How “low tech” encourages thinking and acting outside of technology

The Agency for Environmental Transition (Ademe) conducted a study published in March 2021 to list low-tech approaches and their associated prospects. Because while this concept caught on in the 1970s with authors such as Ivan Illich, Lewis Mumford, Ernst F. Schumacher, Jacques Ellul or Cornelius Castoriadis, there is no generally accepted definition of the term. Therefore, the goal was to offer a different, additional one.

In short, although the mass of the “technosphere” (objects, machines, equipment, infrastructure, etc.) created by humans (estimated at 1,100 billion tons) would exceed the mass of Earth’s biomass (estimated at 1,000 billion tons), according to a study published in nature In December 2020, the low-tech approach aims to reduce the size, intensity and complexity of the technical system of the economy in such a way that it “rebuilds itself”, as the Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi would say, within the limits of the planet.

Comparison of key components of global biomass and anthropogenic mass in 2020 (dry weight basis) – E. Elhachem, L. Ben-Uri, J. Grozowski, Y. M. Bar-On and R. Milo

So let’s try to outline it…

Triptych “Usefulness, durability, availability”.

And specifically? In the minds of people, the term low-tech is associated with the reduction of the ecological footprint of a certain object – for example, a solar cooker or bio-toilets. Low Tech Lab, a low-tech research, documentation and demonstration laboratory, compiles a list of three criteria that characterize low-tech products: affordability, durability and utility.

Accessibility means democratizing access to technical knowledge, know-how (and even interpersonal skills) for open circulation (open source) through transfer and related training courses.

Low-tech is sustainable because it is part of the logic of the circular economy, reuse, reuse, recycle. Therefore, it encourages thinking about sobriety, as well as about the ecological design and simplicity of the technical tool, avoiding, for example, alloys of materials that greatly complicate recycling.

Finally, a low-tech object must be useful: reducing the ecological footprint of an object that satisfies a need arising from ostentatious and excessive consumption would not make sense.

Some criteria of low-tech approaches complement the criteria of Adem's research
Some criteria for the low-tech approach complement those of the Ademe study – Arthur Keller & Émilien Bournigal / Wikimedia CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Legibility, a remedy for technical ambivalence

All these criteria, of course, underlie the definition that Adéme tried to construct, as well as the definition of usefulness: it concerns the notions of sobriety and insight as remedies for the ambivalence of the technique previously used by the historian. and sociologist Jacques Elyul, as well as the need to collectively define its purpose before its development.

A solar water heater may be low-tech in design, but that doesn’t make sense if it’s used to heat a private pool. Similarly, low-tech agricultural tools are meaningless if they serve agricultural organizations and practices that are economically inefficient, energetically unsustainable, and destructive to soil and living things. Conversely, some strategic sectors, such as the military or healthcare, will find it difficult to do without certain advanced technologies.

Behind this is a whole system of thoughts and values ​​that should help transform a low-tech approach, even before a purely technological dimension.

When tinkering and sharing becomes a political gesture
When crafting and sharing become a political gesture – L’atelier Paysan / Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The central question is about needs

As it questions our anthropological relationship to technology, especially in the light of a certain rejection of consumerism, the low-tech approach goes beyond the simple scale of the object or service provided by the technology, and this is what Ademe wanted to show: it is not only a matter of design sustainable technical systems, supporting the existing one, not replacing it, democratizing access to them and controlling their use, but also, above all, questions about our needs from various combined points of view (psychological, sociological, medical, economic, cultural, historical , geographical, etc.).

In an attempt to objectify, such an approach could lead to a transition from the GDP totemization model, from reductionism to the individual consumer, and from technological solutionism to the “power to live well and do things together” model. characterized by quantitative and qualitative indicators of climate, energy, food, environmental, medical, technological, economic, social issues, identity, cultural and physical insecurity, which have suffered from the cumulative effects of globalization and overcrowding.

Level of social inequality, access to work, life expectancy in good health, quality of energy, food, water, air, soil, education, health care, information, access to mobility, culture and nature, resilience to shocks, health indicators (obesity, alcoholism, smoking, etc.), levels of violence, progression of separatism and obscurantism, etc.: so many variables that need to be analyzed in their interaction to create the conditions for strong social cohesion necessary for a more sober and resilient nation, and hence , lower. – technical

Like any approach to sobriety, it must be part of a planned and fair management of planetary constraints by the state, favoring, for example, instruments of structural regulation through quantitative indicators (regulation, democratically determined quotas) in parallel with investments in alternatives. Because cyclical price controls (aid, taxes), in addition to increasing the national debt, punish especially the humblest among us, or do not free them from dependence on limited resources, when the richest have the reserves to significantly reduce consumption and the means to circumvent or support taxation.

Internal system approach

Ambitions that open up a broad interdisciplinary field of scientific research and experimentation that includes a systems approach that takes into account various endogenous and exogenous variables, their complex interactions, and the goals or functions of the system under consideration.

Let’s take the example of the mobility system. A low-tech approach then begins a global analysis leading to a system transformation project, reducing its intensity and technological complexity, anticipating the rebound effect and alienating the human.

Today, we see that the energy consumption and emissions of cars are not falling, despite more efficient and less polluting engines. And this is due not only to the increase in the size of the global vehicle fleet, but also to the increase in the unit weight of vehicles associated with the addition of equipment for comfort and safety, which itself is caused by social demand, shaped by marketing and social mimicry ( advertising , influencers, etc.), as well as permitted by traffic rules at high speed.

Thus, in a mobility system dominated by the individual car, in many variables (equipment, vehicles, infrastructure, traffic rules, services, facilities, collective imagination, etc.), the use of vehicles considered to be more low-tech, such as the bicycle and its variations will not be able to deploy quickly.

ADEME Low-Tech Mobility Conference September 29, 2020 (France Innovation, September 29, 2020)

​Passage to the ladder for engagement

In addition, the issue of the deployment of low-tech systems on a larger scale involves thinking about socio-economic and organizational models that will contribute to the expansion of scales, in particular through the lever of sharing, that is, natural, technical, as well as socio-cultural and political resources. defined and governed by assemblies of citizens or their representatives in accordance with democratically established rules.

For example, Ademe has launched a national initiative called the eXtreme Challenge, which aims to develop ecosystems for the design and production of low-tech vehicles intermediate between a bicycle and a car. A series of standardized vehicles, very light, with low fuel consumption, easy to repair and equipped with fewer spare parts, which are intended to be a reliable alternative to cars, especially in sparsely populated areas.

This challenge aims to create territorial ecosystems with local participants and standardized and open production processes according to the common logic mentioned above, to remove intellectual property barriers and accelerate the deployment of knowledge and know-how in collaborative work. prospect. The goal of the eXtreme Challenge is to have these ecosystems up and running within three years with the production of 30 to 40 cars per year at “series production” rates.

The strategy of moving to Europe

Finally, this territorial dimension of the low-tech approach also aims to reorganize physical flows (of goods and people) in time and space. Thus, it is part of national strategies for the relocation of production activities and regional planning with the desire to rebalance the dynamics between metropolises, which are very fragile and resistant to future shocks in terms of their size and intensity of activity, and rural areas in terms of demographics. decline, often socio-economic devastation.

It can make a powerful contribution to this territorial balancing strategy, in particular by favoring small and medium-sized cities and villages connected by a fine network of mobility systems for people and goods (bicycle, intermediate vehicle, bus, city bus, car sharing, train, boat ), and by developing a thriving economy that is more intensive in highly skilled and valued physical, service and intellectual work (and sometimes in combination with several professions) than in technology and machinery, mainly based on ecological and peasant agriculture, and much more in general about the preservation of ecosystems and the care of living beings.

In fact, it aims to be a creator of meaning, to restore the value of work as a way of liberation and autonomy, both individual and collective, following the struggle of the European labor movements that accompanied the industrial revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries.

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This analysis was written by Thibaut Faucon, Scientific and Technical Coordinator of Ademe (Agency for Ecological Transition).

The original article is published on the website Conversation.

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