What distinguishes a nice technology from a nasty one?

June 23, 2010 3 By admin

Gave a short presentation to the Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum last week on the thorny topic of food security, innovation and safety. The speakers and audience were mainly on the science/policy interface, (a very different epistemic community from last week’s EU aid gabfest, but the powerpoints were just as bad). Most of the discussion concerned the UK, rather than international issues, but there were messages of relevance to a development wonk.

In particular, everyone stressed the need to move beyond ‘pure’ research focussed on technological fixes for food production, and adopt more participatory, holistic and inter-disciplinary approaches. But they acknowledged that in reality, the academic incentives all point in the other direction – status (and research funding) stems from citations in prestigious journals, not impact on the real world; research funding pushes people towards single discipline approaches, because interdisciplinary work takes much longer (building all that trust, learning each other’s academic languages and mindsets) and so is more expensive; the push to link up universities and the private sector means less research being made publicly available.

I discussed the ‘technology as magic bullet v double-edged sword’ dichotomy that is always present, though often implicitly, in NGO thinking. I started off with a positive example (h/t Steve Jennings): access to reliable, appropriate seasonal weather forecasts (with support to farmers on how to use the information) has been shown in various countries to increase agricultural production by 10-20% without any other intervention. This is because it provides information that allows farmers to make better decisions. As climate change makes traditional knowledge of the weather less useful, that impact is only likely to increase. For an example from Mali, see here, and hop to page 59.

Lessons from this?:

Technology doesn’t have to be ‘new’ to make a big difference – mobile phones or old-school radios can do the trick

‘Good’ technology empowers poor people and reduces inequality

needs translation

needs translation

Social context is crucial: ‘now is a good time to plant’ is a lot more effective than ‘’look at this map’ or ‘you have a 60% chance of above average rainfall at some point over the next 10 days’, especially if relayed in the farmer’s first language.

The discussion got me thinking about why (to caricature grotesquely) NGOs tend to see some technologies as ‘nice’, others as ‘nasty’.

Nice: IT, internet, mobile phones, vaccines, renewables
Nasty: GM, nanotech, geoengineering, biofuels, nuclear

I had previously assumed that the distinction is arbitrary, but actually, the division makes a lot of sense – the ‘good’ technologies

Care to join my epistemic community?

Care to join my epistemic community?

empower poor people, while the bad ones tend to be under centralized control (often corporate, via patents or the massive investments required) and can often exclude poor people or actually damage them (e.g. biofuel plantations driving small farmers off the land).

So rather than good and bad technologies per se, it comes down to good and bad governance. Another possible dividing line is that ‘bad’ technologies raise fears of irreversible negative consequences, (contamination of non-GM crops, nuclear accidents) whereas ‘good’ technologies are dispersed and less likely to cause havoc (apart from mobile phones making it even harder to have an intelligent conversation with teenagers). Can anyone recommend anything to read on this?

And one nice soundbite I nicked from Lawrence Haddad at IDS – in research on food systems, we need to find ways to move the focus away from the billion bottoms (obesity) to the bottom billion (poverty).