Lean Technology

Lean technology is technology for well-being and sustainability.

The sustainability movement is often accused of being opposed to technology but the opposite is more true. Sustainability is tech-savvy and makes use of technology where it is appropriate to sustain a better, simpler way of life.

It would be foolish to think all technology is bad and equally foolish to think all technology is good. The best technology will:

  • do no harm to people or planet
  • increase human well-being

If it doesn’t do these two things what is the point of it? It should stay in the lab. Unfortunately technologies are hijacked by people who want to make a personal gain from them. Human history is full of technologies that were proven to be harmful, wasteful and useless.

Fat technology

The purpose of huge centralised technology (fat technology) is to get economies of scale. An economy of scale is only good for creating profit. Profit becomes capital and so fat technology just gets fatter and the rich just get richer. The other problems with fat technology are:

  1. It reduces employment (the featured image shows increasingly common robots on a huge assembly line)
  2. It creates cheap goods (whilst on the surface this might seem good in reality it just tends to create much more stuff than is actually needed).
  3. It displaces people from rural and provincial areas
  4. It is heavily reliant on abundant, cheap energy i.e. from fossil fuels – this means there is no future in it
  5. Because it is centralised it adds complexities like distribution, warehousing and waste

“Ever bigger machines, entailing ever bigger concentrations of economic power and exerting ever greater violence against the environment, do not represent progress: they are a denial of wisdom. Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology towards the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful.”
– E.F. Schumacher – Small is Beautiful

Lean technology

There are however many technologies that have improved human well-being without systematically harming the planet. The economist E.F. Schumacher talked about the importance of intermediate technology which I call Lean technology. It is essentially technology that is intermediate in scale and complexity or in other words it is technology on the scale of a small community. These types of technologies are particularly useful in developing countries who do not have the capital and resources for large-scale, factory-sized technology. It is also good for provincial communities who can become more self-sufficient and provide employment so people don’t have to be displaced.

Lean technology (also known as intermediate or appropriate technology) is:

  • small-scale
  • simple
  • decentralised, distributed
  • labour-intensive  (providing more employment)
  • energy-efficient
  • environmentally sound
  • locally controlled
  • people-centred rather than profit-centred

“…relatively simple technology that relied on human hands and minds to meet local needs with local resources was the most viable response to the economic needs of non-industrial nations.”
– John Michael Greer – The Wealth of Nature

These are the sorts of technologies embraced by the sustainability movement:

  • Distributed energy generation – solar panels, wind turbines and micro-hydro generators
  • Biofuels
  • Energy efficient houses, cars and appliances
  • Alternative materials
  • Nanotechnology, iniaturisation and dematerialisation
  • ICT and the Internet
  • Digital delivery of books, magazines, newspapers, music, etc
  • Permaculture, organic farming and new gardening systems
  • Bioremediation
  • Rainwater collection and recycling systems, local water and sewerage treatment, waterless toilets
  • Technologies for creative goods such as film, television, music, radio, software/games and new media


Greer, J. (2011). The wealth of nature : economics as if survival mattered. Gabriola Island, B.C: New Society Publishers.

Schumacher, E. (1974). Small is beautiful : a study of economics as if people mattered. London: Abacus.