Low-tech experiments in six metropolises

Six metropolises have organized learning visits to their “low technology” laboratories, spaces of reflection for sober solutions to the problems of the city. The ESS Lab has published a report in the format of a study.


Faced with general overconsumption and ever-increasing energy needs, many voices are being raised to call for sobriety. A key word for environmental defenders for several years, it has also infused territories and technical services, as we saw during the last Energy Transition Meetings. How to reduce the superfluous and optimize the available resources? This is what we see this summer via a web series to show how sobriety also applies to waste management, water and sanitation services, energy and mobility. This week’s theme is building/urban planning.

Sniffing at “high-tech”, the notion of “low-tech” offers an alternative model that is not so easy to define. Even Philippe Bihouix, the engineer author of “the age of low-tech”, a book published in 2014 and who was one of the first to popularize this approach in France, does not venture into too much precision. “There are as many definitions of low-tech as there are people who talk about it,” he joked during the publication of the study “For low-tech and united metropolises”, on February 8, 2022 by the Lab of l social and solidarity economy (ESS). “On the other hand, everyone speaks today of sobriety, of the questioning of just need. »

Thus, “low-tech is not limited to the inventory of tools that are not very “intense” in technology”, as explained in the preamble of this study which, however, is an excellent referencing of sobriety experiments carried out in six French metropolises. . For Philippe Bihouix, also author of this preamble in his capacity as low-tech referent of the Lab of the ESS: “this notion designates more broadly an approach questioning our individual actions and our societal choices in the light of three questions: why product -we ? What do we produce? How do we produce? The high-tech city is neither obvious nor inevitable. Other trajectories are possible and desirable, such as the low-tech city, that is to say a city which, without rejecting technology and technical innovation as a whole, shows a greater “techno-discernment both for the environment and for our individual and collective autonomy and resilience.

Identify needs

The authors of the study agree all the same to reduce low-tech to a technologically proportionate and sustainable solution, that is to say simple, agile, low in resources and energy, and accessible to the greatest number. . The study then assumes that this sobriety is already happening in the SSE and that this part of the economy can contribute to the emergence of a low-tech city.

And concretely? During the presentation of the study, Émeline Baume, first vice-president (EELV) of the metropolis of Lyon, presented two experimental projects of the circular economy in the construction industry, Chantier R and Station R. Their goal: to structure a sector for reusing construction products by promoting them to project owners and by deploying mini-waste collection centers at the foot of worksites. “In the past, local authorities have worked on “clean site” charters, but you also have to show that a site is made up of materials and that these materials pass through the city. You have to show things to allow reuse”.

Change everything for sobriety

Revealing the sites reveals new questions. For example, donating materials causes them to lose their certification. A fireproof beam not used on a first site cannot justify compliance with its standard on a second site. To settle this question, other players, such as IBM through the Cyclop experiment, hope to use a blockchain to trace materials. But can such a technique be considered low-tech?

Faced with these obstacles, the authors of the study believe that local authorities have an important role. Through public procurement outlets, through the establishment of labels, such as the “Bâtiment frugal bordelais” label, in Bordeaux (Gironde), and through support for the structuring of sectors. In these roles, the SSE is essential, add the authors of the study. This sector makes it possible to make the necessary link to support a transition.

This is, for example, what Extramuros has been doing in Paris since 2012. The association supports young people in carpentry for reuse. “We are in the third training session,” says Antoine Havard, director of the association. “Our trained volunteers and employees support members in self-repair. The people who come are as much those who really need repairs as those who have seen a tutorial on YouTube”. In addition to repairing property, the association also supports young school dropouts in making street furniture from unused building materials.

Making the choice of reuse is binding for a community. This means that certain quality criteria or standards will not be met. “The exemplary nature of public procurement is an important lever”, points out Émeline Baume, from the metropolis of Lyon. “The question is how far can communities go to support this model? In other words: how much does it cost to change scale to truly reach a low-tech city?

The study does not answer this question, but it sheds light on local experiments. And in fact, many foundations of low-tech are already present. In particular, the study highlights third places as a driver for the change of scale, in any case to move from an individual to a collective or even territorial approach. But to make a city more sober, there are also technological and intellectual locks that are not identified by the study. Contrary to caricatures, low-tech is not a refusal of technology but a break with “techno-solutionism”, plead the authors of the study. However, it is not a “low” or “high” level that makes a technology good for society. It is above all its use.

Low-tech example: democratizing dry toilets

In Bordeaux, the La Fumainerie association has been carrying out an eighteen-month experiment since July 2020 in the separate collection of urine and faeces from around sixty volunteers from the Bordeaux region, committing to a period of six months, renewable. . It offers a comprehensive service including the installation and rental of an outhouse, the donation of a bale of sawdust, training in the use of the toilets and weekly collection by cargo bike. To carry out the experiment, it surrounded itself with several partners: Un Petit Coin de Paradis, which developed and produced locally the toilets (in wood or ceramic) used in the context of the experiment, as well as PENA Environment and Toopi Organics, companies working on the recovery of collected faeces and urine. It also cooperates with Récup’ Bokashi Aquitaine, an association ensuring the collection and recovery of waste and Mundao, a company whose purpose is to develop new sectors for the recovery of sanitary textiles (including compostable nappies). In 2020, the Fumainerie collected 600 kg of faeces and 2,000 liters of urine. The first feedback on the experiment will make it possible to evaluate its success and to draw what would be a real circular management channel for excreta.
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