Aboard the Low-tech Lab

CELL invited Corentin de Chatelperron to Facilitec, the brand new location of the REconomy hub in Esch-sur-Alzette, for a promising afternoon all about the ideas, the possibilities and the future of low tech. With his sun-tanned skin, which he got from being exposed to the elements for many months, and a pair of sandals that carry his shaky sea legs over the earth’s surface, Corentin is somebody who radiates friendliness and calmness. He has been involved with the low-tech movement in France from the beginning and got inspired by the minimalist movement. After an inspiring presentation at Facilitec, a thought provoking discussion erupted with a small but engaged crowd, rounding off the afternoon with a great exchange of ideas. The question of how we can evolve to a post-growth society circulated in everybody’s mind. As ever, the topic of technology and its role in our society should be addressed.

Corentin embarked on a heroic journey in 2013 that lasted for 6 months and took him from Bangladesh to Indonesia along the Gulf of Bengal, passing several deserted islands on the way. After his earlier adventure on board Taratari, a sailboat composed out of 40% jute fibre composite material, he raised the stakes and aimed to sail the first boat ever that was completely built out of 100% natural fibre. After 2 years of research and 4 months of building, The Gold of Bengal was finally truly seaworthy. The design of the boat was based on a sampan, a Chinese or Malay traditional wooden boat that is relatively flat and often used for fishing or as a means of transportation in the coastal areas. The aim was to sail the Gulf of Bengal, living autonomously on his boat.
During his life in Bangladesh, Corentin was working on projects around development. In one of the poorest countries in the world, susceptible to a variety of natural disasters, he got inspired by the ingenuity of the Bangladeshi. Despite their limited access to resources, they succeed in providing in much of their own needs by the clever implementation of low technologies. They say necessity is the mother of invention. The creativity found here inspired Corentin and made him think about the different lifestyles of people living in the different corners of the world. While in the West we are overloaded with high technologies, like VR or … , that does not necessarily make our lives easier, let alone more meaningful. In other parts of the world, people are forced to use their minds more creatively in order to cope with the every day challenges they face.

According to Corentin, the only thing missing in this success story is the fact that these inventions, as clever as they may be, never succeed in reaching a wider audience, let alone go mainstream. A lot of the brightest innovations are never shown to a world that is in much need of them. This reaffirmed Corentin`s course. Equipped with a manual desalinator, a solar powered oven and an on board greenhouse he sailed off in search of accomplishing his mission. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the two hens that accompanied him on the Gold of Bengal. He ended up in Tambarat, a deserted island in the Indonesian archipelago, which he – as a real Robinson Crusoe – used as a base to experiment with low-tech solutions. This brave expedition back in 2013 allowed him to get more into the ideas of low technologies and eventually gave rise to Low-tech Lab.

Meanwhile, in different corners of the world, people have started to document various low-tech solutions. In France, a tiny house with 12 different low technologies on board will be going on a round trip through France to discover new ideas and low-tech solutions. The technologies on board range from a mass heater and a solar heater based on slate, to a ceramic-carbon filter to recycle water for showering and even for drinking, through the further purification by phytodepuration. Throughout Africa, low-tech nomads are recording many pedal-driven technologies, which replace a manifold of household machines like blenders and washing machines. In Greece, on the island of Lesbos, a beautiful symbiosis between the low-tech community and refugees has arisen, giving a voice to the refugees.

Altogether this movement of some 100 people aims to document and share low tech ideas. The community has been growing since the beginning. When acting together, they can have a far greater impact. Hence, the first Low-tech Lab conference was held in the north of France, in the Bretagne, in September 2019. Low-tech Lab is a collective of different projects that find these solutions around the globe, put them to the test, before documenting and spreading them. Their definition of low tech is an innovative solution that not only tackles the basic needs of humans, like drinkable water, food production or recycling of waste streams, but also aspires to be useful, accessible and sustainable in the long term.

Nomade des Mers, a beautiful catamaran, is Corentin`s new project that has set sail around the world in search of more low-tech solutions. This floating lab, along with the other low-tech projects, shares their observations through an open source website called Low Tech Lab. Already, more than 50 technologies have been documented and provided with blueprints, which contain detailed descriptions of how the low-tech solutions work, and how you can get started at home.

One thing is certain, multiple technologies exist throughout the whole world that fulfil these requirements, ranging from printer-engine driven windmills in Dakar to cultivating spirulina algae in Madagascar, and from cricket farming in Thailand to a lamp powered by both solar energy and old computer batteries. These solutions challenge us to rethink our approach to technology and ask us how we will develop to a post-growth society. Of course we can’t all have a black soldier fly farm in our cupboard, but in the right conditions or on the right scale, say that of a whole neighbourhood, these solutions can have a great benefit for empowering communities and local economies and create the desired resilience.

This brings us back to some ideas that are currently developing in Luxembourg within the transition movement. The REconomy’s aim is exactly to empower communities and relocate economies in order to reskill people and create resilience through a low impact life. The new environment in Facilitec, as well as the Äerdschëff, could prove useful for organising workshops around low tech, bringing new ideas to the community. The Äerdschëff that is currently being built in Redange is nothing less than a ship on land or in the port – at worst, stranded. The concept of being self-sufficient – providing for ones needs – is at the core of the idea. Low technologies, such as the use of thermal mass for heating and natural air-conditioning for cooling or the collecting of rainwater, are being integrated with the use of bio- and local or repurposed materials within a circular approach. Their next workshop in April will be building a root cellar, a low-tech way to store vegetables and other produce by using the natural cooling effect of the earth, thus no electricity!

All these grassroots movements, ranging from Earthships to Circular Economy, Transition, REconomy and Low-Tech, are solutions to our current societal and economic crises. After the success of the repair cafés throughout Luxembourg, I feel the time is ripe for experimenting with a Low-tech Lab in Luxembourg. If you are interested in starting a Low-tech Lab community or want to get together in a working group, you can contact Saul here.

Meanwhile, here are some ideas to get started

A review by Saul, 02.2020