Appropriate technology and peak precision

I’ve just spent a very full weekend at CAT Conference.  No, not a study of everything feline, but the conference for members of the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth in mid-Wales.

CAT was set up in the 1970s, when ‘alternative technology’ meant what is now more often called ‘renewables’ or ‘low carbon’ technology.  The weekend included updates on some of their current work – of which an increasing proportion now involves teaching these technologies rather than demonstrating them in their large visitor area.

However, one of their most exacting areas of activity recently has been the ongoing work on ‘Zero Carbon Britain 2030′.  This provides a vision for how the UK could wean itself off fossil fuels in only 20 years.  As Peter Harper, who heads up innovation and research at CAT, clearly explained, this doesn’t mean returning to pre-industrial ways of doing things.  It means using a wide range of traditional and new skills and materials in ways that maximise benefits and minimise adverse impacts: that is by using appropriate technology.

Maybe CAT will need to change its name from the Centre for Alternative Technology to the Centre for Appropriate Technology!

A significant part of the weekend was given over to presentations from members, which demonstrated a wide range of interests and expertise.  One of these highlighted a subject area which has concerned me for a while – maintaining a high tech capability through the transition to a low energy society.

Many of our advanced technologies are like the tips of pyramids – dependent on a very wide range of other skills and knowledge to maintain them.  State of the art electronics, for example, is good because it provides incredible computing power at a fraction of the energy requirements of even a decade ago.  But to achieve this requires amazingly high precision and repeatable engineering, for the end product, its assembly and to maintain the clean environment in which to do the manufacturing. 

Higher up the scale, increasingly powerful and energy efficient aeroengines also require high precision and repeatability in their manufacture.   And even large civil engineering projects, like the Olympic Stadium and railway electrification would be virtually impossible to achieve (certainly in modern timescales) without the availability of repeatable components and computers to help design and manage such projects.

Our civilisation is only as resilient as the weakest of its key components.  Could the closure of one business making some key item result in major disruption?  I hope not, but…

Concern has also been voiced recently about the loss of skills, as engineers and technicians who researched, designed and built equipment which has been relied upon for years now approach retirement.  This is true for many industries, including recent ones like computing.  Just as we now wonder at how some ancient artifacts were created, so we are at risk of losing knowledge about elements of modern life which were common knowledge even a few decades ago.  

Are we already, as a species, forgetting more than we learn each year?

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