Technological Choice


DividerTechnology and the Environment

The Role of the Designer

It has been argued that traditional technologies achieved a much better integration with natural systems than modern technologies do. The advantages of traditional crops and indigenous knowledge of local areas was discussed in the previous chapter. Even tools, transportation and buildings evolved to fit the local conditions. According to Christopher Jones (1980), a product design came to be modified over hundreds of years by trial and error, and the final result was often surprisingly well-balanced result and well suited to the needs of the user. Christopher Alexander (1970) calls this an 'unselfconscious process'. Products, he claims, were bound to adapt towards an 'equilibrium of well-fitting forms', because the only incentive to change occurred when there was a misfit. Any failure of a product to fit its context properly was corrected on the spot, often by the user&emdash;who was also the builder.

Alexander gives the example of African mud huts in the French Cameroon.

"Whether by coincidence or not, the hemispherical shape of the hut provides the most efficient surface for minimum heat transfer, and keeps the inside reasonably well protected from the heat of the equatorial sun. Its shape is maintained by a series of vertical reinforcing ribs. Besides helping to support the main fabric, these ribs also act as guides for rainwater, and are at the same time used by the builder of the hut as footholds which give him access to the upper part of the outside during its construction. Instead of using disposable scaffolding (wood is very scarce), he builds the scaffolding in as part of the structure. What is more, months later this 'scaffolding' is still there when the owner needs to climb up on it to repair the hut." (pp. 30&endash;31)

Design methods changed with the changing requirements of industrialising nations. The traditional evolution of forms was no longer fast enough to keep up with the constant demand for new products in rapidly expanding economies. The design process was removed from the site of manufacture to the drawing board, where scale drawings were made. The designer now had a few hours on a drawing board to achieve what had once taken centuries of adaptation. The scale drawing became the medium for experiment and change. This process removed intellectual activity from manufacture and gave it to a new class of people who made drawings&emdash;that is, the engineer or the architect or the industrial designer.

Economic considerations in engineering design

It was not just the move to the drawing board that transformed engineering design. Engineers were increasingly expected to incorporate economic considerations into their designs and streamline their use of materials. To do this they needed to be able to predict fairly accurately how their products and structures would perform. They made use of models, particularly mathematical models, for this purpose. The models approximated the product in a way that enabled the engineer to calculate what sorts of forces and stresses it might be subject to when in use, and how it would behave in response to them.

Engineering design became more scientific, in part to keep manufacturing and construction costs to a minimum. Engineers try to reduce the cost of their structures and products by reducing their weight and using materials more efficiently. Mike Cooley (n.d., p. 80) suggests that this is why engineers must increasingly resort to mathematical solutions:

"These design stages involve rarefied, complex mathematical procedures which are necessary only because, for commercial reasons, materials have to be exploited to the full. Both the materials and the systems of the products are designed just to perform precisely defined functions for a very short length of time before the product is rendered redundant (planned obsolescence)."

The removal of the design process from the site of its construction and use to the drawing board, the laboratory and the computer has a significant drawback: unlike the former craftsmen, designers are relatively weak at judging the compatibility of a designed product with its environment and the context of its use. In The Culture of Technology, Arnold Pacey gives everyday examples of this problem, which he calls 'halfway technology'. He cites big dams feeding leaking pipes, and electricity-generating stations pumping heat into the atmosphere when electricity is mainly used for heating. This is also what Alexander means by forms that do not fit their context.

Current design methods raise economic considerations over environmental ones. In some cases, economic considerations also serve environmental goals. For example, the minimisation of materials used in a structure means resources are saved. However, they may be saved at the expense of the length of the operating life of a product. If this is the case, economic considerations are in conflict with environmental interests&emdash;which would demand that products be made to last, because of the need to minimise resource usage and waste generation in the long term.

Environmental impact statements have been introduced around the world in recent years in an effort to ensure that the environment is considered by those designing significant engineering projects. Yet the environmental considerations that should be considered at the design stage of every product and project&emdash;such as the choice of materials, layout and processes, and the implications that follow from these&emdash;remain neglected. Environmental considerations are marginalised in the design process.

This treatment of environmental impacts would not be tolerated if it were applied to economic impacts. It would be akin to designing each part of a project without concern for how much the project was going to cost, and then at the end doing an economic impact statement to see whether it was going to be too expensive. Not only would this be inefficient and result in a needlessly expensive project, but any attempts at that stage to cut down on costs would interfere with the integrity of the design.

Can design be political?

Some people argue that not only do technologies incorporate economic considerations at the expense of environmental considerations, but they also incorporate political values and are shaped by the social values of those in power.

The traditional view is that innovations arise from fortuitous discoveries, coming about because of the work of independent scientists and engineers. It has been assumed that such discoveries are then applied if they increase industrial productivity, meet market demands and increase profits. Technology itself is seen as neutral, a view espoused by Jacques Ellul, who said that technique pursues no end: 'It evolves in a purely causal way: the combination of preceding elements furnishes the new technical elements' (1964, p. 97).

However, more recent scholars of technological change tend to argue that the invention and engineering design process is not so fortuitous; rather, it is guided and shaped by the goals of the designers and their employers or clients. Therefore, they argue, it is misleading to consider technologies as neutral. Long before any technology is offered for use on the market, a process of selection occurs that is guided by social and political, as well as economic, considerations.

Langdon Winner, in a well quoted article entitled 'Do artifacts have politics?' (1986), argues that technologies do indeed possess political properties. He gives examples of two ways in which this can occur. In the first he argues that an 'invention, design or arrangement of a specific technical device or system' can favour some groups of people over others. For example, Robert Moses, an engineer, designed extraordinarily low overpasses on Long Island, New York to discourage people visiting his parkways by public transport&emdash;the buses could not fit under the overpasses. Because they did not own cars, racial minorities and low-income groups had limited access to Moses's widely acclaimed park at Jones Beach.

Winner points out that:

"Technological change expresses a panoply of human motives, not the least of which is the desire of some to have domination over others even though it may require an occasional sacrifice of cost savings and some violation of the normal standard of trying to get more from less." (p. 24)

Winner also gives an example of where a technical development has promoted the interests of some social groups while disadvantaging others. The mechanical tomato harvester allowed tomatoes to be picked and sorted automatically. Because the machine was rough on tomatoes, new types of tomatoes were bred that were stronger and more able to be machine handled, but less tasty than previous varieties. The harvester reduced costs but was very expensive to buy. Only wealthy farmers who could afford concentrated, large-scale tomato growing found the harvester economical. Smaller farmers found they could not compete. As a result, more tomatoes were grown by far fewer tomato growers, and tens of thousands of jobs were destroyed. Winner argues that this is an example of technological innovation being introduced to favour the interests of large agribusiness concerns. In this way, the technology reinforces existing patterns of political and economic power.

The second way in which technologies have political properties, according to Winner, is by being compatible with or requiring particular types of political relationships in order to function. For example, it could be argued that nuclear technology requires a centralised, authoritarian power structure run by an elite of experts&emdash;otherwise the risks would be totally unacceptable. However, solar power is more compatible with a democratic, egalitarian society because it can be built in a decentralised, small-scale way that enables local communities to control their own energy production.

Source: Sharon Beder, The Nature of Sustainable Development, 2nd edition, Scribe, Newham, 1996.