IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - Spring 2014 - 24

while decreasing complications that arise due to mispolymers to create heat-resistant vaccines [22]. At the
use. At the same time, it can foster dependency and not
same time, low-tech products like a refrigeration flask
actually address all the systemic issues faced by users.
that provides 24 hours of refrigeration after being
For example, in India, cellphone companies are devotheated for 30 minutes are also being developed. Howing significant resources to services like mobile money
ever, even this low technology shows that the high-low
transfers that allow rural populations to easily transfer
dichotomy is not as strict as it seems, because the flask
money for goods and services. However, many lessis based on the results of complex computational fluid
educated users lack the trust and self-confidence to use
dynamics simulations [23].
the service by themselves. Instead, they go to a local
In other words, high-tech solutions can lead to simple
agent for the transaction. In this case, the extra effort
low-tech products that are more likely to be sustainable
to simplify the application for end-users is not needed.
in low-resource contexts. At the same time, leapfrogIn healthcare, direct-to-consumer
ging technologies like cell phones and
technologies have tried to deskill and
solar power systems might present viable
High-tech
promote self-medication. Biomedical
and highly-scalable solutions. rather than
solutions can
devices like glucose monitors, scales,
building and maintaining roads across the
and thermometers are marketed to indilead to simple African continent, low-cost airlines might
vidual consumers. However, the usefulbe a more practical and cost-effective
low-tech
ness of certain tests and the implications
solution. Further, an extremely high-tech
products
of their results are often difficult to conendeavor has the potential to transform
that are more
vey to less-educated users. An example
into a ubiquitous technology. GpS navigaof this would be over-the-counter HIV
tion systems, developed for military and
likely to be
tests that can be completed in the privacy
aeronautic operations at the cost of bilsustainable in
of one's home. The device is a technolions of dollars, are easily affordable and
low-resource
logical improvement, but the educational
find applications in a variety of poverty
contexts.
and medical information needed after an
alleviation endeavors. GpS devices are as
HIV diagnosis, whether positive or negaexcellent example of a high technology
tive, is not readily accessible to individuthat has become so ubiquitous that people
als. Therefore, many patients still go to testing centers
don't regard it as high-tech anymore.
for assistance. A more appropriate approach to this
system might involve increasing Community Health
Is it More Important for Technologies
Workers' access to these devices and the necessary
to Be Affordable or Durable?
post-diagnosis educational material. This paradigm
Engineers sometimes face a conflict between minimalwould refocus efforts away from deskilling, more
ist, low-maintenance, short-term solutions and more
towards the entire pre- and post-diagnosis user expecomplex, expensive, but long-lasting ones. These decirience. Technology developers must look beyond
sions need to be informed and tempered by consumer
developing the specific technology to incorporate
expectations, socioeconomic conditions, access to
systems-level issues into the design process. They
capital, and cultural preferences, among other factors.
need to consider who will be using the device, what
Do consumers want an inexpensive device that must be
their educational level will be, and what situations the
replaced every year or a more expensive device that will
technology could precipitate.
last longer but that requires repairs? Are the resources
needed for repairs available? Is it easy to acquire a loan
Should Low Technology Products be Emphasized
for a longer-lasting product or is it easier to continually
over High Technology Products?
save money for consumable items?
"Low technology" involves skills predating the indusOne way of balancing repair needs versus lifecycle
trial revolution, which are often the only options readily
is to incorporate maintenance requirements directly
available and sustainable within the existing infrastrucinto the core of the social venture. SELCO, a social
ture of developing communities. In contrast, "high
enterprise in India, provides personalized solar power
technology" products exhibit complexity in the product
systems for customers with routine maintenance
itself, its manufacturing process, and the enabling infraintegrated into product costs [24]. While the initial
structure necessary to operate and sustain it. Somecosts may be higher, this approach ensures that the
times, both high and low technology alternatives can be
solar systems are maintained by trained technicians
employed to address the same problem. For instance,
and continue to meet the needs of customers. Other
nearly 2.1 million people die each year from vaccinesocial enterprises develop their technology under a
preventable diseases, often because the vaccines can"do-it-yourself" methodology to encourage end-users
not be transported without refrigeration [21]. Social
to understand the product and take responsibility for
enterprises like Nanoly are developing nanotechnology
maintenance. The challenge is that required tools are
24

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IEEE TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY MAGAZINE

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SprING 2014



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