Technology and Social Issues

There are three key terms in the topic of this seminar. These are (1) research and development (R&D), (2) low income housing / shelter and (3) appropriate technologies. All three terms are closely related to the sociology, economics and existing skills of the groups that are to use the products that R&D will develop and or will benefit from them. This is the thrust of my paper and instead of dwelling on the theoretical aspects of this important issue. I will illustrate it with examples from the work of the Orangi Pilot Project-Research & Training Institute (OPP-RTI).

The R&D process has been responsible for major breakthroughs in medicine, electronics and above all in agriculture. In the case of medicine and electronics, the pharmaceutical and brand name electronic companies have been responsible for the success of marketing products developed by R&D in laboratories and research institutions. Without a marketing R&D they could never have been popularised. In the case of agriculture the success has been because of the development of extension packages supported by trained extension workers. As a result of the R&D in agriculture and its extension, Aries rice and Maxi Pak wheat have increased yields considerably and have replaced indigenous varieties. Some say with disastrous environmental repercussions. In low income housing technologies R&D has not been successful in achieving similar results.

The reasons for the comparative lack of success of R&D for appropriate technologies for low income housing in the Third World are:

  1. The products which have been developed have not been accompanied by effective extension and or marketing services since they were not a part of the R&D process. These products have remained for the most part in the experimentation yards. This is essentially a failure of marketing research.
  2. Where extension has been pushed, skills for use of the new technologies have not been developed. As a result, the technologies have been discredited.
  3. In many cases, the products have not been accepted by the users or the market operators. This is especially true for the promotion of mud technologies. The necessary education promotion for these technologies or R&D for their social compatibility has almost never been developed. Hasan Fathy, the famous Egyptian architect built extensively in mud at remarkably low cost. In aesthetic and climatic terms his mud buildings are considered marvels of architecture and environmental planning. He also developed the skills for it. However, they were not accepted by the poor, for whom they were meant, but they were accepted by the rich as fads. Then came the theory that if rich do poor will follow. It never happened.
  4. Much of the products developed are higher in cost than conventional technology used by low income groups. This is especially true for pre-fab concrete construction.

In short, this failure is the result of not being able to relate technology to the other components of housing which are (1) community / family, (2) land, (3) skills, (4) finances (especially their source) and (5) finally a home rather than a dwelling incremental. Research on these other aspects of housing and their relationship to the technological product is seldom if never carried out.

The reason for the absence of a holistic approach is really related to the inadequacies of the education of engineers, architects and planners at professional and academic institutions. This is being recognised increasingly both in the West and in East Asia. A similar recognition is required for our region. The term low income means the poor which constitute about 65 per cent of the population of Pakistan. Student engineers, architects and planners do not get to know how the poor live, what they earn, how they build their homes and what skills are available to them. They do not get to know who does what and how in the housing process. In addition, their approach to housing is based on the First World model where the working class are provided houses by the formal sector and funded through loans and grants provided by government agencies or other formal sector financial institutions. In this case, the state, housing societies or developers subsidised by state programmes are the clients of the engineers and architects and the formal sector building industry component producers use and promote products developed through the R&D process.

In almost all Third World countries on the other hand, the vast majority of housing is produced by individual households with the help of local skilled labour, building material suppliers of the informal sector, and from finances generated through loans from family members and informal money lenders and from small savings. For the R&D to cater to this reality is a completely different ball game. In the case of Pakistan, not even one-third of the housing demand is met by formal sector supported construction. The demand that is met is almost entirely for higher and middle income housing. In the case of Karachi, for example the demand is for 80,000 housing units per year. However, building permits over the last five years have been issued for an average of about 27,000 units per year. The rest of the demand has been accommodated in katchi abadis or through densification of existing settlements. The question really is, how can R&D cater to such a situation?

If we look back in history, adequate homes were provided to the working classes in the regions that are today Pakistan, except for the so-called scheduled castes. In their case too, land for housing was available. These adequate homes were possible because every village had hereditary artisans who were subservient to the agriculturists. They were paid in agricultural and dairy produce on a seasonal basis and could be called upon to work for any community member or family. Hereditary skills guaranteed quality and the barter arrangement guaranteed affordability. Land too was available for village expansion through shamlaat or asaish lands which were administered by the feudal authority or caste panchayats. All materials were local and were acquired mostly from shamlaat and gowcher lands, again controlled by the feudal or village authority. In towns, mohallas were also caste or clan based and these clans and or castes had their own hereditary artisans. Social and economic mobility simply did not exist and as such the system worked. Another reason for the systems working was that it was highly decentralised and locally controlled. As a result, there was a well established and equitable relationship between the provider of land, the supplier of materials, the house builder and the artisan who all belonged to the same extended community. In the absence of an equitable relationship between these three actors, the promotion of shelter related technologies is simply not possible and R&D is required to relate technology to the development of such an equitable relationship.

The industrial revolution destroyed this relationship mainly because of a change from a barter to a cash economy which made building skills unaffordable to the vast majority of the rural and urban poor. Hereditary skills gave way to the shagirdi system and hence deteriorated in the absence of formal sector training institutes. Local materials gave way to industrially produced ones which in turn created a new system of demand-supply and marketing. Land became a commodity and hence unavailable to the poor, pushing them to the fringes of the city or to becoming tenants of landlords simply to have a home. A new working relationship has been established between the new players in the housing game. However, the prospective house builder is not a player in this game. He is an outsider and hence a victim. This is what needs to be rectified and for such a rectification the understanding of the house building process is necessary and all technological innovation has to be subservient to it.

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