According to the Donella Meadows Institute, technology is not always the answer to solving such problems as adequate sanitation and clean water. Low-tech solutions that are simple and sustainable often work better in developing countries.
Bill Gates is synonymous with high-tech software and business technology. But he recently made news by drinking poop water produced by a simple machine that boils sewage. The process not only extracted potable drinking water, but also produced electricity used both to power the filtration and to supply energy to the local community. The solids left behind by the boiling process can be used as fertilizer.
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Gates was visiting a prototype machine running not in a developing country, but the state of Washington, home to Microsoft and other high-tech entrepreneurs. Through the project, Gates and others hope both to demonstrate how relatively low-tech and inexpensive solutions bypass the complications of high-tech approaches (modern sewage treatment requires extensive infrastructure and taps considerable energy from outside sources) and to attract sufficient interest from local governments and charitable entrepreneurs to develop the technology.
Low-Tech Fans Keep Cool
What is the largest cause of power shortages? Turning on air conditioning. Low-Tech Magazine points out that air conditioning accounts for 20 percent of year-round U.S. electrical consumption and 15 percent of total electrical use. This has a direct effect on greenhouse gas production resulting from increased electricity production.
It’s nice to be comfortable in hot weather, but air conditioning is actually the least efficient way to do so, because it requires refrigerating entire spaces and their occupants. What’s more efficient? A circulating fan. Not only is it more efficient, requiring less energy to operate, but it can also be operated by battery power in the event of a blackout.
Privacy Concerns? Use a Typewriter
One of the darker sides of high tech is the issue of privacy. How do we best protect our private thoughts and those intended only for certain readers? While hardly a bastion of civil rights, Russia recently hit upon a way to ward off cyber-attacks — by using typewriters. According to Agence France Presse, the Russian government is investing $15,000 in typewriters in the wake of leaks about U.S. intelligence operations. Typewriters can’t be hacked, and paper is harder (although not impossible) to leak.
If Bill Gates had wanted to be absolutely sure he wasn’t drinking contaminated water, he could have used a $1,000 electrical analyzer. An MIT MacArthur fellow worked with her students to come up with a non-electrical incubator that tests just as well for the same microorganisms. It costs $20.
Lessons to Learn From Low-Tech
Businesses that focus on affordable functionality as opposed to building complex infrastructures can have a greater impact not only on their target markets, but the health and welfare of the planet.