AT@40: Reflections on the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Alternative Technology movement


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Paul Allen, CAT’s External Relations Director, writes about a recent gathering in London celebrating forty years of the alternative technology movement.

Over the weekend I took the train down to the Architecture Association in London’s Bedford Square to join ‘AT@40 – the past and future of alternative technology.‘ I’ve been inspired and motivated by alternative technology since my late teens, so it was a real pleasure to explore 40 years of radical technologies with the people who made it all happen. Today, after a couple of decades of big wind and a massive increase in the scale and variety of renewable technologies as well as a wide array of incentives, it’s important that we pause and remember just how radical and brave it was to re-think the role of science and technology back in the early 1970s.

The rise of alternative technology has been a much-underestimated shift in humanity’s socio technical evolution. Several speakers (such as author David Dickson) cited the 1968 Paris up-risings as a key tipping point. Before that shift, science and technology were predominantly associated with progress, improvements in standards of living and things getting better. Scientists – even nuclear scientists – were heroes. However, after the uprisings, real questions were being asked about the limits to material growth, damage to nature and eventual depletion of resources.

However, the students leading the uprisings were from the arts, humanities, and social sciences – so in the wake of the disturbances there was pressure on the technologists to contribute to the dialogue. This exploration led to many new movements broadly centered around re-thinking the road which science is taking us on, eventually leading to a key conference at the Architecture Association in 1972. It was at this conference that Peter Harper coined the phrase ‘Alternative Technology’ to describe the movement’s re-evaluation of the role of technology.

Alternative Technology focuses on the benefit to humans as well as to economies. It’s not just solar and wind power, but rather the conceptual framework which can encompass it, including shifts in values which can open up understanding and control to citizens and communities, challenge market control, work towards global equity and challenge gender inequalities and prejudices.

The day included a wide range of presentations from key innovators, including – of course – marvellous tales of heroic invention from Peter Frankel’s confessions of a mad innovator to Derek Taylor’s Rational Technology Unity. We heard tales of African windpumps, Mongolian nomadic windturbines, verical axis windpower, horizontal axis windpower, v type and h type designs, Stirling engines, Darious blades design right down to the rise of power electronics and load controllers. It was a magnificent display of human ingenuity and accompanied by an awe-inspiring array of pioneering historic images.

However, it wasn’t all techno-talk. Both Peter Harper and Godfrey Boyle highlighted the vital value of self-scrutiny and rigor. Like many concepts, its willing supporters gave it magical powers that allowed it to offer all sorts of unlikely and unrealistic benefits, but by a rigorous approach of ‘doing the numbers’ Alternative Technology managed to self-audit and so, to an extent, limit any fantasy factory, whilst also taking on a chameleon-like ability to evolve and develop.

Looking back at the last 40 years offered us all an incredibly useful chance to take the long-view over time and see what has and hasn’t changed since 1972. From Godfrey’s analysis the thing that jumped out is the trebling of population since 1972 and the fact it looks set to rise to nine billion; to compound this, if all 9 billion aspire to join a new middle class the exponential ecological impact will be off the scale.

This led to a wide recognition from many of the day’s speakers that the new urgency of the climate crisis has awoken us from complacency of the 80s and 90s. We don’t have long to act, and there is much to be gained from narrowing down a wide range of aspirations to using carbon reduction as the key metric for directing the best path forwards, and it is a great match with many other value shifts.

Ex-CAT director Pete Raine helped us all see how far we have come in 40 years, by pointed out that Alternative Technology has wormed its way into the cultural consciousness and become normalised. We have to keep in mind that by moving into the mainstream, we play by mainstream rules and embrace mainstream values.

My question to the panel was one of gender balance. I was pleased to see the early Cliff Harper pen drawings which had inspired my youth – showing rows of terraced houses with shared spaces for growing food, baking bread and even a community sauna. But I was concerned that we were all looking proudly at another of his inspiring pen drawings showing an engineering workshop run by women, but not openly questioning the fact that this event had attracted 92% males and there were no women at all as speakers – surely a movement seeking to democratise technology must seek to achieve gender balance? However no one seemed to have any clear explanation for me!

The array of speakers ended with some younger new radical voices. Trystan Lee helped us explore how the move from a wide range of aspirations to one (carbon) metric can still benefit from linking with the ‘open source’ movement, which is in many ways a natural descendent of AT. His example was an open source energy monitor that offers us a tool to help communities see their energy differently. Over the last 3 years a great many people have been these building energy monitors around the world, contributing, whilst also growing and developing the design. I could already see the Cliff Harper drawing – a village workshop of 3-d printers manufacturing hi-tech electronics for community energy control.

The day left me feeling inspired by what I had heard, the pioneering of new attitudes and approaches to technology is a really interesting narrative, and deserves further exploration and archiving well before all the old slides and vhs tapes get lost and it all moves from living memory. I felt we quickly need to establish and on-line digital sanctuary where people can up-load important historical documents, images and film. This story is every bit as intriguing as the rise of the canals, or the coming of the motorways; telling the tale may well help to engage and inspire more young mind of both genders to take up the baton.

Things will change whether we are pro-active or not. Renewable energy will grow – but we need the seize the opportunity to gain community control and localise the benefits.

First they ignore you, then they fight you, then you win. – Ghandi