Appropriate Technology 2017-12-14T16:24:04+00:00

Appropriate Technology

The social enterprise leader must understand the importance of appropriate technology (sometimes known as culturally appropriate or intermediate technology), and staff the social enterprise with people with such expertise.

Appropriate technology, which is a key element of social entrepreneurship, has been defined as a form of economic development involving “small-scale, labor-intensive, energy efficient, environmentally sound, people-centered, and locally controlledprojects.” (Pachamama Alliance, 2017). Appropriate technology is key to social entrepreneurship since much of social entrepreneurship is also developmental entrepreneurship, i.e., small startups operating in areas of poverty, adversity, and/or weak infrastructure (Pentland, Quadir, Barahona, & Bonsen, 2003), The importance of the technologist to the social enterprise, whether designer, engineer, et al is recognized in the difficulty of developing products and services that fulfill a social good, are culturally appropriate, and aren’t necessarily driven by particularly lucrative or broad market demand (Papanek, 2005). The technologist in conjunction with the social enterprise leader is especially challenged to develop technical specifications that don’t exceed local educational or resource capacities. Examples in the developing world would be “low power refrigeration, solar stoves, water filtration, composting toilets and relatively simple to build and maintain water pumps” (Pentland, et al., 2003, p.10).

An exhibition originally mounted at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in 2007 called “Design for the Other 90%” made the point that,

“There are 6.5 billion people on this planet, 90 percent of whom can’t afford basic products and services. Half of them, nearly three billion people, don’t have regular access to food, shelter or clean water. Yet whenever we think, or talk, about design, it’s invariably about something that’s intended to be sold to one of the privileged minority – the richest 10 percent.” (Rawsthorn, 2007)

A leader in social and developmental entrepreneurship and in the development of appropriate technology for the other 90% is Paul Polak who is also an MD and a psychiatrist. In his work he found that by changing the design, pricing, marketing, and distribution of their products, social enterprises can help end extreme poverty while still making profits (Polak, 2008). His goals have been to create technologies that are affordable, miniaturized, and locally procurable and adaptable. Examples are a low carbon emission biomass that takes the place of coal, a drinking straw that makes contaminated water drinkable, a solar powered irrigation pump, and a simple electro-chlorination technology for safe drinking water sold to rural Indians through locally owned kiosks (Polak, 2013; Polak, 2008; Rawsthorn, 2007). Polak uses a concept called zero based design (Polak, 2013) which involves discarding preconceptions for working in the developed world when attempting to solve problems of poverty in the developing world. Part of this concept involves using local distributors as well as local producers paid at local wages. Polak (1978) has stated, “Small-scale technology … is usually far more workable than large-scale technology in third-world countries. Systematic dismantling of complex technology to make it fit the culture is far more practical than trying to make a local culture adapt to an inappropriate technology.”

Products for disabled people that would increase their mobility or ability to perform work, such as assistive technology (ATIA, 2016) are also an example of appropriate technology. Assistive technology is defined as “any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities” (ATIA, 2016). Assistive technology can be either high-tech or low-tech. Cardboard communication boards and specialized computer hardware and software all fall under this rubric as do mobility devices such as wheelchairs, walkers, and lifts. The emphasis on technically assisting underserved populations both in the developed and developing world also relates to the ethical basis of social entrepreneurship.


Assistive Technology Industry Association [ATIA] (2016). What is assistive technology? [Web page]. Retrieved from

Pachamama Alliance. (2017). Appropriate technology. [Web page]. Retrieved from

Papanek, V. (2005). Design for the real world: Human ecology and social change (2nd ed.). Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Pentland, S., Quadir, I., Barahona, J.C., & Bonsen, J. (2003). Developmental entrepreneurship: Intro & overview, MAS.666 /15.971. [PowerPoint Slides]. Retrieved from, MIT Open Courseware. Cambridge: MIT.

Polak, P. (1978, March). Sharks, pigs, & coconuts: Economic development and mental health. Paper presented at the 55th Annual Meeting of the American Orthopsychiatric Association, San Francisco, CA. Retrieved from

Polak, P. (2008). Out of poverty: What works when traditional approaches fail? Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Polak, P.& Warwick, M. (2013). The business solution to poverty: Designing products and services for three billion new customers.Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Rawsthorn, A. (2007, April 29). Alice Rawsthorn on design for the unwealthiest 90 percent.The New York Times. [Online article]. Retrieved from;