Social Technology: Rethinking technological progress

Western ideas of development are one of the main sources of social and economic inequalities in non-industrialized countries, say Profs. Marlei Pozzebon, HEC Montréal & FGV-EAESP and Isleide Arruda Fontenelle, FGV-EAESP as they discuss the Latin American concept and implementation of social technology in countries that are termed “developing”.

By CoBS Editor Meghana Kuppinakere Mutt. Related research: The Latin American concept of social technology: a critical essay by Marlei Pozzebon and Isleide Arruda Fontenelle, Researchgate

What do the Unites States of America, New Zealand, England, France, Australia have in common? These countries are commonly called “First World Countries”. On the other hand, Bangladesh, India, Argentina, Brazil – these countries are referred to as “developing” countries. The differentiating factor between the two groups is the term “industrialization”. Is it fair to use the degree of industrialization to categorize all countries? Are there other parameters to consider? Can a technological advancement that worked for one country or region be superimposed on another?

A wolf in a sheep’s clothing

After the second world war, the agriculture sector saw the emergence of the Green Revolution, seeking to “modernise agriculture”. This modernization replaced human labour with machines like tractors and harvesters. Consequently, farms started yielding more crops in less time with decreased physical efforts. As a consequence, supply of crops increased and their prices started decreasing. Now more food was available at a lesser cost in the market.  

But all that glitters is not gold! Pozzebon and Fontenelle dig a little deeper to truly understand the wholistic implications of Green Revolution. They inferred that the purpose of modernization of agriculture was to increase productivity and efficiency. To be a part of this revolution, farmers now needed high capital to invest in modern machinery and to buy hybrid seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers. More often than not, farm labourers lost their jobs as now, machines replaced them. Additionally, this high-energy equipment demanded a dangerous amount of natural resources, thus degrading the local environment. In a nutshell, industrialization of agriculture was a one size fits all solution that neither took into account the nuances of the locals’ cultures nor the well-being of their natural surroundings.

Western ideas of development are one of the main sources of social and economic inequalities in non-industrialized countries, say Profs. Marlei Pozzebon, HEC Montréal & FGV-EAESP and Isleide Arruda Fontenelle, FGV-EAESP as they discuss the Latin American concept and implementation of social technology in countries that are termed “developing”.

Consequently, thrusting western technologies upon non-industrialised countries caused a direct impact on the economic and social conditions in their societies. When farm labourers were replaced by machines, they slowly started to migrate to the outskirts where their quality of life started worsened. They were excluded from the industrialization revolution. Owing to this, a clear line of distinction started forming between the outskirts which were devoid of this “modernization” and the centre of the region which became a hub for “upgraded” way of life.

ll in all, the western principles of “modernization” must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Winds of Change

Various theories and movements have shaped the concept of social technology – which strived to counter industrialization with a sustainable and personalized solution to different regions and cultures. In particular, the coming together of two ideological routes essentially moulded it.

The Appropriate technology movement

The Appropriate technology movement bore its roots in India in the 1930s when Gandhi popularized the local spinning wheel to weave clothes. He was against large-scale manufacturing as it requires intensive capital setup and excludes human labour. The spinning wheel became a national symbol to fight against colonialism. This trend picked up. Similar theories started emerging in Europe which gave importance to small scale, low-capital and community-based technologies.

However, in the 1980s, terms like adequate or alternate technologies became popular – the only significant difference between them and appropriate technologies being scale. Large-scale production was now seen as a strategy to achieve better efficiency while still focussing on sustainable technologies that required human resources, low-capital and less-sophisticated technology.

As such, the goals of these technological movements were to avoid social exclusion of certain groups and to democratize technology to suit local needs. However, there was a wave of criticism against these methods – they were implemented without the trust of the local groups. For lack of flexibility and unsuitability for local environments made them a low form of conventional technologies, which reinforced social inequalities. 

Critical thinking movement

Social technology – an alternative to the western approach to economic growth

In Latin America, there have been continuous discussions on technological development, social inequalities and the unhealthy economic dependence of peripheral countries on the central countries. CEPAL, for example, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, wanted an equitable distribution of technological processes across countries. Being in the periphery, Latin American countries were only given the role of producing primary goods and, as such, were ignored in the complete industrialization process. CEPAL wanted to rebalance this unequal distribution of labour, enabling regions to avoid becoming “under-developed”. 

While peripheral countries’ labour forces kept increasing, central countries were increasingly adopting labour-saving technologies. This led to the formulation of the “dependency theory”, where peripheral countries were forced to mimic western mechanization, even though they aggravated the economic and socio-political conditions.  As such, the view that technology transfer is important, but needs to be modified in accordance with the local region became popular and shaped the concept of social technology.

Putting it all into practice

To put to practical use the concept of social technology, a national network of 800 Brazilian institutions was set up to promote social technologies. By collating a large number of institutions, this network aimed to stimulate social technologies across different communities and sectors. A database was also created to document processes and solutions adopted by various local groups in health, agriculture, education, food sectors. Moreover, an actionable framework was necessary to get the wheels of social technology up and running. Some of the key features in that framework were:

  • Local knowledge is combined with western technical knowledge – social technology does not perceive local, indigenous traditions to be better than western automation or vice versa
  • It involves the participation of local communities from the perception of the idea to its execution
  • It tries to use local knowledge to the full potential, and also sue local natural resources
  • Political trajectories of these technologies are kept an eye on. Any imbalance in technocratic power is quickly balanced
  • When a social technology has been successfully applied in one region, it tries to adapt and reframe when applying it to a different region. There would be no “transfer” of the social technology
  • The primary goal is the “well-being” of various social groups involved, their cultures and environments. 

Palmas Community Bank – A working example of social technology

Western ideas of development are one of the main sources of social and economic inequalities in non-industrialized countries, say Profs. Marlei Pozzebon, HEC Montréal & FGV-EAESP and Isleide Arruda Fontenelle, FGV-EAESP as they discuss the Latin American concept and implementation of social technology in countries that are termed “developing”.

Inspired by microfinance principles from Grameen bank in Bangladesh, Banco Palmas was set up in Brazil. It is a community bank, which offers 2 types of microloans to locals – production and consumption oriented. Moreover, the primary goal of Banco Palmas is to create a network of producers and consumers – “prosumers” – and is the only community bank that uses social currency.

The bank’s objectives are reached by evaluating the aspirations of local residents. They combined this local knowledge and system of social currency with the technical and financial expertise from Banco do Brazil – the largest commercial bank in Brazil. With this collaboration, they were able to produce local solutions such as a map of production and consumption. As it gained popularity, the concept was supported by the Brazilian government – and indeed went on to influence its national policies and the creation of more than a hundred such community banks in Brazil.

Missing feathers in a cap

Management and business studies are dominated with the popular western paradigms of technology, and it is rare to come across studies that provide an alternate view. The “bottom-of-pyramid literature”, or the knowledge found in local social groups do not make it to the academics of management studies. Inevitably, the idea of a “developed” world is dominated by what the West appears to be – industrialized, automated and productivity-driven.

As Profs Pozzebon and Fontenelle point out, the super-imposing of western ideologies on individualistic societies do more harm than good. Instead, the realms of technology, society and politics of each community must work together to formulate a tailor-made solution to advance further.  

Useful links:

One-MBA at FGV-EAESP, Brazil

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