forum discussion #5

Making Technology Work — for People

ImageTechnology has the potential to transform the lives of the world’s poor.

Computers, water filters, renewable energy, improved crops… all have been touted as tools for pulling people out of poverty.

Yet technological fixes often fail to deliver on their promise.

Consider these examples:

  • One Laptop per Child, an ambitious program to improve education in poor countries, has had mixed success. Read a recent critique here.
  • A $7 million program to install arsenic filters at wells in eastern India failed due to poor maintenance.
  • A renewable-energy project in Nicaragua, intended to help the poor by providing electricity, has caused a sharp increase in television watching — and television buying. Read the story here, or listen below.

What can be done to make technology work better for the people it’s meant to serve?

Anu HeadshotIn this World Science Forum, we talk to Anu Ramaswami. She’s an environmental engineer at the University of Colorado in Denver and directs a program on Urban Infrastructure Development. She trains engineers to consider the social and cultural aspects of their work.

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Hear a story about engineers working in Nicaragua, and listen to our interview with Ramaswami. Download MP3, or listen here:
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Now it’s your chance to ask the questions. Join our conversation with Anu Ramaswami.

  • Have you seen a good technology fail because it was not implemented with people in mind?
  • Has the Western world become too techno-centric — too dismissive of indigenous knowledge?

Design Like You Give a Damn: Watch a video from our sister program FRONTLINE/World. The video profiles an effort at participatory architecture in rural India.


The guest has left this discussion, but feel free to leave your thoughts.

Your Comments

  1. Hello Ms. Ramaswami,
    Great to see you on the forum. I’m the reporter who did the story on Nicaragua for The World today.

    Here are my questions: are engineers in countries like the United States typically trained to work with the communities they serve? Or is that something they have to learn only if they do small scale projects?

    Do you think that community engagement is a difficult skill for engineers to learn, or is it fairly straightforward?

    Thanks very much,

    • susan bolton

      I have traveled 7 times to international project sites with US student engineers. In my experience, engineers are not typically trained to work with communities. A typical engineer is analytical, organized and works well in structured situations. International community work is typically unpredictable, non-structured, and disorgnaized. Learning to work effectively under such situations is very challenging for many engineers.

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Anu Ramaswami

        Hi Susan, I agree that engineers in general are not trained for participatory work. But, we only seek the small pool of engineers passionate about and committed to development work to have this training. In my experience that pool of engineers – likely an atypical bunch – is very open to learning if there are consistent platforms for learning, and quite adept at improvising.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Anu Ramaswami

      Thanks Eliza,
      I enjoyed your story. To answer your questions, general engineering training does not cover community engagement. However, engineering programs that take students into international development projects are increasingly seeing a need for training in community engagement.

      Community engagement is a skill that can be learned for sure. But to be most effective, it needs a change in attitude that can be difficult to teach out of a text book or even a case study. This is why experiential learning is important. The practitioner comes to realize they are not an expert, and also to appreciate the power of local knowledge and local collective action – very inspiring to see this in person. At that point, community engagement becomes a passion! And learning follows exponentially! best,

  2. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Elsa Youngsteadt

    On the podcast, we heard about situations where the technologies that outsiders/engineers want to provide aren’t really the things the community wants or needs.

    What about the reverse? Have you ever encountered situations where what a community wants turns out to be something the outsider/engineer feels would be wrong to provide?


    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Anu Ramaswami

      Hello Elsa, I thought the TV example was one where the engineers had mixed feelings about how wind power electricity was being used (e.g., for TV viewing instead of income generation).

      All depends on the relationship between the outsider/engineer and the community. In general it is always best to respect the collective choice and free choice of the community. At the same time, in a ideal collaborative process, the outsider/engineer should feel free to express their concerns and expect to be heard. In one of our projects, we were concerned about using lead-acid batteries because they may be disposed improperly in pristine areas and pose a hazard – but it was up to the community to weigh that risk and manage it.

      best, anu

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

        This reminds me of the issue of community ownership that the documentary from Frontline/World (to the left on this page) touches upon. Could you comment on why it is important for development/relief projects to allow the community to have a sense of ownership over a technology/building?

        For example, did the community you mentioned in your example above feel responsible for the disposal of the batteries because you had engaged them, responded to their requests and informed them about potential hazards of disposal?

  3. Pilar

    NPR reported on Oct 21 that TVs actually help women in developing countries, even if they ARE watching soap operas. So maybe that “unintended consequence” was good!
    Soap Operas Boost Rights, Global Economist Says
    “It’s not just that television sets are popping up in living rooms and cafes from New Delhi to the most remote locations in Saudi Arabia, it’s that now those TVs tend to come with many more choices through satellite and cable.

    Citing research by scholars Robert Jensen and Emily Oster, Kenny says that a village getting satellite or cable TV “goes along with higher girls’ school enrollment rates and increased female autonomy.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Anu Ramaswami

      Hello – I don’t know enough to comment on that specific study. But you raise an important point – it is worthwhile asking who decides what people should or not do with the technology/products that they (now) have access to.

      I personally feel communities the world over are very sharp and perceptive, and can make as good decisions as any other group in society. After all, these same communities make sophisticated choices when they vote for/against politicians. The main thing is for the “outsiders” to provide full information and have an honest dialogue about how we struggle with technologies every day – so that technology is viewed as a choice and not an imperative.

      Further, when resources are limited, asking what their priorities are, is important.

  4. How can I download Anu Ramaswami’s podcasts to listen to it later? When I hit download Mp3 on the page it starts playing immediately?
    Thank you
    From a technological infant,

    • Carla —

      Right click with your mouse on the Download MP3 link, and then choose “Save Link As…” You can then save it anywhere you’d like on your computer.

  5. Meico Whitlock

    What resources would recommend for individuals interested in learning more about the social and cultural aspects of employing ICT for international development?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Anu Ramaswami

      Hello Meico,

      Let me get back to you in a couple days on resources specific to international development and cultural impact of ICT (or perhaps Rhitu might get us some links!).

      I suspect, though, that the “developed world” is also struggling with the pace and impact of ICT technologies. Some have argued that this pace is so fast that our social and cultural system are having difficulty keeping pace. Studies are showing that young people who play a lot of video games – their brains are getting hard-wired differently that those of us who are older (and don’t have gaming skills!!). Our younger generation may be thinking differently, and also possibly valuing things like nature differently, than our generation because of technology.

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

        Hi Meico,

        Thank you for your question. I’m looking into getting you some links on the social and cultural aspects of using Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in international development. Will get back to you shortly.


      • Meico —

        One place I would definitely check out is D (Development) Lab at MIT. Amy Smith has been working on this stuff for a while now, and has interesting insights on the cultural and social implications of design and engineering for the developing world. LINK:

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

      Here are a couple resources that World Tech Podcast listener, Alexandre Enkerli sent me- and

      Both delve into socio-cultural aspects of ICT use in development.

      You can also check out the Master’s in Development Practice website for other resources on international development. (Anu mentioned it on The World Science podcast interview)
      Hope that helps.

    • There’s a wealth of academic resources on the topic. For instance, anthropologists have accumulated a rather large body of scholarship on these issues, often in collaboration with NGOs or as a way to provide an alternative to some traditional NGO thinking.
      I highly recommend that you listen to The World’s Tech Pod (if you don’t do so already), along with TVO’s Search Engine.

      Other podcasts that frequently talk about such issues, include Chris Lydon’s Open Source which provide an insightful approach to ICT in development. An episode about the OLPC was remarkable, at the time, for displaying much critical thinking.

    • Meico Whitlock

      Thanks everyone! These resources are very helpful!

  6. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Anu Ramaswami

    Hello Rhitu,

    You had asked – “Could you comment on why it is important for development/relief projects to allow the community to have a sense of ownership over a technology/building?”

    Well, more than allow, the reality is that the project belongs to the community from start to finish and onward through maintenance. Without that pride of ownership and sense that they are responsible for the project, many of these projects lay unused once the “outsider” leaves.

    I can’t say for sure if the sense of ownership prompted our partner villagers to listen to our input on lead acid batteries. But, it was clear that they were listening, and, reciprocally, they felt listened to.


  7. Glad this discussion is happening, heard about it through WTP.
    These broad issues are often discussed among ethnographers, especially among anthropologists doing fieldwork in parts of the World which are the object of many of these efforts. Intro anthro textbooks are filled with examples of development projects gone wrong, for a variety of reasons.
    One way to put it is that such projects require more care and thought than simply trying to “fix a problem.” Sure, it sounds like a cop out. But it’s the main way to be brief.
    What gives me hope, though, is that people are in fact thinking about going beyond problem-solving approaches. The OLPC refused to do field research and used a top-down approach. Yet the geek corps collaborates with locals and corporations hire ethnographers.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Anu Ramaswami

      Nice to have an anthropologist join the discussion! In our cross-discipline curriculum, we are finding such conversations among students and faculty drawn from engineering, public policy, planning and anthropology really useful.

      For sustainability engineering, though, we seek to not only address the socio-cultural aspect, but also the long term environmental aspect (e.g., designing systems that are benign or beneficial to the environment). Along with tools and skills from ethnography, we also need training in environmental life cycle and systems thinking.

      Such training across disciplines is challenging, but can be done. Often the biggest barrier are “disciplinary silos” and “disciplinary hubris”, oddly strong among students – each discipline often thinks they know best!


      • Well, my view of ethnography is that it’s a broad and flexible approach, which can easily be integrated with diverse disciplines. It doesn’t need to dominate or to dictate anything. But it does seem quite compatible with this reflection process, including the environmental part. After all, ethnographers don’t care only about “socio-cultural dimensions.”
        Though it may have sounded as if I were preaching for an anthropological perspective, I was mostly thinking about a lack of communication between well-meaning technologists and those people for/with whom they’re allegedly trying to find appropriate solutions.
        Where ethnographic insight might be especially valuable is in demonstrating the value of thinking about all sorts of implications. Humanity needn’t be the only factor to take into account.

  8. Tom Crozier

    I have done similar things in Pantanal, a community just south of Granada, NI, since 2002. It’s amazing how some things go in a completely different direction than you would expect. My favorite story I about a grant from Rotary International to build 50 latrines. Almost every household put padlocks on them and use them as self-storage units.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Anu Ramaswami

      Hello Tom,

      That was an interesting example! It may be useful to catalog some of these unexpected outcomes.

      As I wrote above, unexpected environmental outcomes are common in all technology projects not just in the developing world. Things like lead in gasoline, etc.

      So both unexpected social and environmental outcomes should be on a checklist to watch out against in any technology (not just for the developing world).


    • Tom —

      There are also documented cases of treated mosquito nets in East Africa being re-purposed for drying fish, and of being incorporated into wedding dresses by local seamstresses!

  9. Jill Scantlan

    I am an International Development Studies student at Portland State University who has just recently returned from an internship in India. While I was there, I conducted a research project on community participation in urban slums in North-India. I really enjoyed watching the “Design Like You Give a Damn” video because it highlighted how the community participatory process is essential for the success of any development project.

    What I found in my research was that because slum-dwellers are living in highly political and contested spaces (illegally settled on land with high property values), do not have legal tenure, do not have basic infrastructure, are migratory and heterogeneous, and have limited amounts of space –community participation is not only harder to elicit, but is also a completely different beast in this context. Because they are easily and often manipulated by politicians, I also found that many residents of slums were jaded towards the development process.

    I have not yet finished my research project, and don’t really have any answers yet – but I was wondering if you had any insight? Community participation in an urban slum context is a topic that needs more attention; especially now that urbanization and “slumification” are growing trends.

    Thank you,

    Jill Scantlan

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Anu Ramaswami

      Hi Jill,

      You may want to check out Slum Dwellers International – beyond community participation, they are addressing slum dwellers taking charge of their lives.

      Organizations like World Bank are working with SDI to take their needs seriously into account in planning/projects.


    • Jill —

      You might want to check out an interesting project in the slums of Brazil called Mobile Metrix. They’re doing interesting work using PDAs/Smartphones to “document the undocumented.” Their website is:

      I interviewed the founder, Melanie Edwards, last year at the PopTech! Conference in Maine. It’s part of Tech Podcast 215:

  10. Mike Figiel

    Hello Ms. Ramaswami,
    Very interesting discussions. I think that just giving a community some sort of technology is not the cure for all their problems. There are many impacts to any technology, good & bad, and communities need to be “trained” in the technology’s use and given good information about the good & bad.
    Also I was wondering how Religion / belief systems of many poorer communities can interfere with the implementation of, and use of various technologies, do you find that you have to overcome a lot of myth, or misinformation, or false beliefs poorer, less advanced communities have about a technology ?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Anu Ramaswami

      Hi Mike – Thanks – I would agree that all technologies come with the good and the bad and we all need help in weighing the risks and benefits, particularly when some benefits are tangible and immediate while risks may be displaced in space and time.

      In terms of belief systems (perhaps from religion or otherwise) – values and beliefs guide all our actions – no matter developed or developing nations. Re – the recent debate on whether or not to take the H1N1 flu shot. Sometimes religious/traditional practices may represent wisdom drawn from ecology and holistic thinking (not visible to an outsider), and perhaps we should try to understand them better rather seeing them as traditional vs technology.


  11. Ms. Ramaswami,

    I am a graduate student at U. Pittsburgh trying to sort through these types of questions as well. I am an RPCV from the Dominican Republic and a Mechanical Engineering background. In the Peace Corps I worked on water and energy projects and was pretty successful, but realized I was missing 90% of what I should know to be a successful development worker. Those other “soft” areas as they are often considered by engineers are so much more important, in my opinion, than the hard physics of engineering.

    I guess my question is one I am always wondering. Is it possible to create a really informed development strategy without being immersed in the culture by living for years in the area where the project is proposed? Is it arrogance causes us to assume this is possible?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Anu Ramaswami

      Hello Rob,
      I would say the “soft” areas are equally as important as the “physics of engineering”, often called the hard-path approach. If we got the community ownership right and then put in a poorly designed product, that would not be effective either!

      I think we should appreciate the analytical/technical/creativity training and skills taught to engineers, while exhorting connecting engineering practice more directly to people.

      Humans have always being creating tools and machines – ultimately, I view engineering and architecture and any design oriented discipline expressions of human creativity. Effective development programs try to “co-create”/”co-learn”, perhaps directly with communities (as in the video clip), or teamed with ethnographers in cross-culture work.


  12. Another question I have is this: Despite being an academic yourself, I’m wondering if you feel like I do, i.e. do academics think too highly of themselves to admit a lack of understanding of how to make development work? And that keeps them from opening the door to the correct questions, and in turn successful projects? If you are an engineering student or faculty, and realize maybe your development projects aren’t working for lack of understanding of human nature, it is hard to really delve into the socio-cutlural topics while staying within your department. A truly interdisciplinary explorative program might be the only real option, but its hard to give out degrees that are interdisciplinary. Traditional thinking values specifics more.

  13. Sudipta Sarkar

    I work with Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Since 1997, we’ve collaborated with Bengal Engineering and Science University in India to install more than 200 community based arsenic filters. They serve 200,000 people residing in remote villages within arsenic contaminated zones. Arsenic filters installed previously in these areas by the state government became defunct from poor maintenance, because the government and NGOs did not engage the communities. We took a different approach. Our arsenic filters are operated and maintained by a water committee formed by the villagers. The ownership lies with the community. Each family pays a monthly water tariff of about 50 US cents towards the upkeep of the unit. The treated water is routinely tested for arsenic. The units also generate secondary employment in the form of caretaker and water vendors. Appropriate technology and development of supporting socio-economic institutions were vital for the successful treatment process.

  14. Hi All —

    Clark Boyd here. I am the host of The World’s Technology Podcast (WTP). Not surprisingly, we’ve covered appropriate technology quite a lot on the podcast. I wanted to give you more audio food for thought. These three recent podcasts featured interviews with folks who are trying to design/have designed tech projects for the developing world. Follow the links for show notes and audio:

    1) WTP 260: The Embrace Thermoregulator —

    2) WTP 253: WE CARE Solar Suitcase —

    3) WTP 221: Catapult Design & Hippo Roller (audio link only) —

  15. One of my friends is traveling in Southeast Asia right now. I was just reading her blog today, and she had posted about how people were using masks which were distributed to protect against H1N1. Since motorcycles are a common mode of transit, and roads are dusty, it turned out that people were mainly using the masks while riding, so as to inhale less dust! Her story reminded me of this conversation, although in this case it sounds like an excellent alternative use!

  16. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Anu Ramaswami

    Dear bloggers,

    I wanted to post a couple general comments.

    First, one does not have to go to the developing world to experience differing cultures. Being open-minded and developing listening qualities can be done in community work right here in the US. There are numerous examples – many in public health – where a full understanding of health determinants in communities cannot be developed without fully participatory research with communities.

    I’ll post my second comment next. Best, Anu

  17. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Anu Ramaswami

    Dear bloggers,

    My second note is on systems thinking tools and life cycle assessment. While ethnography promotes systems thinking – it taps into local ecosystem knowledge and wisdom, not large scale environment/ecosystem impacts from industries. We have specific tools in environmental engineering and industrial ecology to look at full system environmental impacts of technology products and processing, from local to global.

    Integrating all these perspectives – design concepts from engineering/architecture, environmental assessment from industrial ecology, local ecosystem knowledge from ethnography, and cooperative management (policy)is what our program at UC Denver is developing, as we believe all these disciplines – together – are key. Check out

    best, Anu

  18. Martin Soler

    Part of the reason why technological fixes often fail to deliver on their promises, is the lack of an education and awareness about the technological fixes themselves as well as the underlying reason for implementing them. In order to realize the full potential of technological fixes, it is very important that the recipients have full awareness of the: Whys, Whats, and Hows. If people have that understanding, then the potential for the technology being used properly is greater. The simplest way to illustrate this is using the example of a teen wanting a car. If a parent simply gives the car without going through the process of explaining the responsibilities that go along with having that car, then several not so pleasant things can happen.

  19. Martin Soler

    Another example is a corporation implementing technology that is supposed to solve ongoing problems within the company, but not going through the process of training the employees on the technology. In the end, instead of maximizing the use of the technology, the same problems that were supposed to be fixed still end up unresolved, or other problems arise from not having the proper training on the technology. If the situations I’ve illustrated exist in wealthy communities and large corporations, think about the impact technology can have on the poor who are not educated about the technology just introduced to their communities. I might be oversimplifying this a bit to a certain extent, but the point is technology is great only if it is implemented and utilized in a responsible way.

  20. Thanks everyone for the wide variety of perspectives – an important and necessary factor for producing a successful development project. To the engineering and ecosystem/environment perspectives, I would add a solid economic feasibility to round out a project’s chances for success. It’s important to remember, though, that they are only chances. The history of development in what is now the ‘developed’ world is replete with projects that reflected peer-reviewed academic guidance and flawless engineering (and proper business plans, of course) yet failed for lack of judgement, or the vagaries of development itself. So we might add the need to plan for constant reappraisal of the goals, strategies, and the means of the project, prioritizing the views of the principal stakeholders.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Anu Ramaswami

      Thank you all for your comments on a very lively discussion.
      We seem to have come to consensus on the five skill sets needed for sustainable community development:
      1) Strong participatory co-learning, particularly in cross-cultural settings, learned from ethnography.
      2) Environmental life cycle assessment addressing health and ecosystem risks – both local and up the industrial supply chain – drawn from industrial ecology and environmental engineering.
      3) Economic feasibility analysis and entrepreneurship training for financially viable projects, drawn from business.
      4) Community institutions to manage common resources, drawn from public affairs.
      5) Robust technology design!

      This has been a great forum to share our work across domains, addressing the three E’s of sustainability!

      best, Anu

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