Energy SystemsVillage Development

So Where Does the ‘Appropriate’ in ‘Appropriate Technology’ Come From?

by Bob Corker and Tim Barker, PRI New Zealand (Koanga Institute)

So where does the ‘appropriate’ in ‘Appropriate Technology’ come from? To me, it is technology that ‘fits’ well into a place or setting. You’re not further enlightened? Okay, I’ll make some generalizations and go from there. For the ‘technology’ part, I like W. Brian Arthur’s definition, whereby technology is the capture or use of a phenomena for a specific purpose. So this could be everything from construction of a compost pile (consciously promoting the action of bacteria to break down organic matter for whatever reason) to a system of community governance. The ‘appropriate’ comes in when you recognise that some ways of developing local communities resonate better with human behavior than others — say, community land trusts as opposed to landlord/tenant arrangements.

The appropriate part is generally covered by the following:

  • it is human centered and human scaled
  • it is easily replicable and understandable
  • it focuses on locally available resources
  • it tends to be labour intensive but energy efficient.

In less developed countries, appropriate technology is generally centered around small scale economic development (eleviation of poverty) and health, while in more developed nations, it tends to center around environmental concerns.

As a case in point, take wood cooking fires — something like two million people (mainly women and children) die each year from diseases directly attributable to the inhalation of smoke from cooking fires and vast numbers of trees are chopped down in areas that are already suffering from deforestation. Indeed, one of the leading contributing factors for rape in rural areas is women searching for firewood in remote spots.

The development of simple, efficient, wood burning stoves addresses all these issues. Efficient combustion means no smoke, less wood required, reduced risk getting wood, as less distance covered, and less time wasted. All this leads to improved quality of live and less environmental degredation, it’s win/win all the way.

Flip this over to the first world and we see the focus shifts when using these wood stoves to environmental concerns of burning less wood, being carbon neutral, and generally being perceived to be more ‘green.’ While some of the perceived needs and motivations of these two perspectives are different, generally the methods are about using local resources with simple technologies to achieve certain goals, be it less labour to collect wood or for making great pizza.

What we are exploring with our appropriate technology program is ‘real world’ applications. The ‘problem’ with many of the popular appropriate technologies is that the context and reasoning for them is often misguided and very often they simply haven’t been designed and constructed in a way that makes them practical to use. A case in point is the popular backyard cob oven. They consume large amounts of wood, burn inefficiently, take ages to get to heat, waste large amounts of that heat and consume quite a large amount of time and effort to construct.

Being brutally honest, the context of a cob oven in a back yard is simply wrong. Originally, these ovens were lit every day and then used throughout the day with each use using the lower grade heat as the oven cooled. The next day the oven would still be warm so less energy is required to get it back up to temperature. This is the correct context for a cob oven, not fire it up once every week or two weeks just to cook three pizzas. Don’t get me wrong, I think cob oven food is amazing but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we’re being ‘green’ cooking with them in the context of our back yards. Here at the Koanga Institute, we’ve taken a different tack and that is recycling old electric or gas ovens that would be destined for landfill and converting them with the use of simple materials into wood burners that use very little wood, burn cleanly, cook beautifully and are durable and easy to use while taking much less time and energy to construct.

In the context of natural systems, energy (from the sun) follows a linear path, slowly degrading as it passes through an ecosystem, while resources (nutrients, minerals, etc.) generally cycle around pretty much continuously; it’s sustainable.

In the context of the current industrial system and indeed the operating system of the modern world, the short one-off abundance of fossil fuels has allowed us to develop a system that consumes vast amounts of energy (acting as though it were limitless) while taking resources and treating them in an entirely non-cyclic fashion, turning them into waste.

What we all need to do, and what we are attempting to do at the Koanga Institute, is to see the big picture — an holistic view of all our actions informed by an ethical framework.

  1. We need a simplification of our material needs.
  2. Whatever we do, we need to consider a respectful integrated use of the four fundamental ecosystem processes — the water cycle, the mineral cycle, energy flows, and community dynamics (Allan Savory/holistic managment).
    3. We do all this in the context of developing resilient local communities.

Taking all the above into account, our major goals are those technologies dealing with:

  • Energy usage
  • Nutrition
  • Shelter
  • Community

With our ongoing blog, we will be discussing various technologies, the links between technology and culture, future directions and any links to others doing similar interesting stuff. We hope to do all of this while remaining grounded in the fact that we will make mistakes and have disappointments, but that’s half the fun, and as a wise man once said "if you ain’t making mistakes you ain’t learning."


  1. “To me, it is technology that ‘fits’ well into a place or setting.”

    This is a very good description of the “technology of life”:

    Note also that the word technology simply means “the knowledge of making”.

    Instead of differing “high tech” from “low tech” I find it more appropriate to differ between the “technology of life” and the “technologies of death”.

    The “technologies of death” is then those which doesn’t fit well into place or setting. In other words, they decrease the intensity of life rather than increasing it.

  2. Nice one Tim. Sounds like some of the HM sunk in! 2 sessions to go. May your holistic context bring you and your community wealth beyond belief.

  3. Thank you for the comments and the link Oyvind. Hi Scott i have HM envy , wished i could have been there with you guys and gals.

  4. Hi All
    This article was co written by Bob Corker and Myself its just that it was put up under my name so questions can also be directed to Bob Especially regarding the Rocket stove in the photo as thats his baby not mine .
    Cheers Tim

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