1 Technology shaping

Technology shaping emerged from the sociology of science. Research on technological innovation, as shown in unit 1, has a strong base in economic thinking – in particular, in arguments concerning the relative importance of market and non-market institutions in promoting innovation. The key arguments of economists of innovation focus on the need to get inside the ‘black box’ of technology. In other words, technologies cannot all be treated as the same thing. It is necessary to know what is inside the ‘black box’ to make decisions about how the technology developed (was shaped). It is also necessary to get inside the technology to appreciate its role at present, and how it may be developed in the future.

Economists of innovation have been criticised for their ‘economic determinism’ – i.e. that economic forces dominate the shaping of technologies. More generally, innovation specialists from the 1950s to the 1980s focused on how governments might get technology through state investment in science and technology or by buying it from others.

The social shaping of technology emerged partially as a counter to these economic approaches. At its heart was the argument that the social dimension needed to be more coherently integrated into studies of science and technology.

The social shaping of technology approach also arose as an alternative to the main concerns of social scientists until the 1980s: to understand the impact and effects of technology on society. As Mackenzie and Wajcman put it:

“This is a perfectly valid concern, but it leaves a prior, and perhaps more important, question unasked and therefore unanswered. What has shaped the technology that is having ‘effects’? What has caused and is causing the technological changes whose “impact” we are experiencing?”

Mackenzie and Wajcman (1985), p 2

Box 1 Technology Shaping

Technology shaping concerns the social factors that shape technological change. To what extent, and how, does the kind of society we live in affect the kind of technology we produce? What shapes technology? How does society shape technology?

These questions are based on an assumption and an argument: that technology is more than objects, it is also a set of human activities and refers to what people know as well as what they do – it is about knowledge. Thus, technology is a social process and is shaped socially.

Activity 7

Read the document below by Mackenzie and Wajcman, which is the introduction to a book they authored (1985).

Make notes on how the authors define technology, technological determinism, and then on how the authors approach the issue of social shaping of technology – in particular, the relationship between social shaping and economic shaping of technology.


One key aspect in Mackenzie and Wajcman’s argument is that relations between people (including gender relations) are what shapes the development of technologies – that shaping is about social relations and social processes. They make the usually buried observation that ‘the economic shaping of technology is, in fact, the social shaping of technology’ (p 15). The dominant approach to technological innovation before the work of Mackenzie, Wajcman and others, was on how governments might promote technology, via support of science and its application, and public support for companies developing innovation strategies. Mackenzie and Wajcman and others emphasized as well the other often micro forces, like technology developed to weaken trade unions and reinforce gender relations, that influenced the shaping of technology.

Activity 8

Read the blog posting and the related East African case study below entitled “Eco-toilets innovations serving the poor; waterless, odourless and productive”. Answer the following questions:

  1. In what ways did Kenyan society shape the innovation of the eco-toilet?
  2. How did the project manager, David Kuria, overcome Kenyans reluctance to pay for using the toilet?
  3. What innovative marketing initiatives have been tried to achieve wide adoption in the slums of Nairobi?

Toilet Parties in the Nairobi Slums

When I first journeyed to Kenya in 2004, celebrating the launch of a public toilet facility was one of the last ways I imagined spending a Monday morning - or any morning (or afternoon, or evening), for that matter. In fact, unless I had enjoyed an elephant's dose of mango juice and was on a 5 hour safari across the Great Rift Valley, I might not have had reason to celebrate a toilet at all.

Six years later, however, armed with the realization that an estimated 2.6 billion people lack access to basic sanitation and 2.2 million die each year from water and sanitation related diseases, I now have billions of reasons to attend toilet parties, an emerging trend in the Nairobi slums thanks to David Kuria and Ecotact. So when the Acumen team received the invite to attend the launch of Ecotact's 17th Ikotoilet facility last Monday, I practically ran for my dancing shoes.

Sitting under a small tent adjacent to the about-to-be-launched Kawangware Ikotoilet, Rob Katz and I listened eagerly with the 200-plus gatherers inside and spilling out the edges of the makeshift party hall. The crowd - a mix of residents, officials and journalists - engulfed the architecturally distinct Ikotoilet structure. It was clear that Acumen wouldn't be dancing alone at this party.

The Minister of Public Health and Sanitation and the Chief Public Health Officer also showed up for the celebration. Given the honour of Chief Guests, they both made remarks before cutting the ribbon: this day marks the launch of a noble public-private partnership initiative, as we bring necessary services closer to the people and are no longer dependent on flying toilets.

The Kawangware facility is part of Ecotact's newly implemented slum outreach model; it is now the second Ikotoilet in the informal communities of Kenya. And according to Kuria and the Minister, there will be more Ikotoilets in Kawangware in the near future - extremely exciting news for Acumen as a BoP [bottom of the pyramid] investor!

Ecotact is experimenting with a school model in the slums as well. After cutting the ribbon at Kawangware - and being mobbed by reporters as she toured the facilities - Minister of Public Health and Sanitation and Kawangware MP Beth Mugo led a delegation to the Dagoretti Secondary School, about 10 minutes away from the new Ikotoilet.

The school's 150 students currently use pit latrines. But with funding from the Solid House Foundation, Dagoretti will soon inaugurate a free-for-use Ikotoilet on site. What's more, a biodigester will generate valuable methane gas, pumped from the toilet to the school's kitchen.

With facilities in Nairobi's central business district, city parks, slums and schools, Ecotact is tackling the sanitation problem here in Kenya on many fronts. As an investor and partner with Ecotact, Acumen Fund is eager to continue the celebration with Kuria and his team, as they grow from 17 facilities to a target of more than double that within the next year.

Eco-toilets innovations serving the poor; waterless, odourless and productive

Sanitation remains one of the most complicated community issues because it involves changing behaviour. There are not only cultural considerations but also entrenched viewpoints regarding sanitation services. Most Kenyans believe this service should be free and are reluctant to pay for it. This leads them to make unsanitary arrangements to meet their needs. However, the outbreak of disease often result, leading to much higher costs in terms of medical bills or even death. An innovation, the eco-toilet, has been developed to improve sanitation and health.

The eco-toilet project encountered many obstacles along the way. David Kuria, the project manager, ran into problems in acquiring land and licenses. Initially nine banks refused to finance the idea, but the Acumen Fund, a social venture capital firm, finally agreed. After one year of teaching him how to design a business plan, the fund invested $600,000. Kuria made a deliberate decision not to market the eco-toilet to the poor initially, but to rich Kenyans. Thus, an eco-toilet was established outside the Hilton Hotel, near the Kenyan Parliament and in a prime downtown location. David’s thinking was that if he could get the rich to overcome their resistance and pay for the service, the poor could be persuaded of the benefits of the eco-toilet and be willing to pay. The eco-toilet’s financial sustainability means charging for its use. Every day, 35,000 people use the toilet in Nairobi's Central Business District and 35 other eco-toilets in Nairobi, paying just five shillings, or about 7 U.S. cents, per visit.

The location of the eco-toilet also generated other revenues. Rent collected from the nearby convenience store and the shoe shine stands also help to make the eco-toilet a successful business model. The eco-toilet features piped-in music, the facility is kept spotlessly clean, it uses very little water and much of that is harvested rainwater. Wastes are recycled into fertilizer and methane gas adding to its environmental credentials. But the acid test of the model was to win acceptance in the slums of Kenya, particularly Nairobi. The first eco-toilet opened in Mathare slum. To encourage its use, the entrepreneurs developed a monthly card costing 100 shillings (about $1.20) per family. Pricing the service to make it affordable was one of the many challenges for the slum branch. Violence and general lawlessness in the slums is a particular problem as people are reluctant to venture out at night because of security concerns. It is hoped that the staging of family events in the area where the toilets are housed will encourage people to come out at night and to feel safe. Moreover, local groups have been invited by the entrepreneurs to form a committee to help run the facilities. Eco-toilet’s ultimate goal is for social transformation in changing people’s behaviour around sanitation and improving health.

Figure 1 David Kuria and an Eco-toilet
Figure 1 David Kuria and an Eco-toilet

If you want to find out more about the Eco-toilets the following URLs have been provided:

Question 8

In what ways did Kenyan society shape the innovation of the eco-toilet?


Kenyan citizens do not feel they should pay to access sanitation which leads to disease outbreaks because people relieve themselves in unsanitary ways. Encouraging use of a toilet and persuading people to pay for the service was necessary to improve health outcomes. Thus there were social, health and economic issues to overcome. The ecological benefits of the eco-toilet in using harvested rainwater, and use of the waste for fertilizer and biogas were also shaped by Kenyan society.

Question 9

How did the project manager, David Kuria, overcome Kenyans’ reluctance to pay for using the toilet?


He placed an eco-toilet outside the Hilton Hotel in downtown Nairobi, and charged for its use. It proved popular with middle class Kenyans who flocked to pay to use it. This addressed the social and economic problem. He then marketed the toilet to the poor, for whom it now had a certain social cachet. The poor were being given the opportunity to use a facility enjoyed by the rich.

Question 10

What innovative marketing initiatives have been tried to achieve wide use of the eco-toilet in the slums of Nairobi?


The toilet is located near various other facilities which raise revenue for the toilet business but also attract custom. Special discount cards have been sold to make use of the toilet affordable for the poorest families. Local community groups have been established to help manage the facilities and events arranged in areas where the toilets are to attract families and establish the areas as safe at night.

2 Social construction of technology and actor-network approaches