On one side of the coin is an immensely rich segment, a very productive and capable segment, but on the other side of the coin is a helpless, dependent segment under the control of the generals. When the generals don’t want us, we find ourselves unemployed, and there are very large numbers of people with skills that have no value whatsoever outside the system. The skills are valuable only inside the system to the extent that when the machines can’t do all the work, people are needed to tend to them.

Growing unemployment is going to become the major problem of Western countries as far into the future as we can project. Of course developing countries are no strangers to this plight. They have had massive and growing unemployment for twenty years. The latest World Bank report says there are now approximately one billion people living not simply in poverty but in misery. Their numbers are growing. They are powerless to change the kind of development that has been going on for the past twenty-five years—and not surprisingly, for it’s a type of technology that discards people and concentrates on the production of goods. I have even heard that in Britain we could reach a permanent figure of several million unemployed. The system would then be in equilibrium. What sort of equilibrium is that when millions of your people are unemployed?

One of the most terrible aspects of rising unemployment is that it is denying choice to young people. There has been a sort of unspoken contract between industry and society: private industry is free to make a great deal of money on the condition that it provide jobs for the great majority of people. If there ever was such a contract, it is now broken. Private large-scale industry is incapable of providing jobs for all the people who want them, including young people entering the job market.

If we turn to the environment and resources, every day brings forth new evidence of the extent to which we are rendering the planet less and less habitable by means of large-scale technology of one kind or another, particularly in the fields of energy and agriculture. There is a general belief in North America that we are exporting a large amount of food. This is true, but it is also true that North America is exporting oil and topsoil. When oil and topsoil cease to be exported by the United States and Canada, God help the developing countries that have become dependent on them. The problem of food production becomes paramount when we consider the future of technology in terms of development.

In the rich industrial countries agriculture is very energy intensive. Chemical fertilizers and heavy machinery destroy a lot of topsoil. The exportation of oil and topsoil by the United States and Canada cannot go on indefinitely, and when it ceases, the developing countries that have become dependent upon food imports will suffer. Oil-based, chemical agriculture has no long-term future. Both in rich and poor countries organic agriculture is the only hope for sustainable food production.

As far as the energy problem is concerned, those who continue to promote nuclear power as the answer must really be insane. Either they do not know what they are doing, or they do not know that it is wrong. They are willing to commit all sorts of violence against Nature and against people and to be the first generation that has had the effrontery to say, “Why should we worry about future generations; what have they ever done for us?” The United States is fortunate to have Amory Lovins as an advocate of a sane energy policy.

The question of diminishing resources, especially oil, is familiar to us all, but we also know that water supplies and even the air we breathe are increasingly threatened. If you look at the simple question of resources, we still have an industrial system based on the use of nonrenewable energy, which happens to be unevenly distributed over the face of the earth. We can’t change the fact that the most abundant oil reserves lie in the Middle East.

It follows that we also have a military system based on nonrenewable energy. Not long ago I mentioned this during a talk I was giving in London, and a group of Army officers came up to me afterward, very agitated, and said they hadn’t really thought about it before, and was it indeed true that the whole system runs on oil and if so, what will happen when the oil runs out? I wasn’t able to help them much. I suggested that the system might have to be scrapped when the oil runs out. They then asked if there were some intermediate technology that could be used to keep the machines going. I told them I had no answer to that, and they went away desperately worried.

What it really comes down to in the rich countries is that for human reasons, for environmental reasons, and for resource reasons our industrial and agricultural technology is no longer sustainable. We must find a new one, and that technology must be relatively small and simple, capital saving, and nonviolent. In our own Group we recently opened a unit called Appropriate Technology in the United Kingdom. 2 One of our first encounters was with two people, one at Bristol University and one at a technical college, who had invented a remarkable electronic device for controlling the electricity consumption of industrial electric motors.They said NASA had developed a similar device, which was already on the market, but it didn’t work very well and was terribly expensive. Theirs, however, is low cost and does work well; within a few years it will probably result in cutting the electricity consumption of industry by about 10 percent as well as reducing a great deal of the capital equipment used at present for controlling electric motors in industry. This interests me a great deal, because if you reduce the electricity consumption of industry by 10 percent, you have driven another nail in the coffin of nuclear power, which exists very largely on the assumption that the demand for electricity is going up forever.

There is an abundance of technological ingenuity in our society that has not been applied on the small scale. In Britain there has recently emerged a very interesting movement of local communities forming themselves into what are loosely called local enterprise trusts. These trusts take many forms legally and constitutionally, but basically they consist of people who believe it is essential to introduce economic activity on a local level intheir community. At the last count there were over one hundred of these trusts, and nearly sixty of them were less than two years old.

There has been an enormous revival of community interest in the local economy. This is a very healthy development, and it is also happening in the areas of health and housing. We found some time ago that there were twenty-five groups dealing in one form or another with self-help housing and about sixty organizations dealing with health on a community basis, in some cases with the collaboration of doctors and in other cases with the oppositionof doctors. People are saying that health is too important to leave to conventional doctors, and they are beginningto look at health not just in the narrow sense of curing disease but in the wider context of promoting human health through more sensible lifestyles, starting with eating organically grown food.

In addition to the growing number of local groups interested in their own economic development there has also been an increase in the number of local energy groups. In Britain, fifteen or twenty groups are coming together to do an inventory of their energy use and, step by step, see how they can first reduce it and then turn to renewable sources. Again, it is very important to link this with the antinuclear movement, because one of the most effective ways of helping to inhibit the use of nuclear power is by cutting down on the amount of energy consumed, quite apart from the cost-saving factor.

These are important movements because much of what we have called economic development has consisted of taking what we used to do freely for ourselves and one another and transferring it to the market, with the result that we now have to pay for it. One of the functions of intermediate technology will be to try to bring back into the household, into the community, and into the locality as many technologies as can be performed at those levels. I see forging the link between community action and the right technologies as the major area for us to focus on over the next ten to fifteen years. More and more people are beginning to understand the importance of this link.

We are told that the present rate of unemployment is structural. What does that mean? Structural means due to the system, the way the system works—as though the system is not created by people. Of course a system which starts by saying that goods and not people are the important thing will create conditions under which we have structural unemployment. Who created the system? We don’t need to have that system. We can bypass it by developing technologies that are small and localized and that save energy and save capital. People who say that the system is responsible, that you can’t do anything about unemployment, put me in mind of the story about the Scottish jury who didn’t know how to decide in the case of a man found lying in a ditch severely beaten. They finally issued a verdict that said it was an act of God under very suspicious circumstances. If unemployment is an act of God, it is one that occurs under very suspicious circumstances.

Really, the title of my talk should be reversed. It shouldn’t be “The Community’s Role in Appropriate Technology”; it should be “Appropriate Technology’s Role in the Community,” because that is what is crucial in recreating communities that have been shattered by our industrial system, a system that will turn out to be only temporary when we look back on it. We need to create for ourselves, as well as for developing countries, technologies that are small, simple, capital saving, and nonviolent. I believe this is crucial also from a political point of view, because we are moving towards greater and greater concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer hands, which is a definition of authoritarianism, whether of the extreme left or the extreme right or the center. Authoritarianism has the same ugly face wherever it happens to appear. The alternative is to redistribute economic power, to give back to communities, families, and local groups the power that has gradually been taken from them. This is what I see as the role of appropriate technology in the community.



1. Now, in 2000, the tradition of self-help on Prince Edward Island is kept alive by the Institute of Island Studies, which is building an international reputation through its work on cultural and economic issues. And Sudbury in Ontario has launched a series of initiatives to revive and strengthen its community, including a community development corporation, a Green Barter system, promotion of small enterprises, and a movement to create better opportunities for children.

2. Appropriate Technology was soon “spun off” as a separate unit, Technology Exchange, specializing in knowledge of small and medium size technologies and their international transfer.


Publication By

George McRobie

George McRobie (1926-2016) was a colleague and friend of E. F. Schumacher for twenty years and in 1965 helped him to form the Intermediate Technology Development Group (now Practical Action). Upon Schumacher’s death he became chairman of the Group, honorary vice-president of the Soil Association, a founding member of the New Economics Foundation and The Other Economic Summit, … Continued

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