Monday, June 16, 2014
Small is Beautiful and Practical Action
On 14 June 2014 I attended the annual supporters day organised by Practical Action (www.practicalaction.org/) that is one of my two holy days (the other is Levellers Day held each year in Burford). Practical Action would be known to my generation as the rebranded Intermediate Technology Development Group inspired in the 60s by Fritz Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful:A study of Economics as if People Mattered (SiB). The 200 plus supporters are taken through the achievements of this development charity over the last year showing how the use of appropriate technologies had improved if not saved lives. As an example, the session on agriculture explained how the use of monitoring the rainfall combined with local knowledge was making smallholders in Zimbabwe more resilient to the variable and more extreme weather that was coming through changes to the climate. By focusing on poverty alleviation PA will locate its operations where agriculture is already a marginal activity and changes to weather patterns could push many smallholders ‘over the edge’. My interest is to see not only the consequences of climate change for which the developed world must shoulder the greatest responsibility, but to see technologies that could be as appropriate to the over- developed world as to that which is seen to be still developing. This confusion of language could be addressed through the emphasis on ‘appropriate’ but also to adaptive technologies, those suited to the changes to climate and weather. I remember that the external examiner of my undergraduate dissertation was curious if unimpressed that SiB appeared in my bibliography. However, 40 years later, in a world where the public discourse on planning is about major infrastructure (HS2 and nuclear power stations) and large scale housing (including new settlements), I do wonder about the value which should be placed on repair and adaptation of our built environment. Not only could this approach prove to be better value for money but the outcomes (eg less mobility but more access, distributed energy systems, better fit between the size of houses and households) might be what most people would want if treated as if they mattered. I would recommend a (re) reading of SiB and joining Practical Action to support its activities in the developing world and to reflect on our role in making these problems worse (eg unfair trade and excessive carbon emissions) and how some of the ‘practical answers’ could have applications here.