In this project, we were tasked with creating-- or rather lightly editing, since much of the design was done for us-- a design for a wind turbine blade based on one of four scenarios.
My initial research memo for the concept.
The scenario my group was assigned reads as follows:
You are a part of a group of volunteer engineers in Engineers Without Borders (EWB) that is designing a simple wind turbine for the Guatemalan city of Quetzaltenango. This Guatemalan village is currently off the grid [sic]* and EWB aims to build a wind turbine that can provide enough energy to power simple electrical devices like LED lights. Villagers will assemble multiple units of these simple turbines, which should be long lasting and require little maintenance. Your task is to design a simple wind turbine that is suitable for easy assembly by the villagers with widely available materials. Source: Wired, ‘Engineers Without Borders Bring Tech to Villages Without Power', 2008. [Online]. Available: https://www.wired.com/2008/03/engineers-without-borders-bring-tech-to-villages-without-power. [Accessed: 24 – July - 2020].
Since the scenario was based on a real-world project, naturally I was curious to find out what happened with it. The Wired article says that "The turbine was created by the Appropriate Technology Design Team of EWB's San Francisco chapter. Team members like Malcolm Knapp and Heather Fleming spend their nights and weekends inside D2M's design shop trying to perfect low-tech gadgets for people 2,500 miles away."
There are also links in the article: one to the Appropriate Technology Design team, a victim to link rot, and one to the San Francisco chapter of EWB's website. An inspection of that site revealed that the ATDT changed its name to "R&D Group" in 2014. Unfortunately, the link to the "new" R&D group's website is also dead, and the Guatemala wind turbine project is not listed on that page's summary of previous ATDT/R&D group projects.
Which is somewhat anticlimactic, in terms of being able to figure out what-- if anything-- actually happened with the project. However, from the moment I read the original article, I was put in mind of a passage from Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, a book that made an enormous impression on me when I first read it, and of which I was reminded by the death of Paul Farmer in February of 2022. In the book, describing Farmer's early contact with the collaborators and patients who would define his career and the transformative impact of Latin American liberation theology on his work, Kidder writes:
Farmer was learning about the great importance of water to public health, and he was conceiving a great fondness for technology in general, and also scorn for “the Luddite trap.” He liked to illustrate the meaning of that phrase with the story of the time when he came back to Cange from Harvard and found that Père Lafontant had overseen the construction of thirty fine-looking concrete latrines, scattered through the village. “But,” Farmer asked, “are they appropriate technology?” He’d picked up the term in a class at the Harvard School of Public Health. As a rule, it meant that one should use only the simplest technologies required to do a job.
“Do you know what appropriate technology means? It means good things for rich people and shit for the poor,” the priest growled, and refused to speak to Farmer again for a couple of days.
Lafontant was also supervising the construction of a clinic in Cange—the South Carolinians had put up the money. The facility would have a laboratory, of course. Farmer got hold of a pamphlet about how to equip labs in third world places published by the World Health Organization. It made modest recommendations. You could make do with only one sink. If it wasn’t easy to arrange for electricity, you could rely on solar power. A homemade solar-powered microscope would serve for most purposes. He threw the booklet away. The first microscope in Cange was a real one, which he stole from Harvard Medical School. “Redistributive justice,” he’d later say. “We were just helping them not go to hell.”
All throughout this project, the words of Père Lafontant, a Haitian Episcopal priest who died of COVID-19 in 2021, were on my mind. When we were choosing objectives, the student groups who had scenarios taking place in rich countries chose objectives that prioritized "good things for rich people": a wind farm capable of powering an entire city or country, a roof generator to help people reduce their power bills. Which begs the question: we we, in our design prioritizing low cost and portability, falling into Farmer's Luddite Trap? And were the original EWB Appropriate Technology Design Team, named after the very concept that Lafontant so colourfully characterized as "shit for the poor," doing the exact same thing? What kinds of assumptions do we make about the end users of our devices, when we design them to be technology that wouldn't be sufficient for our own needs? And what would a preferential option for the poor look like in technology design?
*Quetzaltenango is not an off-the-grid village, it is a major city with a distinguished Mayan history. In the article, it is clear that the original intention was for the city to be a manufacturing centre for turbines that would then be transported to outlying villages.