In low-tech, think and act more methodically

The Ecological Transition Agency (Ademe) conducted a study published in March 2021 to create an inventory of low-tech approaches and related perspectives. Because if the concept took root in the 1970s with authors such as Ivan Illich, Lewis Mumford, Ernst F. Schumacher, Jacques Ellul or Cornelius Castoriadis, there is no common and shared meaning associated with this term. The aim is therefore to propose another, complementary one.

In other words, while the mass of the “techno-sphere” (objects, machines, equipment, infrastructure, etc.) produced by humans (estimated at 1100 billion tons) will exceed terrestrial biomass (estimated at 1000 billion tons) according in a study published in Nature as of December 2020, the low-tech approach aims to reduce the size, intensity and complexity of the technical economic system so that it can be “re-embedded”, as the Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi would say, in the boundaries of planet.

Let’s try to draw the outlines.

The “usefulness, durability, accessibility” triptych

And concrete? The term low technology is associated in people’s minds with reducing the environmental footprint of a particular object – for example, a solar cooker or dry toilet. The Low Tech Lab, a low-tech exploration, documentation and demonstration laboratory, has drawn up a list of three criteria that characterize low-tech products: accessibility, durability and utility.

Accessibility refers to the democratization of access to technical knowledge, knowledge (and even interpersonal skills), with the aim of opening circulation (open source) through delivery and appropriate training courses.

Low-tech is sustainable because it is part of the logic of the circular economy, reuse, reuse, recycle. It therefore encourages reflection on sobriety but also on eco-design and the simplicity of the technical tool, by avoiding, for example, alloys, which make recycling difficult.

Finally, the low-tech thing must be useful: lowering the ecological footprint of something that meets a need that comes from luxury and overconsumption does not make sense.

Some criteria for low-tech approaches complement those in the Ademe study.
Arthur Keller and Emilien Bournigal/WikimediaCC BY-NC-SA

Understanding, a cure for technical ambivalence

All these criteria are of course at the center of the meaning that Ademe tries to build, and of utility in mind: it refers to the notions of sobriety and understanding, as a remedy for the ambivalence of the method used by the historian . and sociologist Jacques Ellul, and the need to jointly determine its purpose before developing it.

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A solar water heater may be low-tech in design, but it doesn’t make sense if it’s being used to heat a private swimming pool. Similarly, low-tech agricultural tools are irrelevant if they serve agricultural organizations and practices that are economically inefficient, energetically unsustainable and destructive to the soil and living things. On the contrary, some strategic sectors, such as the military or health care, will be difficult to do without some innovative technologies.

Behind it is a whole system of thinking and values ​​that should help transform the low-tech approach, even before the purely technological dimension.

When tinkering and sharing becomes a political gesture.
The Farmer’s Workshop/Flickr

A central inquiry of needs

Because it questions our anthropological relationship with technology, especially in the light of certain rejections of consumption, the low-tech approach therefore goes beyond the simple measure of the object or service provided by technology, and that is what Ademe wants to show : it is not only a question of designing sustainable technical systems, of maintaining the existing rather than replacing it, of democratizing access to them and also of controlling their use, but also and above all to question our needs from different integrated angles (psychological, sociological, health, economic, cultural, historical, geographical, etc.).

In an attempt to emphasize this, such an approach can lead to a transition from the GDP totemization model, from reductionism to the individual consumer and from technological solutions to a “power to live well and make things together”. characterized by quantitative and qualitative indicators regarding climate, energy, food, ecological, health, technological, economic, social, identity, cultural and physical uncertainties experienced under the combined effects of globalization and the transcendence of limits .

Level of social inequalities, access to work, life expectancy in good health, quality of energy, food, water, air, land, education, health care, information, access to mobility , culture and nature, resilience to shocks, health indicators (obesity, alcoholism, smoking, etc.), levels of violence, development of separatism and obscurantism, etc. : there are so many variables to be analyzed in their interactions to create the conditions for a stable social cohesion that is essential to a more sane and stable country and therefore less -technological.

As with any approach to moderation, it must be part of a planned and fair management of the State’s planetary limits, by favoring for example structural regulatory tools through quantities (regulations, democratically defined quota) parallel to investments in alternatives. Because cyclical regulation through prices (subsidy, taxation), in addition to increasing public debt, punishes especially the most modest among us or does not free them from their dependence on finite resources, when the richest have margins of significant reduction in consumption and the means of avoiding or supporting taxation.

An intrinsic systemic approach

Ambitions that open up a wide transdisciplinary field of scientific exploration and experimentation involving a systematic approach that takes into account various endogenous and exogenous variables, their complex interactions and the objectives or function of the system under consideration.

Take the example of the mobility system. The low-tech approach then starts with a global analysis upstream that leads to a project of system change that reduces its intensity and technological complexity, anticipating rebound effects and unintentionally humanizing them.

Today, we can see that energy consumption and emissions of cars are not falling despite more efficient and less polluting engines. And this is due not only to the increase in the size of the global vehicle fleet but also to the growing unit weight of vehicles, associated with the addition of comfort and safety equipment, themselves motivated by a social need shaped of marketing and social mimicry (ads, influencers, etc.), and enabled by the high speed traffic of the highway code.

Thus, in a system of mobility, with its many variables (equipment, vehicles, infrastructure, traffic rules, services, facilities, collective imagination, etc.), of the individual car, the use of vehicles considered lower technology, such as the bike and its variations, cannot deploy quickly.

ADEME low-tech mobility conference of September 29, 2020 (France Innovation, September 29, 2020).

A path to the ladder to engage

Furthermore, the question of deploying low-tech systems on a larger scale involves thinking about socio-economic and organizational models that will facilitate scaling, especially through the lever of the commons, that is, natural, technical but also socio-cultural and political resources. defined and governed by an assembly of citizens or their representatives according to democratically established rules.

For example, Ademe launched a national initiative called the eXtreme Challenge, which aims to bring out ecosystems for the design and production of low-tech vehicles, which are between the bicycle and the car. A set of standardized vehicles, very light, low fuel consumption, easy to repair and equipped with fewer spare parts, which wants to be a reliable alternative to the car, especially in sparsely populated areas.

This challenge aims to create territorial ecosystems, with local actors and standardized and open manufacturing processes, according to the logic of the common ones mentioned above, to remove the brake on intellectual property and accelerate the deployment of knowledge and knowledge, in a collaborative perspective. The ambition of the eXtreme Challenge is for these ecosystems to be operational within three years, with a production of 30 to 40 vehicles per year, according to a “serial production” rate.

European relocation strategy

Finally, the territorial dimension of the low-tech approach also aims to reorganize physical flows (goods and people) in time and space. Therefore it is part of national strategies for the transfer of productive activities and regional planning, with the desire to rebalance the dynamics between metropolises, which are very unsustainable and resilient to future shocks through their dimensions and activity density. , and rurality, in demographic decline, often destroyed socio-economically.

It can make a strong contribution to this strategy of territorial rebalancing, especially by favoring small and medium-sized towns and villages associated with an efficient mobility system for people and goods (bicycle, intermediate vehicle, bus, coach, carpooling, train. , boat), and by building developed economies, which are more intensive in highly qualified and worthy value manual, service and intellectual work (and sometimes combined with some professions) than technologies and machines, which are more based on ecological and agricultural farmers, and more general in the preservation of the ecosystem and the preservation of living things.

In fact, it is intended to be a creator of meaning, to recapture the value of work as a means of emancipation and autonomy, both individual and collective, like the struggles of the labor movements in Europe at the same time as the industrial revolutions of the 19e and XXe centuries.

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