Archive for September, 2011

Why technology choice matters

Sunday, September 11th, 2011 by

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m writing this blog on a train heading north from London to Bradford to give a lecture at the British Science Fair tomorrow. This is part of a whole series of events we’ve been attending this year to publicise the centenary of the birth of our founder, the economist Fritz Schumacher’s birth.

 Tomorrow I will be talking about the ideas Schumacher espoused back in the late 1960’s and, in his book Small is Beautiful, in the early 1970’s concerning an alternative view of economics ‘as if people mattered’. Given that it’s a science festival I will also be talking about how Schumacher came to believe that the choices we make around the development and use of technology shape the societies in which we live and can have huge consequences in terms of limiting the choices others can make now and in the future. There are examples of this all around us today, if you think about it. The development of biofuels in the US leads to a surge demand for corn in international markets and a rise in the price of tortillas, the staple food in Mexico. Our global addiction to fossil fuel based technology creates an inheritance of climate change for our children and grandchildren. Schumacher argued that we need to rethink our relationship with technology. And so on…

It’s my belief, and that of Practical Action, that to ensure greater equity of opportunity for a decent standard of living for everyone on the planet today, and a chance for a sustainable future for all of us, we need a new principle to govern the development and use of technology. That principle we at Practical Action call technology justice. Technology justice combines a right – that all people should be able to choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value – with a corresponding responsibility – that this right could be enjoyed only so long as that choice does not compromise the ability of others and future generations to do the same. My point tomorrow will be that the principle of technology justice is as relevant to our lives here in the UK as it is to those of the poor and marginalised living in the developing world. Our challenge in our own society and as a global community is to find a way to govern the development and use of science and technology so that it better meets the principle of technology justice in the future.

I’m looking forward to an interesting debate!

The last 8 days…!

Saturday, September 10th, 2011 by

Well, I’ve made it to Geneva and am now well over half way now which is great. Just the small matter of the Alps to come…!!  So what’s been happening over the last week or so?
After saying farewell to Nicola in Mainz I carried on down the Rhine, through Worms to Mannheim. Conscious of a couple of very long stages ahead I had hoped to continue on to Speyer but it turned out the hostel there was full.

Friday’s leg to Baden-Baden started early. Awoken at 6am by an early riser in the dormitory it was my earliest start of the trip and a beautiful morning.

After cycling through a lovely wood south of Manheim I veered away from the Rhine to Hockenheim, home of the German Grand Prix. Seeing as the cycle path went right past the circuit I thought it would be rude not to pay a visit to Michael’s spiritual home.


After a brief stop to see some racing that happened to be going on I continued on south and back to the Rhine.

Soon after midday I came across a fellow cyclist, baseball cap turned backwards with huge quantities of gear. I exchanged greetings as I passed and we got talking.

Gerd with bike!

He was a really friendly guy by the name of Gerd Muller (!!), who’d just retired at 60 and in celebration was on the homeward leg of a 1800km tour of Germany…! We shared lunch and cycled most of the afternoon before exchanging email addresses and going our seperate ways south of Karlsruhe. By the time I reached the youth hostel (inevitably it was at the very top of one of larger hills in Baden-Baden!) I had been in the saddle over 13 hours it was gone 9pm and I had cycled the best part of 150kms.

If I thought the following day could only be easier it was soon clear that I was very wrong. I set off early on a glorious sunny morning and within a few miles was reminded that that the Schwartzwald is a rather hilly part of the world.

the glorious, but rather hilly, Black Forest

After climbing over the first pass of the day at close to 1,000m I knew I was in for a really long and arduous day. By early afternoon as temperatures climbed into the 30’s things got exremely hard going. After stopping 5 times on a seemingly endless 4km climb with a 12% gradient I started having grave doubts as to how on earth I would get to Freiburg-im-Breisgau.


the Road to Zell...


After several more smaller climbs I eventually laboured into Freiburg at gone 9pm after another 12 hour day in the saddle. A glance at a temperature guage in town read 26%C – having covered over 90 miles for the second consecutive day  it was the toughest day’s cycling I’d ever experienced.

The 51 mile leg from Freiburg to Basle looked fairly straight forward on paper but was spoiled by the worst weather of the trip so far. From around lunchtime it had started raining steadily and by the time I had crossed the border into Switzerland it was tipping it down.

Getting drenched at the Swiss border in Basle

After taking shelter at Basle central station for some respite and to get my bearings it soon became clear that the rain wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. By the time I had reached the youth hostel me and most of my gear were completely soaked, but I had made it to Switzerland in one piece…

Monday’s Basle to Solothurn leg was another pleasant day’s ride spoiled by more unanticipated moutains – next time I’ll spend a bit longer planning the itinerary!  A climb over the 900m Passwang across the Jura Alps was the “highlight” of another hard day in the saddle.

The Jura Alps

My cousin Martina joined me for Tuesday’s ride to Fribourg and it was nice to just concentrate on pedalling without worrying about navigation.

my cousin Martina

After another beautiful sunny day mainly following cycle paths we had made it Fribourg after pedalling around 54 miles.

Wednesday’s ride to Lausanne was yet another that I had assumed would be relatively flat – there’s a theme emerging here…! After cursing Fribourg’s undulations at least the ride down to Lac Leman and Vevey was long, fast and great fun. Unfortunately the part astride the lake to Lausanne was not the pleasant amble I was expecting with a persistent head wind hampering my progress.

My cousin Kurt and his wife Claire joined me on a gorgeous sunny day for the final leg of part one of the journey to Geneva.

Kurt & Claire

It was again good to have company and despite a few short, sharp climbs up into the vineyards above the lake there was nothing too strenuous.

Lac Leman and vineyards

My recently fitted speedometer/mileometer/cadence reckoner has confirmed what I already suspected – I seriously underestimated the daily mileages to the tune of around 25%, so instead of cycling around 760 miles from Bremen to Geneva it was much more like 960. At least the estimated remaining 440 miles is probably much nearer the mark, it being on the official itinerary.

My only niggling worry was a look at the the total anticipated ascent over the next 8 days – just 15,460 meters or 50,700 ft. Wish me luck….!!

Time to Address Energy Poverty

Friday, September 9th, 2011 by

There is an emerging stream of discourse on access to energy today.  One discourse is the failure to recognise and act on the fact that energy and development are intricately linked. It is also true that in as much as development and progress are collective responsibilities, they are also personal ones.

These discussions emerging around the possibilities and potentials of equitable access to energy sources now, more than ever, give cause to pause and examine the assumptions that surround this, among them, that society is a homogeneous collective constituency waiting to be mobilised to take action to address the challenge with support from government with development agencies and communities as conduits and agencies to effect it. This notion is something I wish will be kept in mind in discussions about the impact of energy poverty especially among the poor in remote areas as well as those in urban informal settlements on national development policies and strategies.

Our visit to poor rural households in Kisumu, western Kenya; Kerugoya, Central Kenya and Nairobi this week, organised by Practical Action Eastern Africa, put the discussion into focus. The delegation comprising of three Members of the European Parliament (MEP), local partners and colleagues from Practical Action UK observed the magnitude of the problem. Apart from joining women on their tough mission to collect firewood, the MEPs also had a chance to interact with energy entrepreneurs, especially women groups producing improved cook stoves in Kisumu. The reality on the ground and selected interventions being implemented in the area spoke volumes of what needs to be done by different stakeholders to address the issue at hand. Summarily, the visit underlined that fact that increased access to energy is essential for growth and human well-being.

I hope the visit has provided the MEPs an opportunity to reflect on some of the assumptions, presumptions and misconceptions they had on the subject and its extent that is the challenge of the new era. The challenge should be presented as parts of, not separate from, the collective aim for all-inclusive long-term development.

Make the Call – Energy for All now

Access to Energy is Essential for Development

Friday, September 9th, 2011 by

Energy is a critical development issue. Just like access to water and other basic services, access to energy is a condition for social and economic development. But as the country’s population grows and energy demand rises, the obstacles to its availability and use loom larger today than ever.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, 1.6 billion people in the world lack access to electricity and over 2 billion people depend on biomass fuels for cooking and heating. This has been worsened by the rising demand for energy that has exploded since the beginning of the 20th century, in tandem with the world’s rising population and economic growth. Energy issues are particularly challenging for rural communities and the urban poor where high energy costs are putting a tremendous amount of pressure on families a majority of whom depend on natural resources for their livelihood. The challenge at present is to supply clean and safe energy in sufficient quantity to everyone while limiting the environmental effects.

Our visit to selected energy actors in Kisumu, Nairobi and Mai Mahiu with a visiting delegation of three Members of Parliament from the European Parliament revealed the energy poverty levels among poor communities living in the areas.  The case stories observed made clear the fact that development targets such as the Millennium Development Goals which, though they do not explicitly include energy, are reliant upon energy for their fulfilment.

This is not to say there is no future in attaining the goals. The reality is more needs to be done to realise the required change. Numerous initiatives have been piloted and are being scaled up by different agencies in the energy sector. Practical Action’s energy projects over the last two decades are good examples. Working with communities in rural and informal settlements in urban centres, the organisation has not only pioneered initiatives to light up villages from small micro-hydro and pico-hydro schemes in Central Kenya but also provided alternative and efficient energy saving technologies used for cooking in western Kenya. These initiatives have accentuated the fact that the poor have a legitimate right to and need for increased energy services which are affordable, healthier, more reliable and more sustainable.

One on one learning how to make fireless cookers

They have also highlighted the skewed distribution of energy – with the richest people consuming the largest percentage of energy supply and the poorest using the least – that must change if significant change is to be realised in the sector. Developing and implementing sound national energy development policies together with the right use of technology are areas that have been emphasised over the years. They are areas that require transparent processes that provide for equitable participation from all stakeholders.

Make the Call – Energy for All now

One in 3,917 – MEP delegation to Kenya – Energy for All 2030

Thursday, September 8th, 2011 by

Naomi is one in a million. Well, to be more specific, one in 3,917.

That’s how many families that have improved their lives (and homes) through a Practical Action energy access project in Western Kenya.

Specifically, we are working with women across Kisumu to introduce ‘fuel-efficient stoves’ (which require 50% less wood), ‘smoke hoods’ (which remove toxic smoke from the kitchen – which more often than not doubles as a bedroom) and ‘fireless cookers’ (which, as the name suggests, cook food without fuel).

… and one of these women is Naomi. I could tell her story as one of sorrow and struggle – widowed young, 6 children (3 adopted), a basic existence. But that wouldn’t be true. Naomi is a tenacious, self-made, magnificent woman working as a local mobiliser with Practical Action.

Under Naomi’s watch, 200 local women have been trained to make and install simple and effective technologies to reduce wood useage and remove smoke from the home.

I guess that doesn’t sound so dramatic if you’re reading this back in the UK. But, I promise you, having spent time today in a home cooking on an open fire (which brought tears to my eyes, in both senses), it’s life-changing.

But more than that, it’s life-saving.

With 1.4 million lives lost to indoor smoke each year, no wonder Naomi and the Practical Action team are so passionate. If you had a solution to such needless loss of life, wouldn’t you be too?

Make the Call – Energy for All now

From the Siany to the Kitchen

Thursday, September 8th, 2011 by

Today I learned a new word – ”Siany” – this is the Swahili word for the communal land located on the outskirts of the village where local women are  permitted to gather fuelwood for their household energy needs.

It is early morning on the first day of our week long fact finding visit to Kenya together with our delegation of three MEPs keen to know more about the reality of energy poverty in Sub Saharan Africa and to witness the numerous initiatives underway that are successfully delivering energy access to those who need it most.

We set off at sunrise from a small village on the outskirts of Kisumu, Western Kenya, together with   a group of local women eager for us to understand exactly what it takes to provide energy for cooking for their families; for many of these women this is a daily task.

Our guide on this 3 Km hike is Naomi, a middle aged widow and mother of six (three her own, three orphans she has taken in) and one of the most inspirational women I have had the pleasure to meet.

While taking down branches and whole tree trunks with large machetes, Naomi and her fellow women fuelwood carriers describe the various problems associated with gathering fuelwood (tiredness from having to walk so far, the risk of injury and the added threat during the rainy season of leeches and water borne diseases when standing ankle deep in the swampy terrain).

This hazardous task falls solely on the women and children – mothers and daughters – as does the task of cooking with the fuelwood, often on 3-stone fires which emit toxic, health damaging smoke into the home.

We learned that in the local language, if a woman marries, people say that she is “cooking” – if you are a woman and you marry, then you cook – end of story.

In the next breath the women are singing about the wonderful “Upesi”, an improved wood burning stove which they now use to reduce fuelwood consumption and indoor smoke.  They still need to collect firewood, but with the improved stove, at least it lasts a bit longer and the kitchen is less smoky.

The following day we have the chance to meet the exceptional women’s cooperative that makes the Upesi stove and hear about the challenges of running a thriving business in Kenya – no mean feat given the already heavy workload ofwomen who cook in Kenya.

Make the Call – Energy for All now

Loop the loop with Ellen Macarthur

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011 by

The Ellen Macarthur foundation has been set up with one goal in mind –  to inspire a generation to re-think, re-design and build a positive future.

They propose the idea of a circular economy where products and  processes are designed to work in a way that mimics natural biological processes.  Nothing is wasted.  A system where products we no longer need such as old washing machines are collected and components recycled.  And they haven’t’ forgotten about energy consumption, far from it, they advocate the use of renewable energy systems.

Please watch their latest video and see what you think.  Go to  our design and technology page on the schools website for a range of activities  to help you integrate sustainability into your teaching.

Can the capabilities approach help us frame technology injustice?

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011 by

If you think this question is only of “academic interest” then read on.   At the Human Development and Capability Association conference in Den Haag, The Netherlands I put this question before a group of donors, practitioners, and academics.   I wanted to start a conversation about how we can move away from the traditional ways of thinking about development and economies.   How do we address the twin issues of sustainability and inter-generational equity?

Sen[i] writes about social injustice and challenges much of the conventional approach to economics with his emphasis on well-being and capabilities.

Practical Action has had a focus on the use of technology to challenge poverty for the past 40 years, inspired by the vision of the economist Schumacher[ii] and based on the notion of intermediate technology.   Currently Practical Action is considering how it can best use the idea of technology justice to form a campaign and movement for change.   How can the capabilities approach help us to frame technology injustice?

Here are four practical advantages of using a capabilities approach to frame (and/or communicate) the idea of technology justice:

  1. It would allow us to challenge the assumptions of economic growth as a driver for human development.
  2. We could identify unanticipated outcomes (both positive and negative) of our interventions.
  3. It is a values based approach that promotes transparency.
  4. By using a process based approach we can learn about injustice that results from the negative impact of technologies.

Overall a capabilities approach is normative which fits in with the notion of developing a movement against technology injustices in the world.   Let’s keep the conversation going…

[i] Sen, A. (2009) The Idea of Justice, Allen Lane: London.

[ii] Scumacher, E.F. (1973) Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, Abacus Press: London.

‘A woman’s work is never done’ – MEP Delegation to Kenya – Energy for All

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011 by

I never imagined that a 5am start, for a 3km trek, ankle deep in leech-infested water would make for one of the more memorable experiences of my life.

It’s day one of our fact-finding visit and today we are in Kisumu, Western Kenya. Here we are learning about energy poverty and simple energy solutions for rural communities.

… and what better way to do that than by collecting and carrying wood for the family fire.

The entire community of Kadibo, Kisumu live without electricity and, like half the world’s population, cook on traditional open-fires in their homes.

Fuelling that fire is gruelling work … and it’s also women’s work.

We meet Philshongo, Dorothy and Joyce who each spend a day per week collecting, cutting, stripping, drying and carrying firewood.

It’s no easy task, and not just for me as a ‘novice’. Even for the ‘experts’ felling trees with machetes and head-loading 15kg of wood breaks a sweat.

One small tree (of say five years), once stripped and cut, equates to just a couple of days firewood.

But these women have no other option – there is so little firewood to forage that they have to jeopardise their tomorrow – i.e chopping down trees, to meet their needs today – i.e feeding their families.

As the least domesticated female I know (I’m no ‘Nigella’) I’ve never felt any association with the phrase, ‘A woman’s work is never done’ but here in Kadibo it’s the most true of truisms.

I can’t wait to see the Practical Action’s giving these, and thousands of other women, the opportunity to make their lives that little bit better.



Make the Call – Energy for All now

Practical Action selects winners for Leaders Awards…

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011 by

We’re delighted to announce the primary and secondary winners for Practical Action’s Primary Engineer Special Award 2011.

The final award is given to students who demonstrate a high level of interest and skill in interviewing professionals who work in the field of Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics related to sustainability.

This year’s winners are Robert Marshall from Osbaldwick Primary School and Josh Catley from Hornsea School and Language College. Read more.. Congratulations to them both! Your solar powered MP4 players are on their way to you!

Christine Borrett the class teacher from Robert’s class found it good too!

‘The Leaders Award enabled my class to develop their communication skills through interviewing adults from a range of professions related to STEM. The interviews proved to be informative and inspirational, giving the children an insight into the world of work, enabling them to begin to consider their personal career options. This was a worthwhile opportunity which we plan to repeat this year.’

For details of next year’s award