Technology Designed for Sparse Environments

We want to use this opportunity to think through some ideas about technologies that are designed for sparse environments. These are technologies that – by conception and design – imagine contexts in which institutions, systems, technologies and people are un-co-ordinated; but which, we argue, produce this context as an effect. (Extracts from a presentation given at the Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation, University of Edinburgh, May 2013.)

Safeguarding and Promoting Life in Places of Global Poverty

Specifically we are interested in technologies designed to safeguard or promote life in places of global poverty, technologies that by design express a humanitarian ethic of care for distant others. These are technologies like a rapid diagnostic test for malaria or an ultra-affordable solar powered lantern that are built for places where large-scale infrastructures such as electricity grids or networks of medical facilities and laboratories do not reach and where people’s dominant experience is of disconnection from them. These are places like the highlands of Orissa in India or the hills and river plains of Madang in Papua New Guinea that are characterised by a low density of data and information (census data, public health data, market data) and a low density of connections to state institutions. On the one hand, such places represent a context of chronic crisis or failure. On the other hand, they represent a context of opportunity for technological innovations and for a diverse array of humanitarian institutions, from international development agencies, to corporate philanthropists and social entrepreneurs.

The notion that such places are ‘off the grid’, that they lack the most basic public infrastructure, that humanitarian intervention is necessary in order that people can realise basic human needs, and that the market is a mechanism for achieving humanitarian ends is being inscribed in a generation of technological solutions to the problems or challenges of ‘development’. Technologies like RDTS and ultra-affordable solar lanterns materialise both an ethic of care for distant others and an ethic of commercial interest.

If the notion of technological density describes environments in which human and non-human actors are well co-ordinated or coupled, then the notion of technological sparsity might be said to describe environments in which these actors are un-co-ordinated, where large-scale technical systems for health and energy are loosely coupled or un-integrated, or where their semiotic and material organisation is poorly aligned.

In development discourse these kind of environments are construed either in terms of the failure of the modern state to provide the basic infrastructure and services necessary to safeguard the welfare of citizens or in terms of the failure of the market to supply goods and services.[1] Humanitarian technologies like RDTs or ultra-affordable renewable energy technologies that are designed for these environments share the idea that small-scale, mobile, affordable technologies can substitute for large-scale, public infrastructure. Rapid Diagnostic Tests encapsulated in a small plastic cassette the size of a fist are imagined to substitute for a distributed infrastructure of laboratories, microscopes and expertise. Meanwhile solar lanterns that can be powered by sunlight, delivered to consumers by relatives or friends carrying them along dirt tracks by motorbike, and sold to individual households substitute for national grids of power-lines and pylons.

Technologies designed for sparse environments are imagined as technologies that carry their infrastructures with them, that can substitute for those co-ordinated socio-technical systems. In other words, the idea that drives the interest of both humanitarian organisations and multi-national corporations in these objects is the notion that scaling down to create compact, affordable ‘infrastructure in a box’ can subsequently enable states, NGOs and corporations to scale-up their business/developmental effects by maximising their distribution and consumption or take-up. In this sense, we might say that technologies designed for sparse environments take technological determinism to new levels. They encapsulate the idea that a small technological unit can render the need for external infrastructure redundant.

Technologies designed for sparse environments are made available by and are built to attract new kinds of finance – ethical or social investment funds, investors in emerging economies, philanthro-capitalists, global philanthropic bodies such as the Global Fund to stop HIV, malaria and TB, as well as traditional forms of development finance in the form of grants from international development organisations, from multi-lateral agencies like the UN to bi-lateral donors like USAID or the Department for International Development.

Today we want to use two case studies, Rapid Diagnostic Tests for malaria in Papua New Guinea and ultra-affordable solar lanterns in South India to begin to sketch out an argument that technologies designed for sparse environments produce or perform these environments as sparse. Of course, sparse environments are not empty or de-populated environments. On the contrary they are crowded with the remnants of past infrastructures, systems, buildings, and forms of expertise that contemporary technologies must articulate with. Health policy makers involved in the roll out of RDTs in Papua New Guinea and social entrepreneurs marketing solar lanterns to consumers in rural India may recognise that the environments into which their technologies intervene are ‘populated’ by prior institutions, systems and technologies. But they do not imagine or foresee how technologies designed for sparsity may require co-ordination or relationships with them. As stand-alone replacements or substitutes for past infrastructures these technologies re-produce environments of sparsity, in which institutions, technologies and actors are loosely coupled, integrated and co-ordinated.


[1] Market failures describe the undersupply of goods and services, due to the inability of actors to derive value/profit from their supply; when the production/consumption of goods and services have externalities/spill over effects which their price does not reflect (e.g. kerosene); where monopoly actors control access and entry (for example, government licensing or monopolies); where buyers and sellers have different information about the exchange); or where the costs of establishing and enforcing the agreement to a trade is so high (e.g. collecting payments for rural electricity supply) that markets do not exist.

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