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  ICBTT2004 Technology & Society Division, JSME

Technology, Sustainable Development and Human Resources: Historical and Contemporary Perspective


Technology is a social process of applying the ensemble of technical means and knowledge to serve social ends. Because it is social process involving actors organized within structures and having roles, goals and values, technology becomes amenable to sociological analysis. In its broadest definition, technology is the totality of technical means employed by a culture for the production and control of material and non-material goods and services.

Sustainable development has an essentially normative character, which makes it difficult to operationalize. It implies a close relationship between environmental sensitivity and economic growth. Human resource development (HRD), in the context of sustainable development, and management and transfer of technology, has special meaning. The bottom-line is learning, i.e., an individualized process whereby people fulfill their needs through the internalization of information and externalization of reactions to environmental conditions. The contexts of such involvement in development include political, socio-cultural, economic and technical-scientific activities.

In my presentation, I will try to examine the complex interconnections between technology, sustainable development and human resources, where the latter hold the key to adaptation and technological progress.

Key Words:Technology Transfer, Social Process, Sustainable Development, Technological Adaptation.

Environmentally sound development is urgently needed in both the developed and developing countries. With the publication of the Brundtland Commission Report (1987), Our Common Future, the concept of sustainable development has come to play a prominent role in the development dialogue. In the industrialized world, the greatest threat to the environment is consumerism, whereas in the developing world, poverty is nature's worst enemy. Poverty pushes the small-scale farmer to exhaust already marginal soils, and continually clear forested areas for fuel wood and agriculture production. Poverty forces women to walk for miles in search of wood and water. Poverty causes people to put survival ahead of environmental protection. Indeed poverty forces people into a vicious circle where environmental degradation leads to poverty and poverty causes environmental degradation.
Sustainable development is based upon the familiar principles of self reliance, fulfillment of basic needs and an emphasis on the quality of life.
The greatest underutilized natural and renewable resources of the earth are humans. The Brundtland Commission argues that

Human resource development is a crucial requirement not only to build up technical knowledge and capabilities, but also to create new values to help individuals and nations to cope with rapidly changing social, environmental, and development realities. Knowledge shared globally would assure greater mutual understanding and create willingness to share global resources equitably.
(World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, Oxford: The University Press, 1987)

Technology as a System
One of the paradoxes of our times is that the more we take technology for granted, the less we seem to understand it. One could argue that we are simultaneously technologically - skilled and technologically - illiterate. There is an urgent need to fill this gap which our educational system has failed to address. The impact of modern technological change in our lives is momentous. Most of us are aware of this in the "output" side, or receiving end. What we are most unaware of, however, is the overall process of technology generation, adaptation and its consequences, not as a physical creation of gadgets alone, but as a social process.
This requires a systemic as opposed to a piecemeal perspective. For a social perspective, technology can be viewed as an open system for problem-solving where the following five main elementsinteract :

  1. a context of problems and circumstances which the technology addresses,
  2. a culture which gives meaning - purposes, feelings, cognitions and valuations - to such technological system,
  3. structures of groups and individuals with resources (tools), linked by networks of communications and charged with dealing with the problems affecting the system.
  4. a set of processes (procedures, practices and techniques) whereby groups and individuals attempt to solve problems, and
  5. effects or consequences of these actions upon the system.

From the above perspective, it is possible to argue that a technological system involves much more than know-how about tools. It encompasses as well the social structures and operations through which the tools (hardware) are utilized as well as the value assumptions pertaining to those activities. That is, behind any piece of "hardware" there is a complex set of "soft" social practices (or social technologies) which make up the less visible - yet critically important - human infrastructure upon which such technologies rest. A tool, gadget or artifact (for instance, an automobile) is a product of a technological process. It results from the combination of resources (e.g. iron, silica, hydrocarbons) transformed by other tools (e.g. machinery) used by operators (designers, engineers, workers) who posses skills, techniques or know-how. It operates in a physical and resource environment as well as in an economic, social, political and cultural set up (e.g. the factory, the enterprise, finance, regulations, etc.) which affect the extent, scope and purpose of its application. In fact, a technology involves a series of technological functions in which the above-mentioned tools, operators, resources and cultures are intertwined in complex organizational and social matrixes.
Technology may also be considered to be a combination of four basic components (4F), all of which dynamically interact and together accomplish any transformation operation. The 4F components are

These are briefly discussed below.

Production facilities and tools, the object - embodied form of technology, include all physical facilities necessary for the transformation operation, such as instruments, equipment, machinery devices, structures and factories.

Production skills and experiences, the people - embodied form of technology, include all required abilities necessary for the transformation operation, such as expertise, proficiency, dexterity, creativity, diligence and ingenuity.

Production facts and information, the document - embodied form of technology, include all facts and figures required for the transformation operation such as designs, accounts, specifications, observations, equations, charts and theories.
Production arrangements and linkages, the institution - embodied form of technology, include the frameworks required for the transformation operation, such as groupings, allocations, systematizations, organizations, networks, management and marketing.
In any technology transfer process, all four components of technology are required simultaneously and can be explained as follows :

  • Technoware is the core of any transformation. It is developed, installed and operated by humanware;
  • Humanware is the key element of any transfer operation and it is in turn guided by inforware;
  • Inforware is generated and also utilized by humanware for decision-making and operation of technoware;
  • Orgware acquires and controls inforware, humanware and technoware to effect the transformation.

Of the four components, humanware is the ultimate source of technology while inforware is destined to evolve into a new type of capital - "knowledge capital". In the developed world we see high level of humanware and access to and control of inforware.

Technology : A Historical Perspective
The very oldest tools were the hone pebbles discovered by Robert Leakey at East Rudolf in Northern Kenya in 1969 and carbon dated at 2,600,000 years old. Fire was mastered by Peking Man about 350,000 years ago at the end of the Second Ice Age. With the arrival of Modern Man or homo sapiens in Europe some 10,000 years ago, we saw the development of fish hooks, needles, spears, bows, blow pipes. After the end of the last Ice Age, the major invention was agriculture and its complements, followed by fabrics, spinning and weaving, which began and later flourished in Egypt between 4,000 and 6,500 years ago.

The Scientific Revolution (1450-1727)
The following scientific discoveries could be treated as critical invention initiated by the work of a relatively small group of geniuses working in the universities of Western Europe such as Paris, Bologua, Padua, Oxford and Cambridge:

  • Invention of printing (1450) with movable type by Johann Gutenberg in the German city of Mainz permitted the necessary communication of ideas and experiments.
  • The language of science, the modern mathematics, was born with the invention of logarithms by Napier, with algebra and descriptive geometry of Descartes in the late 16th century, and with calculus by Leibniz and Newton in the latter half of the 17th century. At the same time, the most powerful tool of all, scientific method, evolved with Bacon and Descartes and climaxed with Galileo.

During the period of the Scientific Revolution, scientific research became institutionalized. Science became recognized as a profession with the creation of scientific academics in Italy, England and France in the 17th century. The British Royal Society was created by Charles II in 1662 and still today it is the most prestigious of all academics.

The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution, which created the first industrial factory production system was primed by invention. James Watt first improved the steam engine in 1765. Some 37 years later, it was perfected with the development of high pressure steam and the age of railroad began. But the laws of thermodynamics took another 25 years to be discovered.
All through the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century there was a general lag of some 35 years or more between scientific discovery and commercial application, i.e. between the discovery of electromagnetic induction and industrial dynamos; and between benzene chemistry and the commercial production of dye stuffs. This was also equally true for all the major scientific discoveries, i.e. the electron (Thomson in 1897); radium (Curie in 1898); relativity (Einstein in 1905). Their technological application was witnessed in the atom bomb in 1945.

Technology : A Contemporary Perspective
The twentieth century has witnessed such as thorough change in all walks of life that is unprecedented in the history of human race. Science and technology have played a major role in this process of change to the extent that it claimed unquestioned faith for several decades in providing the basic parameters of modernization and still continues, albeit with reduced enphoria.

Table I
Ship building
Jet engines
Scientific instruments
Energy conservation
Pollution management
Information technology
Remote sensing

A cursory look at the growth of technology would reveal certain sets of features.
First, an analysis of technological growth would bring out well-defined periods when a particular group of industries have developed. A brief indication of it is shown in Table I. In the table only a few technologies have been mentioned to indicate the shift which has been taking place from one period to another.
In the post 1985 period, which represents a well-marked integration of purpose and expertise, which totally aims at stretching human capabilities, disregarding the costs it involves ? This appears to be in three areas: (i) space travel, (ii) telecommunication, and (iii) creating new forms of life.

Technology and Development
Development is a term with a variety of meanings. However, it always contains the idea that certain activities could lead to socio-economic "betterment" to "progress" and to the improvement of people's "quality of life". I believe this is the normative description of development thought and action.
Technology is often credited with being the single most outstanding factor which has facilitated the emergence of the modern, western industrial world. Technology is also credited with creating the high standards of living in western societies. From this perspective, technology is seen as the best if not the only solution to most development problems. It is not surprising then, that among various "development" actions, the diffusion or the transfer of modern technology holds such a prominent and privileged place. However, some fundamental questions that come to our mind are: what has enabled some countries to successfully transfer technology while fostering domestic capabilities while other countries have faltered ? What are the attributes that makes them successful in obtaining the best results from the transfer of technology. Pointing out the complexity of effective transfer of technology, Rosenberg (1982) wrote:

One of the most compelling facts of history is that there have been enormous differences in the capacity of different societies to generate technical innovations that are suitable to their economic needs. Moreover, there has also been extreme variability in the willingness and ease with which societies have adopted and utilized technological innovations developed elsewhere . . . . clearly, the reasons for these differences, which are not well understood, are tied in numerous complex and subtle ways to the functioning of the larger social systems, their institutions, values, and incentive structures (p.8).

When we talk about examples of effective transfer and management of technology, Japan and South Korea comes up as outstanding example of a nations whose economic development or industrial growth has been based primarily on acquiring and managing technologies. Rosenberg (1982) argued that the Japanese success was based on their having emphasized the development of "indigenous technological capabilities" from the very outset. The Japanese success story is based on exceptional investment in PEOPLE, PHYSICAL ASSETS and TECHNOLOGY. For example in the Meiji Period (1870-1885), 42% of the annual expenditure of the Ministry of Industry was spent on foreign advisors who accompanied imported machineries and engineers and technicians accounted for about 40% of all foreigners employed by the government and private firms. Japan's rapid industrialization after 1945 was fueled by its aggressive accumulation of technical skills, which in turn was based on its already high level of literacy and a strong commitment to education, especially the training of engineers (World Bank, 1991). Technology, Development and Underdevelopment : Paradigms and Dilemmas
Thomas Kuhn (1970), in his great work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, used the term, "dominant paradigm" to signify entire sets of unquestioned assumptions, perceptions and ways of thinking about reality. It not only imposes a "world view" on society. It tends to influence a total culture. The "industrial growth - progress - high technology" dominant paradigm is now beset by anomalies, dilemmas, paradoxes and contradictions which it can no longer ignore.
Technology is often credited with being the single most outstanding factor which has facilitated the emergence of the modern western industrial world. As technological determinists - who see technology as a progressive force - would have it, today's technology has acquired a dynamics of its own which cannot be stopped but must be obeyed and followed, last we get in the way of progress. From this perspective, technology is seen as the best if not only solution to most development problems.
The phenomena of "modernity" and "development" are inadequately studied. It is generally assumed that to be "modern" is better than to be traditional - the former being viewed as progressive while the latter is viewed as being conservative - and that "development" is clearly an advantage. The cultural/social underpinnings of these terms are rarely understood and the ethical implications of "who benefits" even less so. There is need for systematic study of those concepts and of the price that is paid for technological development in the so-called "developed" world.

Industrialization, development, modernization and technology transfer and diffusion are frequently assumed to be intimately connected, and technology transfer and diffusion is seen as a prerequisite for development. Such assumptions are problematic.

As we inch close to the year 2000, our global future seems increasingly difficult to decipher. How do we answer a few simple questions? How to fight against global warning and desertification ? Will wars be waged for water ? Will we succeed in harnessing solar and renewable energy sources? Will new technologies create a widening gap between rich and poor? We live in an ecologically interdependent world where energy production in one country contributes to acid rain, climatic changes, nuclear contamination, and desertification elsewhere, a world where air-conditioning and plastic foam packaging deplete the ozone layer affecting life globally. Our current technological actions pose monumental future problems, ranging from air/water pollution to nuclear and chemical wastes.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century - unprecedented challenges await us. The first challenge is the growing, glaring inequality. As the new century dawns, more than three billion people - i.e. more than half of humanity - live in poverty (mostly in developing countries), on less than $ 2 a day. The share of the income of the wealthiest 20 percent compared to that of the poorest 20 percent of humanity has risen from 30 to 1 in 1960 to 61 to 1 in 1991 and to 81 to 1 in 1995.

The second challenge is sustainable development. Sustainable development means a shift of emphasis from non-renewable to renewable resources; yet, as we develop renewable resources we must not destroy or eliminate the non-renewable.
The third challenge is the problem of population growth (mostly in developing countries) and its effect on resources. As a result of growth of scientific knowledge and it application to human health, there has been the decline of death rate and the increase in longevity. This also has resulted in increase in population.

Technology is obviously a relative term. No technology is ever fixed, and, being a form of social relationship, it evolves, it starts, develops, persists, stagnates, and declines.

Human resource development (HRD), in the context of sustainable development, has special meaning. The bottom-line is learning, i.e., an individualized process whereby people fulfill their needs through the internalization of information and the externalization of reactions to environmental conditions. The contexts of such involvement in development include political, socio-cultural, economic and technical - scientific activities. The goals of human resource development in the context of sustainable development include increased awareness and responsibility for environmental preservation (attitude change), strengthening organizations or developing new ones to deal with environmental issues (organization development), creation, analysis and dissemination of information on the environment (data bases and information), decisions and actions based on information (planning and management), and acquisition of income generating skills in harmony with environmental preservation (employment).

In order to operationalize sustainable development, developing countries must have access to state of the art environmental technology. HRD for sustainable development must also focus on the role of women. There is a direct link between women in developing countries and the use that is made of forests, fields and water. Most small scale farmers in developing countries are women. Programmes which give women greater control over their lives contribute to environmental and overall development sustainability.

For developing countries, the technological options, therefore, are not simply matters of "sourcing", choosing and adapting technologies to increase production or to gain competitive advantages. The options must be based on priority demands of society which in turn are determined by their social values.

Studies in technology transfer have shown that technology is like a fragment of a broken hologram. Each fragment is capable of reproducing the whole image. A piece of machinery is not an inert neutral object. Instead its design and plan of use carries with it the image of a larger social fabric and social order with assumptions about the divisions of labour and control of labour. So the transfer and management of technology requires adaptation to the culture of the recipent.

What is also required is a synergistic approach involving new development paradigm which rethinks planning, investment and management and transfer of technology. We have to find a way that enables the poorest among us - both nations and peoples - to be a part of and share equitably in the political and economic process. Moreover, we need to recognize not only the importance of our environmental resources but also the importance of human resources. Every effort should be made to invest in human talent and help them acquire technology appropriate to their culture and real needs. Without these efforts, we cannot even begin to think bridging the gap between rich and poor nations and rich and poor peoples whether in developed or developing countries.


  1. Rosenberg, N. (1982). Inside the Black Box: Technology and Economic, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  2. World Bank (1991). World Development Report, Oxford University Press, New York.
  3. Kuhn, Thomas (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.