Creating Technology Solutions that are Appropriate Given the System Context

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By John Hunter, founder of

Kentaro Toyama‘s presentation at the 2016 Annual Deming Institute Conference – Geek Heresy: Technology’s Law of Amplification

YouTube video

From the website for Kentaro’s book, Geek Heresy

“Toyama’s research reminds us that there are few one-size-fits-all solutions. If technology is going to improve the lives of the world’s poorest, it must be grounded in a deep understanding of human behavior and an appreciation for cultural differences.”

— Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and co-chair of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Looking through Kentaro’s web site he works closely on what I have known under the term of “appropriate technology” – using technology (often very simple types of technology) to improve people’s lives. I grew up with my father’s interest and around his work with appropriate technology and I find it extremely interesting and a powerful method to improve the world. In the first post on this blog I discussed how I thought this idea tied with Deming’s focus on “prosperity” and improving people’s lives in a way those in rich countries often overlook.

Kentaro discusses aspects of what those interested in using technology to improve people’s lives run into. One of the most common is that the system in which the solutions are put into place often work against just placing a solution that works in one context into another. So for example, putting a new solar power system to pump water may work wonderfully (and it even avoids an issue of running power lines to a location that doesn’t have easy to connect grid power). But if the system requires maintenance which is difficult to get locally (either due to a lack of trained staff, poor transportation or poor spare parts availability) the solution may well not be very effective.

“Appropriate” in appropriate technology essentially means, appropriate for the system in which it will be used. This idea is very familiar to those of us using Dr. Deming’s ideas. Appropriate technology is really about delivering customer delight with an understanding of the system in which this solution will be used. The solution only is wise when it is proper for the context within which it is used.

The other aspect appropriate technology sought to remedy was solutions meeting real needs. Too often solutions being delivered were what external experts thought should help instead of what people really needed. The appropriate technology solution for this is familiar to those using Deming’s ideas: get deep understanding of users’ needs and pilot on a small scale.

Appropriate technology efforts learned from that when solutions were of great interest to people (when matched to user’s actual needs) those users would be engaged to help make the solution work for the long term. So if the solution could provide spare parts and reliable technology within the context of the system in question people would use their ingenuity and hard work to sustain those solutions. Conversely if the solution misread the market (it wasn’t really what they cared about) or was poorly designed for the realities of the system in which it was placed then people wouldn’t be committed to making it work.

This result is very similar to what happens if you don’t design a management system well. Talking about the wonders that the future will bring while repeating the same methods all the previous times people heard optimistic projection doesn’t inspire people. If people have experience of optimistic talk followed by everything crumbling soon afterwards people are going to believe what their experience has taught them not optimistic speeches. To get different results you need to learn what has worked and what hasn’t in the past and design solutions using that knowledge (either for a new management system or for a new appropriate technology solution).

Solutions are worthwhile not for what they could deliver if just everything would work out but in how they actually work.

Kentaro Toyama, in his presentation (and quotes W. Edwards Deming):

For the most part technology amplifies underlying human forces.

Deming (1982): “The transformation can only be accomplished by man, not by hardware (computers, gadgets, automation, new machinery).”

Kentaro mentioned that he spent a year teaching math in Ghana (again echoing my experience, living in Nigeria for a year while my father was teaching and working on appropriate technology solutions). One of his students has founded a company and uses 80% of the profits to fund a non-profit: Tech Needs Girls is a movement and a mentorship program to get more girls to create technology. Their mission is mentoring girls to lead and innovate through learning to code.

I love to see the continued efforts to create solutions that use a deep understanding of user’s needs, systems thinking, experimentation and continual improvement to create a better world.

Related: Using Drones to Deliver Medical Supplies in Roadless AreasTechnology Is Not the AnswerSolar Power Market Solutions For Hundreds of Millions Without ElectricityAppropriate Technology Brings a $1.30/month Cell Phone Plan to Remote Village

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