Cutting Edge

October 9, 1998

Development technology integrates learning and production, lets students do something outside themselves and calls for ingenuity in getting to the field

It is always hard to balance home and the world, whether home is family or one's institutional base. British universities have all sorts of stakeholders, but poor artisans and householders in the tropics are hardly significant ones. Yet these are the intended beneficiaries of the research unit I run and the undergraduate course that I manage.

The development technology unit, formed in 1985, researches equipment and methods that might contribute to "bottom-up" industrialisation in poor countries. The course, engineering design and appropriate technology, started in 1980; it is an accredited mechanical engineering BEng programme for students interested in sustainable technology. At its heart is the problem of how to deal with "design", the process of marshalling knowledge and imagination to solve problems.

Higher education is wary of the very specific, and university research is by its nature focused on the general and the universal. I have spent much of my longish university career trying to reconcile design with a rather conflicting institutional value system.

Like many working in appropriate technology, I came to academia through a respectable door - electronics, control and systems engineering. I have maintained my respectability base by performing departmental duties such as chairing curriculum review boards and lecturing on mainstream theory. But the excitement has been with the design work in the form of student projects, fieldwork in developing countries and the generation of new artefacts such as low-cost rainwater tanks, cheap building blocks and a vegetation-clearance machine for minefields. Our funders have included the Department for International Development, the European Commission and charities. The support of colleagues in our school of engineering and other departments has been essential, but so too has been the drive of students impatient to better the world.

The integration of learning with production has a long and rather dispiriting history - mocked by Dickens, earnestly espoused by the left at different times, and reluctantly performed in the school-field agriculture that used to sustain African village schools financially. Yet production of goods and services can sit quite comfortably alongside certain elements of both teaching and research.

Students like to do something more significant than just prepare for their own futures. My means are orientated to my subject: they are the integration of undergraduate project work with PhD and staff research, the placement of students with overseas collaborators and the vacation employment of some students in support of programmes of technology transfer or prototype testing.

However, tropical development cannot be performed from an office or lab thousands of kilometres away: fieldwork is both essential and difficult to organise. I have combined vacations, study leave and leave of absence to create the time. I am eager not to be the sort of international expert who jets in and out again in a week. Yet our European wage rates are so much higher than those of my target group that extensive fieldwork has to be subsidised somehow. There used to be slack in the university year that I could use, but it has long gone. I have to rely on indulgent colleagues, ingenious cross-subsidies and some family enthusiasm for spending three months in an African village. It remains just possible, and it is fun.

Terry Thomas, director of development technology unit, school of engineering, Warwick University.

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