Technology in Society

Technology fills every walk of life. Yet, the promise of technological innovation has repeatedly failed to help the most needy. Large, private corporations are increasingly in control of research and development; people are alienated from the technological decisions that affect them.

'Democratising technology' means involving people in the decision-making processes that drive science and technology. People need to make their own choices about adopting the technology that suits their needs. By making room for the voices and choices of the less powerful, Practical Action aims to reduce poverty and enhance technology choice.


Democratising Technology, Practical Action's discussion paper on technology democracy looks at nine examples of "democratising technology", examining lessons to be learnt and issues for the future and identifying the principles of democratic technology.

download paper (PDF, 1.25Mb)

Technology as if People and the Planet Mattered Practical Action policy adviser Patrick Mulvany recently presented this speech at the UN Poverty Forum in New York on 16 November 2006.

These issues were debated in detail at Public Good or Private Gain?, a conference on reclaiming science for sustainable development, held in London on 11 November 2004.


Technology Democracy: problems, promises, solutions is a three-minute video introducing some of the issues around technology in society.

The file is 7Mb, in Windows Media format. If you find playback stutters, try right-clicking and saving the file to disk before playing.

click to watch Technology Democracy video (7Mb)

Technology democracy: public good or private gain?

1 Technology is an essential factor for human development

Technology includes the knowledge and skills developed by poor women and men to produce the goods and services they require. We know that access to appropriate technology can be a critical lever out of poverty and its absence a key feature of living in extreme poverty.

2 Millions are without access to basic technologies that have been around for centuries

While our world is being transformed by rapid developments in 'new' technology, millions are without access to basic technologies that have been around for centuries (eg. for water and sanitation). The reasons for the failure of science and technology to meet the needs of everybody are not confined to the operation of technology; they include the social, political, economic, cultural and institutional influences on S&T research, development, transfer and use.

3 Local technological innovation by users of technology can have a decisive role

In addition to local technological innovation by users of technology, modern scientific and technological developments could, and should, have a major role to play in reducing poverty and restoring our eco-systems - if it can be harnessed to benefit the many rather than profit the few; to improve and prolong rather than harm our custody of nature's scarce resources.

4 We are not directing modern scientific and technological research to the needs of people living in poverty

However, modern industrial technology development is now largely in the hands of the private sector, directed towards Northern demand. Nearly a third of the world's population is completely disenfranchised from the new scientific and technological revolution. The rate of this technology development is increasing and outstripping social controls, and we need to reclaim science and technology for the public good and the benefit of people living in poverty.

5 People are increasingly alienated from decision-making that affects them in all walks of life, including the use and development of technology

The involvement of people in decision making about things that affect them is more likely to meet their needs and protect them from harmful developments. Women and men should be able to choose the technologies that they want, be involved in the process of technology development, and be involved in decision-making about the regulation of technologies that affect their lives.

6 Enabling technology choice for people living in poverty is partly about widening the range of options

This involves making more productive technologies available and creating an environment (institutional, financial, social, political etc.) that supports access to and control over technology options by resource-poor people.

7 We need to:

  • Put people first in our approach to technology development
  • Protect social and traditional knowledge and local technology development
  • Redirect our research efforts towards the poor and support innovation by the poor
  • Develop stronger social controls over technology development and use
  • Begin to build a 'Technology Democracy'

8 This means taking action to:

  • Build capacity at different levels in developing countries - because to exercise choice people need capabilities and the wherewithal
  • Redirect the R&D effort - because appropriate options need to be available
  • Provide people with information about what is available and what it can and cannot do
  • Establish enabling policies and institutions - to make decision takers at all levels more accountable and strengthen social control; including international regulation (e.g. through ICENT).

"The potential of technology to unlock human development will be fulfilled only when people are at the heart of the decision-making processes".
- Cowan Coventry, former Chief Executive, Practical Action.

"Reach out to the people themselves, involve them, engage them, and listen to what they say".
- Nelson Mandela

These issues were debated at Public Good or Private Gain?, a conference on reclaiming science for sustainable development, held at Regent's College, London, on Thursday 11 November 2004.

Find out more

What is Technology Democracy?
Putting people first in technology development
Building on local knowledge
Redirecting research efforts towards the poor
Involving people in the technology decisions that affect their lives and those of future generations

The Promise of Technology
Science and technology have changed our world. But millions of people have no access to basic technologies that have been around for centuries. More ...

Technology democracy approaches
Practical Action aims to enhance technology choice and reduce poverty by combining the following three approaches to make room for the voices and choices of the less powerful. More ...

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