In the 70's a German economist, E.F. Schumacher, presented the idea of appropriate technology to the world in his book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. While working in India and Burma Schumacher was disturbed by the wealth disparity, working conditions, and low quality of available work. Schumacher envisioned a form of technology that would give dignified work and steady income to impoverished people across the world.
The six tenets of appropriate technology:
- Environmentally sound
- Locally autonomous
Technology for the Poor
The impact of Schumacher's work was substantial; his writings and the creation of the Intermediate Technology Development Group, bolstered by the Oil Crises, ushered in an era of innovation in low-tech, eco-friendly solutions at home and abroad. Many incredible, life-changing technologies can trace their lineage back to Schumacher's vision.
One of the most brilliant inventions to emerge in this time was the Dual-Purpose Bicycle, invented by engineering professor Dr. Job S. Ebenezer.
In the late 70's, while visiting family in Tamil Nadu, India, Dr. Ebenezer was similarly affected by the extreme poverty he encountered. His brother inspired him to use his engineering skills to develop something that could help small rice farmers increase their profits. The standard practice was for the farmers to sell their unprocessed rice to processing facilities. The farmers worked incredibly hard, over 10 hours a day in the hot sun, but they were making next to nothing. By processing their own rice, farmers could earn 4x the profit.
Dr. Ebenezer left India determined to find a pedal-powered solution.
Once back in the states Dr. Ebenezer put forth a design challenge to his engineering students, what could they come up with, using a bicycle, that would address this need, while staying low cost, made of locally available materials, and retain the bicycle's functionality for transportation. After reviewing what the students came up with Dr. Ebenezer refined their concepts into the Dual Purpose Bicycle (DPB).
The DPB was designed to serve as a power-take-off that could operate a number of pieces of equipment, not just rice threshers. Dr. Ebenezer returned to India in 1979 with his creation. It was proven to be quite effective at many things that required less than one horse power, like peanut shelling, wood working and pumping water.
Interestingly, the response to the DPB in India was mixed. There were, of course, those who saw the value and appreciated it for it's ingenuity and labor-saving abilities, NGO types and the most destitute amongst India's rural population. However, many within the Indian government scoffed at the idea, largely because of deeply held prejudice against those in lower castes.
Over the years, Dr. Ebenezer has presented to organizations like USAID, the UN, and MIT to encourage the use of the DPB. In 2006, Dr. Ebenezer retired and established a non-profit, Technology for the Poor, to promote the adoption of appropriate technology around the world.
One of the greatest challenges that Dr. Ebenezer has faced is finding overseas partners who will commit to developing and disseminating the technologies he's shared with them. The pattern seems to be that a project will get championed by a single individual and, inevitably, when that person moves on, the institution they worked with is unable, or unwilling, to continue on with the project.
Thus far, there has not been widespread adoption of the Dual Purpose Bicycle. But rooted in his faith, Dr. Ebenezer remains hopeful that technological solutions like his will be adopted when the world wakes up to their need.
You can build it!
A special thanks to Dr. Job S. Ebenezer for being interviewed, as well as providing images and video for this post!