Low-tech, innovations for the resilience of territories
Note rapide n° 837
Institut d’aménagement et d’urbanisme de la région d’Île-de-France (IAU)
In recent years, low-tech, or low-tech designs, have been gaining notoriety. Many initiatives are drawing up credible alternatives to the all-technological and are part of the ambition of ecological transformation. These useful innovations, sober and adapted to the local context, constitute a formidable lever for development. They improve the resilience of territories in a context of tension over resources and contribute to a new positive narrative of progress.
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The response to major environmental, economic and social challenges often refers to solutions provided by high-tech: green-tech, smart-tech, deep-tech, etc. But we forget that these innovations are complex, energy-intensive and rely on increased consumption of already scarce resources. As a result of these tensions, they could find themselves competing with more adapted technologies, strongly anchored in uses, the low-tech. Their interest has already been underlined as early as the 1960s by several intellectuals, notably the economist Ernst Schumacher, a proponent of the small is beautiful. Useful, sober, accessible, adapted to the local context, acting in complementarity with other technologies, they offer an alternative path in response to the needs and aspirations for progress of citizens. In order to do this, we need to change the way we think about innovation today.
The major challenges that technology alone cannot meet
According to Marc Giget, economist and innovation specialist, five major trends mark the evolution of today’s world: strong growth and redistribution of the world’s population; globalisation of the economy; accelerated urbanisation of society; global warming and growth in pollution; evolution and renewal of technologies. These developments bring challenges and growing concerns to which innovation must respond. Green » and smart technologies are invariably presented as the key to solving these challenges: renewable energies, autonomous cars, hydrogen storage, CO2 capture and sequestration, smart grids, nanotechnologies, etc. Often backed by the development of digital technology, they seem to bring some form of dematerialization of the economy or, at the very least, substantial progress in material productivity. However, the direct and indirect environmental impacts (rebound effects, « Lexicon » opposite) linked to their growing use are underestimated. The miniaturisation of equipment, the « invisibility » of the infrastructures used and the relocation of the production of the vast majority of equipment give the illusion of a decoupling between the production of value and the consumption of materials. To manufacture a computer, 240 kg of fossil fuels, 22 kg of chemicals and 1.5 t of water are needed. Each Paris Region resident consumes 6.5 t of materials per year, 20 t per year if we include his or her consumption of finished products manufactured outside the Paris Region.
In the vast majority of cases, high technologies are accelerating the extraction of materials and the resulting pollution (water, soil, biodiversity, natural areas, etc.) and are making the recycling of end of life products increasingly complex1. These consumer goods, which are designed with a logic of programmed obsolescence or competitive/price outbidding, are quickly discarded because they are difficult to repair or quickly become outdated. Christophe de Maistre, former CEO of Siemens France [Utopies, 2014], explains that by aiming to do « more with more » in order to differentiate themselves, products become too complex, and functionalities increase faster than the needs in order to use only a small part of them: on average only 10% of the functionalities of productivity software such as Microsoft Office.
Relying exclusively on high-tech to make the ecological transition would be risky. Innovating in the face of today’s challenges means questioning usage and thinking about the costs, both economic and environmental, induced by our habits.
Do we always need more? How can we better respond to the right need and make it accessible to the greatest number of people?
The need to restore meaning
The dynamics of ecological transition, in order to be acceptable and sustainable, also implies bringing concrete and rapid benefits to a growing number of citizens. This ever-increasing logic is currently facing three major limitations2 : the deterioration of the conditions of access to resources, the decline in the purchasing power of a large part of the population and a disconnection between the supply of products and the improvement of the living conditions of their potential customers.3 The exponential growth of technological products and services has contributed to disconnecting innovation from the real needs and expectations of the population. The exponential growth of technological products and services has contributed to disconnecting innovation from the real needs and expectations of the population. Only one French person in ten now perceives it as an opportunity to improve everyday life. Consumers expect brands to bring them pragmatic service benefits and work for society. Moreover, this disconnection has a negative impact on the contribution of technology and feeds a feeling of exclusion for a growing number of citizens. A significant part of the population, 20 to 30%, cannot adapt to advanced technologies or even refuse them. Innovation issues also arise in terms of accessibility. Over the last three decades, GDP growth has been achieved without affecting the problem of inequality, poverty rates, quality of education, etc. The challenges of innovation also arise in terms of accessibility. However, one of the foundations of innovation is to improve living conditions. For André Torre3 , innovation should not be captured by technologists. It is also organizational, social or institutional.
How do you recognize a low-tech?
By low-tech, we mean an evolutionary approach that encourages sobriety in consumption and production thanks to technologies that are easy to use. It does not mean a rejection of technology, but its fair and sufficient use to reduce environmental impact. For Philippe Bihouix, an engineer specializing in resource depletion [Bihouix, 2014], the low-tech approach revolves around three questions:
the need: is the environmental damage « worth » the usefulness of the object or service provided? Do we need an umbrella drone, a fan connected to our smartphone, a robot to park cars at the airport, a connected refrigerator?
the life span of products: is a product disposable? What is the share of renewable or non-renewable resources in its manufacture? The share of local resources? Is it repairable, reusable, modular, easy to dismantle, recyclable?
The socio-economic value of production methods: should the race for scale be continued or would it be better to develop workshops and companies on a human scale? Should we not review the place of human beings, the degree of mechanization and robotization, the way we arbitrate today between labour, resources and energy? In this respect, there are similarities between the low-tech and open source movements, fab labs and fab city, which converge in the challenge of reappropriating production techniques and tools.
A low-tech product is simple, sober and locally controllable, if not for manufacturing, then at least for repair and recycling. Accessible in terms of cost and know-how, it provides a sustainable response to current and essential needs in terms of energy, food, health, housing and transport (boxes pp. 3-4). The low-tech approach consists of rethinking products based on uses, specific expectations and local resources, and proposing solutions that limit the impact on the environment.
Capital goods: from programmed obsolescence to sustainability
New low-tech products will revolutionize everyday consumer goods. Presented in 2015 at the Cité des sciences et de l’industrie, the L’Increvable washing machine by industrial designer Christopher Santerre has a promise of fifty years of life. The appliance has also been designed so that anyone can easily repair it and comes with a set of online services to facilitate maintenance. The company intends to put an end to the programmed obsolescence of electrical and electronic products and is looking for an industrialist to launch its equipment. Another young designer, Paul Morin, designed the IMPRO printer, simplified and wall-mounted, removable, repairable, rechargeable, with visible reservoirs rather than ink cartridges.
Associative and collaborative digital
Computer science teachers in Cambridge designed a minimalist computer, the Raspberry Pi, in 2006. The size of a credit card, in open source, it costs only 35 €. It can be turned into a games console, weather station, web server and camera. With 25 million copies sold, it is the third best-selling computer model of all time. In terms of operating systems, lighter versions of the free and collaborative Linux system have been developed to extend the effective use of computers with obsolete performance. As for Internet access, the French Data Network (FDN), an association of volunteers, was a pioneer in providing access to decentralized Internet networks as early as 1992. Examples of a possible low-tech breakthrough in digital technology.
Innovative and sustainable mobility
Mobility is seeing the emergence of many innovations aimed at reducing the environmental impact of transport, while diversifying modes of travel. The K-Ryole company offers electric bicycle trailers that can carry up to 250 kg, which are practical, more ecological and economical. After more than two years of research and development, the Danish artistic collective N55 has presented its XYZ utility and modular cycles, which can be self-constructed. In individual cars, Jérémy Cantin, a garage owner from the Vendée, will be presenting his ElectroCox, a beetle converted to electricity, at the 2019 Motor Show. The Swiss scooter brand MicroMobility has also designed the Microlino, a small, lightweight electric car.
New farming practices
In 2009, a few organic market gardeners and technicians from the Association des producteurs biologiques du nord-est rhônalpin (Adabio) decided to make new tools themselves to improve their farming practices. They then took stock of farmers’ know-how in self-construction of tools and created L’Atelier paysan, a cooperative that supports farmers in the design and manufacture of machines and buildings adapted to a peasant agro-ecology. All the plans can be found in open source on the Internet and training courses are given all over France. The farmer only pays for the materials that will enable him to develop a tool at the end of the course. The educational cost is covered by training aid organisations. The Atelier paysan also wishes to develop its R&D around an experimental farm to test prototypes.
Tomorrow’s housing: tradition and innovation
The Manifesto for Happy & Creative Frugality has already collected more than 6,800 signatures. This collective promotes low-energy approaches to housing through the rediscovery of traditional materials and the development of innovative building systems. Biosourced (wood, straw, hemp, miscanthus, flax, etc.) and geosourced (raw earth, dry stone) materials are at the heart of its approaches, as their manufacturing process requires little energy. The techniques can be appropriated. The Collect’IF Paille offers training in self-construction. Several projects are underway in the Paris Region to experiment with raw earth. Constructions using wood remain the majority. The company AgilCare is innovating in this field with a new generation of wood buildings, prefabricated, eco-designed, scalable, movable, and without generating waste.
Collaborative and open source technology
The Low-tech Lab is a project of the Gold of Bengal association which works for research, development aid and the promotion of solutions to problems of general interest. The Low-tech Lab’s mission is research, collaborative technical and technological documentation in open source, allowing everyone to meet their basic needs in an autonomous and sustainable way. More than 50 technologies have been identified, tested, documented and distributed in open source on a collaborative platform. The project is based on research into low-tech housing, an automotive demonstrator of alternative materials and fuels, and on the brand new Low-tech Skol, a training organisation designed to help companies in the low-tech transition.
Towards a high-tech/low-tech mix
Thinking simple, local know-how, in a complex, globalized and interconnected world, seems counter-intuitive. Practicing technological sobriety in very technophile environments dreaming of smart cities, connected objects, artificial intelligence is a challenge. However, it is not a question of questioning the processes of creativity, the spirit of innovation and discovery, or the means of research and development. Rather, it is a question of taking a fresh look at innovation, changing perspective and reserving high-tech for essential uses. In short, to show techno-discernment.
All players are concerned, at all levels. Individuals are concerned in their ability to reappropriate their consumption and its effects (sobriety). Close to do it yourself movements, low-tech is inexpensive. They empower people because their simplicity makes them easily appropriable by users. They are repairable, locally sourced and meet the objectives of the circular economy and those of the social and solidarity economy. Numerous initiatives embody these citizen aspirations: resource centres, fab labs, repair cafés, urban farms, shared workshops, or even certain third places, already embody the principles of low-tech. The networking of these local public facilities and their accessibility to as many people as possible remains a challenge to be met. For Marie Goyon [Goyon, 2019], a socio-anthropologist in science and technology, some of them are a resource for popular education, access to technology, low-cost manufacturing or remanufacturing, as well as supports for citizen participation. For example, the Fabrique d’Objets Libres (FOL), a fab lab located on the popular outskirts of Lyon, offers repair café workshops. Participants can learn new skills to help them change their career direction or find a job.
Within companies, a low-tech approach enables them to question the technological mix in order to put high-tech back where it is indispensable and socially desirable. The eco-design of products and the development of new after-sales service activities are also being rethought. More broadly, the company’s business model should evolve from a sales logic to a reflection on use, from purely financial values to a questioning of the socio-economic meaning of its offer. These changes imply a redefinition of the « useful » value of offers and their recognition by consumers and public players.
The low-tech approach, given the social and environmental challenges, could thus rapidly become part of companies’ innovation strategies. Environmental regulations, the accessibility of resources, the new expectations of consumers, but also those of their employees, should gradually lead them to do so. Over the last two decades, companies have become aware of the limits of their « sustainable development » approach, limited to communication actions or corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies, without really questioning their business model.
More and more companies4 now wish to review their offer and their economic model in depth, aware that they can no longer develop without taking into account the natural and social environment. In recent years, these approaches have become more widely known and concern both industrial products and services. To varying degrees, they are embodied in numerous engineering graduation projects, but also in SMEs and large companies.
For example, the Californian company Patagonia, a manufacturer of mountaineering equipment and outdoor clothing, is heavily involved in R&D in eco-design. It helps its customers to keep their clothing as long as possible by offering repair workshops and online training in the form of tutorials. Danone has adopted a low-tech approach as part of its international strategy in emerging countries. For example, a partnership has been concluded with Grameen Bank to create Grameen Danone Foods, which manufactures locally produced, affordable dairy products in Bangladesh. The size of the plant is 10% of that of other Danone plants, and the focus is on maintaining manual processes in order to preserve jobs. Services include the Nickel Account, a prepaid credit card that can be activated in five minutes in a café or tobacconist’s shop for an annual subscription of €20. An innovative solution for the 2.5 million French people who did not have access to traditional banks.
Beyond accessibility to the greatest number, low-tech is questioning, from a more circular economy perspective, the material footprint of products and services, their degree of complexity and reparability.
Supporting public policies and putting local ecosystems into action
Public innovation support schemes and the various calls for projects often highlight digital and high-tech, leaving little room for « less technological » projects. However, low-tech has multiple benefits for the territories, as it relies on collective intelligence, restores meaning to human activity and creates social links. Indeed, by studying basic needs that are poorly covered, and the simplest and most local way to meet them, the approach strengthens local innovation ecosystems, committing the territory to a more sober and resilient development model.
A more general integration of the low-tech approach, still too often the exclusive preserve of the most committed, is not easy. It will be difficult to establish itself without a favourable regulatory and fiscal context. For the success of this still emerging yet strategic dynamic, the commitment of public authorities is essential, particularly to facilitate the emergence and development of territorial ecosystems involving companies, customers, employees and territories.
There are many low-tech initiatives, which concern all the fields of intervention of local authorities and are adapted to territorial scales, local resources and vulnerability factors. These initiatives, which originated in a scattered manner in associative circles, within the SSE, or in third places, often located as close as possible to the needs, are today initiated by a growing number of companies. The sensitivity of young graduates to sobriety issues also has a knock-on effect on economic players. Public policies must therefore anticipate this movement by supporting companies in the evolution of their business model, the technological mix, the knowledge of the territorial network of the actors concerned, or the financing of third places favouring low-tech.
Policies in favour of innovation, craftsmanship, industry, the circular economy, etc., are thus expected to help new sectors to be structured: repair, reuse, remanufacturing of everyday consumer goods. A socio-economic recomposition which at the same time works towards relocation by establishing short production chains. Vocational training must also follow in order to be in line with this vision of innovation and to be able to introduce a pedagogy of eco-design and techno-discernment within the company. Low-tech campus projects are emerging in this direction, particularly in Brittany and the Paris region.
Finally, by relying on and developing local public facilities, such as repair cafés, shared workshops, urban farms and third-party networks, local authorities could also promote the open-access low-tech approach, in conjunction with resource banks on techniques and know-how5. Low-tech challenges » should be launched periodically with families and businesses on the theme of « Doing better with fewer resources, less energy », etc. This territorial networking will enable the reappropriation of technical knowledge by linking production systems and citizens.
Low-tech now constitutes an attractive alternative to products and services resulting from over-consumption of resources. Focused on user uses and programmed non-obsolescence, they offer a major development perspective for territories by offering responsible quality products and services. In this perspective, the innovation strategies to be implemented today must be part of a technological mix approach defining the technological solution adapted to the needs, uses and resources required. Far from hindering innovation, this approach can become a factor of economic and social vitality, but also a source of territorial resilience.
1 The very small quantities of materials used in nanotechnology and electronics, the multiplication of connected and complex objects, lead to a deterioration in the use of recycled materials due to mixtures (alloys, composites, etc.).
2 See the presentation by Navi Rajou, Theorist of « frugal » economy on TED.
3 See the report « Decision-makers-researchers breakfast »: « What if the transition was also invented in the villages? « L’Institut Paris Region, 2018.
4 See, for example, the numerous feedback reports collected in « L’innovation qui change le monde », Utopies, 2013.
5 Examples of open access resource banks: Lowtech Magazine, Low Tech lab, Atelier paysan, Precious Plastic…
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