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What role will low-tech play in tomorrow’s society?

Quentin Mateus
Engineer and director of low-tech investigations at Low-Tech Lab
Martina Knoop
Physicist and director of the CNRS Mission for Transversal and Interdisciplinary Initiatives (MITI)
Key takeaways
  • Low-tech is a new concept of progress and innovation that is more sustainable, robust, and economical in terms of materials and energy.
  • It finds its origins in the technocritical movement of the 1970s, which saw the development of several players promoting low-tech practices and know-how.
  • Research is increasingly interested in low-tech approaches: the CNRS has launched two calls for projects focusing on “frugal sciences”.
  • With the aim of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, low-tech could make it possible to reduce electricity consumption in electronics and household appliances by a factor of three.

Smart­phones, con­nect­ed speak­ers, tablets, com­put­ers, con­nect­ed watch­es… High-tech devices are pro­lif­er­at­ing in our homes. The impact of this tech­no­log­i­cal explo­sion on the plan­et is now well known. Only 1% of the rare earths used to man­u­fac­ture these objects, such as indi­um or gal­li­um, are recy­cled on a glob­al scale. Not to men­tion the pol­lu­tion caused by the mas­sive use of data. Over the last ten years or so, the low-tech move­ment has been cam­paign­ing for a new def­i­n­i­tion of moder­ni­ty and inno­va­tion, where we ques­tion our con­sump­tion and our habits.

“Useful, sustainable and accessible”

The con­cept of low-tech was once seen as an oppo­si­tion to progress, a rejec­tion of tech­nol­o­gy in favour of sim­ple, home-made solu­tions. In real­i­ty, it’s part of a wider move­ment to reflect on our envi­ron­men­tal impact, our needs and our ways of meet­ing them, which dates back to the 1970s. It’s not about going back to the can­dle, nor is it sim­ply about pro­mot­ing green indus­tri­al tech­nolo­gies or eco-designed objects. The Low-Tech Lab defines low tech­nolo­gies as “objects, sys­tems, tech­niques, ser­vices, know-how, prac­tices, lifestyles and ways of think­ing that inte­grate tech­nol­o­gy accord­ing to three main prin­ci­ples”. These tech­nolo­gies must be use­ful and meet indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive needs.

“It’s a ques­tion of col­lec­tive­ly reap­pro­pri­at­ing needs, ask­ing our­selves togeth­er what is real­ly use­ful and what isn’t,” explains Quentin Mateus, engi­neer and direc­tor of research at the Low-Tech Lab. They need to be acces­si­ble, free of copy­right and as sim­ple as pos­si­ble so that they can be used by as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble, they need to be local­ly pro­duced, they need to be adapt­able to the needs and resources of each con­text, and so on. Last­ly, low-tech prod­ucts must be sus­tain­able, opti­mised to have the least pos­si­ble eco­log­i­cal and social impact, and as robust as pos­si­ble, like L’In­crevable, a wash­ing machine designed by design­ers and engi­neers to last 50 years and be eas­i­ly repaired and updat­ed by its owners.

Collective reflection and training

Low-tech involves a col­lec­tive, demo­c­ra­t­ic and par­tic­i­pa­tive process of reflec­tion, deci­sion-mak­ing and train­ing. “You have to help peo­ple devel­op their skills, if they don’t have the abil­i­ty to begin with, so you have to give them free plans and learn­ing frame­works, so that they can be more autonomous in repair­ing and adapt­ing the object to my needs and con­text”, explains the engi­neer. There real­ly is no pre­cise def­i­n­i­tion of low-tech, no label or spec­i­fi­ca­tions, but the con­cept, which is based on broad prin­ci­ples, can be applied to a wide range of areas: mobil­i­ty, dig­i­tal uses, hous­ing, food, edu­ca­tion, cul­ture, etc.

Low-tech also has a social and polit­i­cal dimen­sion. In 2019, the think-tank La Fab­rique écologique pub­lished a note on these sober and resilient tech­nolo­gies, signed by a num­ber of play­ers in the move­ment, includ­ing Philippe Bihouix and Aman­dine Gar­nier of the Low-Tech Lab, as well as Bruno Tassin, direc­tor of research at the Ecole des Ponts Paris­Tech, and Marc Dar­ras, chair­man of the Cen­traliens “Ingénieur et Développe­ment Durable” pro­fes­sion­al group.The note explains that “this approach is not just tech­no­log­i­cal, but also sys​temic​.It aims to chal­lenge eco­nom­ic, organ­i­sa­tion­al, social and cul­tur­al mod­els”. So, it’s also about imag­in­ing new mod­els of con­sump­tion, pro­duc­tion, and gov­er­nance. “It’s a mis­take to sim­ply want to replace high-tech with low-tech out of con­cern for the envi­ron­ment. It’s about ques­tion­ing high-tech and its world”, says Quentin Mateus.

What role can scientific research play? 

Accord­ing to Mar­ti­na Knoop, a physi­cist and direc­tor of the Mis­sion pour les ini­tia­tives trans­vers­es et inter­dis­ci­plinaires (MITI) at the CNRS, which has already put out two calls for research projects to pro­mote “fru­gal sci­ences”, sci­ence and researchers have their right­ful place in this process of ques­tion­ing. “Low-tech approach­es are fru­gal approach­es. It’s about doing just as well with less invest­ment in mate­ri­als, ener­gy, research time and so on,” she explains. To achieve this, researchers are look­ing at sim­pler process­es, instru­ments and sen­sors that con­sume few­er nat­ur­al resources. All dis­ci­plines are involved.

By way of exam­ple, one project select­ed by the CNRS is con­cerned with mon­i­tor­ing air pol­lu­tion. Méli­na Macouin, a researcher at the Geo­sciences and Envi­ron­ment Lab­o­ra­to­ry in Toulouse, is using plane tree bark as biosen­sors to analyse the pres­ence of nanopar­ti­cles. The study is a blend of low-tech and par­tic­i­pa­to­ry sci­ence, with Toulouse res­i­dents invit­ed to put up gar­lands of plane tree bark in their homes. This approach to cit­i­zen sci­ence, which is often low-tech, is becom­ing increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar, accord­ing to the direc­tor of MITI. “Doing bet­ter with less is an inher­ent part of research, in all our process­es. It is some­times more dif­fi­cult and com­plex to invent a sim­pler, less ener­gy-con­sum­ing process that per­forms just as well. Con­straints can be a source of inven­tive­ness and the basis of future inno­va­tions”, says the physicist.

What role will sci­en­tists play in a low-tech soci­ety? “If we are to put in place the con­di­tions nec­es­sary for the devel­op­ment of a low-tech econ­o­my in all its dimen­sions, these new forms of research, which are also more dis­trib­uted and more firm­ly root­ed in each con­text, have their full role to play, and in the process a sense of pur­pose to redis­cov­er. We need brain­pow­er, col­lec­tive intel­li­gence and a high lev­el of social, eco­nom­ic and tech­ni­cal engi­neer­ing to dis­man­tle what is no longer viable, to real­lo­cate, to recom­pose appro­pri­ate sec­tors and a lace­work of sociotech­ni­cal organ­i­sa­tions. It will take time and human intel­li­gence, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly a high data through­put”, argues Quentin Mateus.

Rethinking our industry 

A low-tech soci­ety there­fore requires us to rethink the way we prac­tise sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, as well as the place of indus­try. For the Low-Tech Lab rep­re­sen­ta­tive, it’s not a ques­tion of get­ting rid of the sec­tor and our indus­tri­al fab­ric. Once again, we need to think in terms of needs.

In 2021, ADEME, the French Agency for Eco­log­i­cal Tran­si­tion, has drawn up a sce­nario for a “fru­gal gen­er­a­tion” to achieve car­bon neu­tral­i­ty by 2050. This would include “respect for nature” and the estab­lish­ment of a pro­duc­tion sys­tem based on low-tech, “more robust and repairable by cit­i­zens”. It would involve cut­ting elec­tric­i­ty con­sump­tion by a third for spe­cif­ic uses such as elec­tron­ics and house­hold appli­ances, switch­ing to more exten­sive farm­ing, sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduc­ing mobil­i­ty (by encour­ag­ing cycling, for exam­ple), relo­cat­ing cer­tain pro­duc­tion process­es and reduc­ing demand for prod­ucts and ser­vices by giv­ing pride of place to the “econ­o­my of func­tion­al­i­ty and repair”. The over­all demand for ener­gy – elec­tric­i­ty, heat, gas and petrol – would be halved com­pared to 2015. Green­house gas emis­sions would fall by 42 mil­lion tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Sirine Azouaoui 

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