A Practical Vision: Simple Technology that Transforms Lives

Using technology for development and social change is not just a question of clever gadgets, but of a vision for the future. In today’s Digital Diversity, Simon Trace of the NGO Practical Action explains how giving people access to technology that is safe, simple and sustainable has transformative effects not just on individual lives but on whole societies.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from FrontlineSMS about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Olivia O’Sullivan, our Media and Research Assistant.

By Simon Trace

I work for Practical Action, the international development charity that helps poor people in the developing world use technology to transform their lives. The phrase ‘Technology Justice’ is not in common usage, but for Practical Action it represents a vision of the future; a future where everyone has access to technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same.

Today the world exists in a state that is far from that vision. 20% of the world’s population exists on less than US $2 a day and the technologies necessary to attain even a fairly basic standard of living remain outside of their grasp.

Access to basic energy supplies is a good case in point. Here’s a simple thought experiment to try. Run through in your mind all the different things you do during the first two hours of your day, after getting out of bed on a dark and cold winter’s morning. Done? Now try to imagine going through that list of activities again, only this time without the help of electricity, gas or oil in your home, your neighbourhood or your place of work. For most of us who live in the so called ‘developed’ world, that’s probably the closest we’ll come to appreciating what it must be like living without access to modern energy supplies. But for around 40% of the world’s population it’s a daily reality: 1.4 billion people are still living in the dark, without electricity and 2.7 billion are still cooking over open fires.


A child collects wood for fuel in Zimbabwe. (Photo: Practical Action.)


This lack of access has profound effects on people’s lives. Collection of firewood can take several hours a day and the respiratory diseases brought on from the smoke from cooking fires are responsible for more deaths in the world each year than malaria. Both of these burdens fall disproportionately on women and children. Lack of electricity means no way to cool and preserve food, no TV, no phones, no light for children to study by, no refrigeration for vaccines in health posts and no light by which to provide maternity services after dark.


The power house at the Chipendeke micro hydro scheme, Zimbabwe. (Photo: Practical Action.)


A different world is possible. I was in the village of Chipendeke in Mutare District in Zimbabwe, close to the Mozambique border a few months ago. Although grid electricity is unlikely to reach this rural location in the foreseeable future, I saw lives being transformed by a simple micro-hydroelectric scheme. The project uses a local stream to power a turbine, providing electricity to around 100 households, a school, a health post and several small businesses. The technology used is well established, robust and straightforward to maintain. This enables it to be operated and managed by the community using it, reducing costs and ensuring local accountability. On another continent I visited our programme in Nepal a couple of weeks ago. There, working in partnership with the German company Bosch Siemens Household Appliances, we have been developing a new design of smoke hood and chimney to remove indoor air pollution from cook stoves. The hood allows World Health Organisation (WHO) standards of air quality to be achieved even from an open cooking fire. When combined with an improved wood burning cookstove, the hood can significantly reduce the time and effort spent collecting fuel and the death toll from smoke pollution in the home.


A simple smoke hood in use in a house in the hills of Nepal. (Photo: Practical Action.)


Over the past century, living conditions for the majority of the population in the UK have been transformed.  One hundred years ago electricity was still too expensive for all but the wealthy (in fact even by 1933 only 1 in 3 houses in the UK had electricity). Most houses would only have had one tap for water, in the kitchen, and if you lived in one of the northern industrial cities, you were likely to still likely to be defecating into a bucket – only 750 of Rochdale’s 10,000 houses had toilets at the time. Infectious diseases were prevalent amongst children across the country with 50% of 5 to 9 year-olds dying from such causes between 1911 and 1915. Life expectancy at birth was just 45 years for boys and 49 years for girls.

We have witnessed huge improvements in our standards of living, underpinned by improvements in access to basic technologies, over the past 100 years. But that pace of change has not been achieved in the developing world. Moreover, our attention has moved on to the wants of the consumer rather than the needs of those left behind. The bulk of technology innovation today occurs around issues that are irrelevant to tackling the problems of the poor. The Global Health Forum estimated in 1990 that only about 5% of the world’s resources for health research were being applied to the health problems of low and middle-income countries, where 93% of the world’s preventable deaths occurred for example. We live in a world where, according to Bill Gates, more money is spent on researching a cure to male baldness than on finding a vaccine for malaria. A world where the gap between those who have access to the technologies they need to live a decent quality of life and those who don’t is growing into a yawning chasm and where, 132 years after Edison introduced the first commercially viable incandescent light bulb, a fifth of humanity still lives in the dark.

Technology Justice is an achievable vision. But we have to reprioritise and focus our efforts in the places that really matter.

Simon Trace took up his appointment as CEO of Practical Action in October 2005. During his time with Practical Action the organisation has received growing recognition and has won a number of international awards, including the United Nations Environment Programme’s Sasakawa Prize for its work on renewable energy in Peru in 2008.  Prior to this appointment at Practical Action, Simon was Strategic Development Director for the UK NGO WaterAid. A civil engineer by training, Simon also studied anthropology. Simon’s career has principally been in community development, in the fields of soil and water conservation or water and sanitation, and he has spent time with a number of agencies, including periods of secondment to CARE and Unicef.  He also spent a total of 10 years in Zambia and Nepal prior to moving to London to take up a series of positions with WaterAid, including Asia Regional Manager and Head of International Operations.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of kiwanja.net and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.