From Intermediate Technology to Practical Action
Fritz Schumacher believed strongly that technology could play an important role in lifting people out of poverty. But he saw the need for a different form of technology, human in scale, which allowed a form of economic development ‘as if people mattered’.
Over the last 50 years, Practical Action has been putting these ideas into practice.
Foundation: the Intermediate Technology Development Group
In 1965, radical economist and philosopher Fritz Schumacher had an article published in The Observer entitled 'How to help them help themselves'.
In it he pointed out the inadequacies of conventional aid policies based, as they were then, on the transfer of modern, capital-intensive and large-scale technologies to developing countries which did not have the financial resources, technical skills or mass markets to accommodate them.
He argued that there should be a shift in emphasis towards 'intermediate technologies' based on the needs and skills possessed by the people of developing countries.
The article aroused considerable interest at home and abroad from academics, politicians and the development community. Encouraged by this Schumacher and a few of his associates, including George McRobie, Julia Porter, Alfred Latham-Koenig and Professor Mansur Hoda, decided to create an 'advisory centre' to promote the use of efficient labour-intensive techniques and in 1966 the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) - now known as Practical Action - was born.
Operating out of offices in New Row, London with a £100 donation from the Africa Development Trust, the philosophy on which it was established was simple and straightforward. Many efficient, labour-intensive techniques suitable for local, small-scale application already existed or had been used in the past, but had been usurped by modern large-scale technologies.
Knowledge of the existence of these technologies, and the skill to make and use them was no longer widespread and consequently the choice of technologies deployed for various tasks in developing countries was often inappropriate to local needs and circumstances. The Intermediate Technology Development Group set out to change this.
The Group initially saw its aims as:
- Promoting the systematic assembly and documentation of all data relating to intermediate techniques and technologies.
- Drawing attention to them by publishing information about them, promoting the concept of Intermediate Technology, and advertising the group's services.
- Offering advice and assistance to overseas projects in order to demonstrate the practical use of intermediate technologies in helping poor people to help themselves.
One of the Group's first tasks in June 1966 was to produce a 'Directory of Hand and Animal Drawn Equipment' for the British National Export Council for Agricultural Implements Mission to Nigeria. This was the forerunner of publications like Tools for Agriculture, The Power Guide and similar directories.
By 1968 technical enquiries and requests for information on tools and techniques had started to pour in and a decision was taken to set up an Enquiry Service which utilised voluntary experts from academic and research institutions, industry and government specially for the purpose.
This decision to invoke voluntary help was an important feature of the Group's method of operation during its first 10 years. Not only did it mobilise a wide range of expertise at very little cost; it also helped to spread the word and influence thinking within the UK.
But it wasn't long before a greater direct involvement in local projects in the 'Third World' was required.
The need to service the expert panels led to the direct employment of project engineers and the creation of the Group's first Technical Units: the forerunners of today's international programmes.
In 1969 Intermediate Technology Consultants (now Practical Action Consulting) was founded as a company to provide services to organisations such as the ODA, the World Bank, etc, on appropriate technology.
By the end of 1970 the Group had created panels for Agriculture, Building, Co-operatives, Education and Training, Food Processing, Water, Power, Rural Health, and Women in Development.
From here ITDG began to expand its project involvement. Some of the key events in the history of ITDG / Practical Action, then operating as Intermediate Technology, include:
1973 Publishing subsidiary Intermediate Technology Publications Ltd (now Practical Action Publishing) started at 9 King Street, Covent Garden.
Publication of Schumacher's book Small is Beautiful. Coinciding with the 1973 oil crisis, the book became a best seller and created worldwide interest in alternative technologies and economics.
1975 Schumacher carries out an exhausting coast-to-coast tour of the United States lecturing to large audiences everywhere and culminating in an invitation to the White House and discussions with officers of the World Bank.
1977 UK government's overseas aid ministry approves the establishment of a new appropriate technology initiative by ITDG, supported by a grant of not less than £500,000 a year for a trial period of three years.
Sudden and unexpected death of Fritz Schumacher while returning from a lecture tour in Switzerland. George McRobie takes over as Chairman.
1978 IT Power is established as a business unit of ITDG. It subsequently becomes an independent organisation, undertaking over 700 projects in 91 countries, for institutional and private clients.
1979 ITDG begins work in Nepal through its support of the Rural Electrification Programme of the United Mission to Nepal.
1980 IT Exhibition Centre at Shinfield showing examples of low-cost construction techniques and housing a number of tools and techniques is visited by HRH The Prince of Wales (Prince Charles). As a consequence HRH The Prince of Wales, who had always expressed an interest in the intermediate technology concept, agrees to become the group's Patron.
IT Transport is launched, which, like IT Power, becomes a separate business.
1984 ITDG brings its operations together at a new UK office in Rugby. The group places a new emphasis on the employment of economists and social scientists, marking a shift away from the technical 'hardware' approach and towards 'development'.
1985 ITDG opens its first office in a developing country, as food processing and energy programmes begin in Peru, concentrating at first on a micro hydro project in Cusco. From 1990 onwards the office grows rapidly and now numbers over 300 people.
1986 Livestock project begins in Kenya.
1989 Country offices are established in Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka. The group has been working in Sri Lanka since the early 1980s, and now engages in projects on rehabilitating micro-hydro units, energy efficient stoves and food processing.
1990 Bangladesh office opens. Its first project is food processing, which includes training, a sector study and technology development for agro-processing.
ITDG appoints its first director in Sudan, where the group has been working since 1974.
1991 After four years of working in the training of food processing, ITDG South Asia establishes a Training Centre in Food Processing, later renamed the Cathy Rich Memorial Food Processing Centre. In 1996, this becomes an independent, non-profit making organisation.
A Nepal office is formally established, three years after starting to work with Nepal's Agricultural Development Bank in the development of micro-hydro power plants. Practical Action Nepal receives the status of Country Office in 1998.
1992 Micro-hydro project begins in Nepal. The following year the UK Development Minister, Lady Chalker, visits the Nepal office.
1998 ITDG moves its UK Head Office to Bourton Hall, seven miles from Rugby in Warwickshire. The Schumacher Centre for Technology and Development is planned to evolve as a national and international centre for knowledge and expertise on technology, poverty reduction and the environment. The Centre is officially opened by our patron, HRH Prince Charles, in January 1999.
2000 After many years operating under the name Intermediate Technology, the group consolidates its identity as the Intermediate Technology Development Group - ITDG. It now employs 300 staff in four continents, and has worked in over 60 countries.
2005 ITDG changes its name to Practical Action, to help us communicate our work to a wider audience. Practical Action - with the strapline, Technology Challenging Poverty - sums up what we do, making a practical difference in the lives of poor people.
2011 Celebrations for the centenary of the birth of E F Schumacher
Practical Action publishes Technology Justice, Wellbeing and Scale, a new group strategy for 2012-17, setting how, together with people living in poverty, with partner organisations, with businesses and with governments, it will help move the world towards Technology Justice.
2014 A new office is opened in Senegal to serve French-speaking West Africa. This joint venture between Practical Action Consulting and our technical information service, Practical Answers, tests out a new model to deliver impact at scale for lower cost,
After 25 years, Practical Action closes its Sri Lanka office. A new charity, Janathakshan - meaning ‘people’s technology’ or ‘technology for people’ - is created to continue the legacy of Practical Action in Sri Lanka.
2015 A significant expansion to our technical information service, Practical Answers, results in a ten-fold increase in enquiries answered over just two years, with 120,000 individual enquiries and 1.6 million information downloads in a year.
2016 Practical Action celebrates its 50th anniversary
A more detailed account of developments since 2000 can be found in our archive of all news releases.
As well as ITDG / Practical Action, Fritz Schumacher also founded or inspired many other organisations, some of whom form The Schumacher Circle.