Low Tech / High Science Ė The future of
by Royce Carlson
Western culture, as it has developed
so far, has taken scientific discoveries and engineered the results
into products and systems that are highly energy intensive and
uneconomical to repair. We have all kinds of tools that are fun to
use, until they break. None of us know how to fix them. The only
option is to buy another one and use it until it breaks. I have a
couple of stereo receivers, one at home and one at my shop. They
were both built in the 1970ís and still work and sound great. The
stereos that you can buy now are inexpensive but they only seem to
last a few years. The same thing is true with my 35mm film camera. I
bought it new in 1977. It still works great thirty years later.
Unfortunately film is becoming obsolete. So I bought a digital
camera. It lasted two years before it broke. Repair? It was cheaper
to throw it away and buy another camera. What a waste. The
technology that science and engineering is producing today is
throwaway technology Ė obsolete after only a few years.
Scientists are constantly
discovering new things that engineers and entrepreneurs can use to
create technology. Instead of designing overly complex,
soon-to-be-obsolete, throwaway items, why not use the science to
design efficient, simple, durable products that are repairable by
any moderately intelligent person. We are running through natural
resources like they will last forever. All this while the human
population approaches 7 billion people and while practically the
entire less-developed world wants to consume at the same rate that
we do here in the U.S. Itís just not going to work. We need a new
I propose a low tech and high science approach
to technology. This means scientific study of the use of low tech
materials for the purpose of maximizing efficiency. The use of low
tech/high science engineering considers the whole life of the
product and materials to decrease the energy footprint. It means
considering whole systems in the design of products and materials.
Low-tech and high-science are not mutually
exclusive. Itís possible to use what we learn through scientific
experimentation to improve old technologies rather than create new
more complex technologies. Much of my experience with technology is
in the building sciences. Back in the 1970ís many people began
experimenting with passive solar design and energy and resource
efficient building techniques. They used their intuition, mostly,
and a lot of what they came up with didnít work very well. After a
couple of decades of experimentation they began to learn the science
behind what they were trying to do.
In the mid-90ís I read an article about a study
where researchers built several identical tiny buildings, filled
them with measuring instruments, and then put a different type of
commonly used roofing material on each one, the object being to find
out which roofing material was the most energy efficient. It turned
out that a tile roof was the best of all the standard roofing
materials. Tile has been used for centuries for roofing. Further
studies have shown that certain complex polymer coatings are even
more efficient than natural materials. But what is the overall cost
of making these high-tech materials? What is the environmental
impact of manufacturing and disposing of these materials? Are the
synthetic roofing materials as easy to repair as simpler roofing
materials? When considering the overall impact of such materials I
think we might find that something as low-tech as tile works just
The application of science to low-tech methods
has come up with ratios that tell you how much south-facing window
square footage is optimal relative to the square footage of your
house. When people began experimenting with passive solar, they put
entire walls of glass on the south side of their houses. Instead of
creating an energy-efficient alternative to heating with fossil
fuels, they created solar ovens. The results were not optimal. The
application of the scientific method produced results that enable
people to build a passive solar house without cooking themselves.
By using scientific research of the use of
common simple materials and by considering whole systems we can come
up with product and materials standard that can serve as guidelines
in achieving a low tech-high science technological future.
Here are some standards I think should be
We need to think in
terms of whole systems when designing products. Where is the product
going to be used? How does its use relate to other products in a
larger system? In building technologies, for example, I have seen
houses designed with systems that fight each other. The air
conditioning fights with the leaks in the heating duct system. The
lighting fights with the air conditioning. The use of toxic
construction materials requires mechanical ventilation systems to
maintain proper air quality. The whole system should be designed to
include products that work together and product manufacturers should
design products that work within and not against, other products
within the larger system.
engineering should focus on creating efficiencies using easy to
manufacture materials. Complex, high-tech materials may be more
efficient but by how much? Are they that much more efficient than
simple materials to warrant the energy and resource expense to make
the more complex materials?
Products should be
made of materials that take as little energy as possible to produce.
An example would be to eat fresh fruits and vegetables instead of
processed food in elaborate packaging
The manufacture of the
product should not create a large and toxic waste stream. Ideally
any waste from the manufacturing process should be non-toxic and/or
Products should be
designed to perform efficiently, either by using as little energy as
possible when in operation or, in the case of passive products, to
do what they are supposed to do efficiently.
Where packaging is
required, it should be minimal and made from re-usable or recyclable
and distribution should be as local as possible. Products produced
locally can have a smaller energy footprint because they donít have
to be transported thousands of miles.
Products should be
designed to last many years with minimal maintenance. The stereo I
mentioned above is an example of this. Itís lasted 30 years and is
still going strong.
Products should be
designed to be easily repaired. Ideally they should be simple enough
that just about any fairly intelligent person can figure out what
went wrong and be able to fix it with easily available materials.
When a productís
useful life is finished, it should be relatively easy to re-purpose
or recycle. Local recycling of products is better than having to
ship them far away to be recycled.
The above standards are an ideal to strive for
knowing that, in many cases, all of the standards may not be
achievable. Computers will probably never be repairable by the
average person but their design and manufacture can be improved in
accord with the other standards. I invite entrepreneurs, engineers
and product designers to consider this list of standards a
challenge. The challenge of working within restraints often produces
the most creative and innovative results.
Improving technology is just one of the
challenges facing humanity but itís an important one. A
low-tech/high science technological future can help humanity live
comfortably and sustainably into the next century and beyond.
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