|Journal of the Network of African Countries on Local Building Materials and Technologies - Volume 2, Number 1 (HABITAT, 1992, 50 p.)|
One of the main barriers in technology transfer among developing countries is related to the limited amount of information exchange. The absence of any systematic information flow between developing countries has led to a trend of wasting scarce resources and a general lack of progress in the area of local building materials. Information exchange is a vital component and sometimes the backbone to technology transfer, a process which has proved to be viable in attaining self-sufficiency in many developing countries in the building-materials and construction sectors.
In both developing and developed countries, there is abundant information on low-cost building-materials technologies which should be sufficient enough to promote the wide adoption of the building materials. However, in most cases, the bulk of the information originating from developing countries is not processed or published. The dissemination of the information is yet another key problem. Even when the information is processed and published, there are deficiencies in the eventual dissemination. This problem is common to information on low-cost building materials originating from all sources, developing countries, developed countries and relevant international organizations. The information is hardly ever disseminated to the target groups: those who would ultimately make practical use of the information such as site supervisors, technicians in charge of machine-fabricating workshops, small-scale entrepreneurs and practitioners who are actually involved in the day-to-day operations in the production and use of building materials. There is also the question of how to repackage information to a comprehensible level for artisans in rural areas who may not understand the rather complex technical publications which characterize most available information on low-cost building materials.
This article is meant to examine the major shortcomings in and solutions to information exchange. Section A analyses information needs. Section B describes the various sources of information relevant to the building-materials sector. Section C gives a brief overview on the services which should be rendered to users. Sections D and E examine the current situation and the obstacles to the flow of information and give some solutions on how to overcome the barriers.
A. Analysis of information needs
Generally, there exists a direct relationship between information needs and the ultimate use of information, i.e., information needs define exactly the type of information required by a specific user-group or individual. Information has value only when it is used. No information can be processed or used effectively, if it does not satisfy the needs of the user, if the user does not trust the source of information, or if the processor of information does not know who would be the ultimate user of information. The information flow, therefore, will not succeed if these prerequisites are not satisfied.
The major user-groups could be categorized as follows.
The information requirements of decision- and policy-makers involve the directions and priorities of planning and programming. Decision-makers need to draw on many sources of concise, authoritative and up-to-date information which can be fed with confidence into planning models with due consideration to sociological, economic and environmental factors which are often very complex.
The major types of specific information required are:
(a) State-of-the-art of available technological capacity in the country; the performance of the industry, its adaptability and application characteristics;
(b) Data on geological surveys of available and potential natural resources suitable for production of building materials;
(c) Data on current and projected demand of building materials and forecasting;
(d) Studies on the compatibility of the use of innovative local building materials with existing social and cultural patterns and on the environmental impact of their use.
Most research institutions in developing countries are concerned with applied research which might lead to industrial application. The bulk of researchers need information on results achieved at other research institutions which have had an impact on the commercial production of building materials. Up-to-date and accurate information on research activities world-wide could be of considerable help to research institutions in developing countries in selecting the most relevant research project, even though, the selection procedure for research projects normally is based on a policy of priorities.
The specific information requirements are:
(a) Types of research being carried out world-wide and, in particular, in developing countries. In view of the geographic and climatic resemblances of some countries in one region, regional information is more relevant and useful;
(b) Existing research experience and findings; laboratory test results, physical and chemical properties of raw materials and end-products; machinery design, efficiency and performance; costing and cost-benefit analysis reports;
(c) Proceedings of conferences, seminars, workshops and other similar events.
Research institutions need information for their activities
Training and education are the backbone of any type of development; training at the grass-roots level is crucial, because the skilled labourers are the ones who are directly involved in the day-to-day work of production. Universities and high-level technical and vocational training centres are in existence in many developing countries; however, the training of artisans and other craftspeople has unfortunately not yet reached the level of expectation. Trainers in this category are always in need of information related to the various methods of training and skill upgrading.
The specific needs of those involved in training are:
(a) Basic textbooks; manuals on the production of building materials; simple and illustrative technical notes; fact sheets; etc.;
(b) Current awareness bulletins/journals reporting sources as well as trends and developments in various applications;
(c) Literature surveys; conference and seminar proceedings and periodical journals;
(d) Audio-visual aids;
(e) Evaluated data on sources, material and methods.
Audio-visual materials are important information sources for trainers
4. Entrepreneurs and professionals
Building-materials production plants, construction firms and professionals and technicians working in such facilities are indeed the main actors directly involved in the manufacture and use of building materials. These groups are the largest among the others mentioned earlier, and in a broad sense, their experience, endeavours and achievements very often establish the basis for a number of peripheral activities such as research and training, among others. Therefore, furnishing suitable technical information to these user-groups would significantly improve their operations. In fact, these groups are usually the main sources of information generation, which, if processed and disseminated among, and used by different groups, would help considerably in the promotion of the building-materials and construction industries in every country. The major information requirements of these groups are:
(a) Directories of institutions and firms involved in research and in the design of buildings, in the production of building materials and in construction;
(b) Directories of firms and workshops involved in the manufacture of machinery and equipment for the production of building materials;
(c) Periodical journals, technical reports and other types of publications covering innovations, case-studies and applied research results in the building materials and construction sector;
(d) Standards and specifications for building-materials production and application.
B. Survey of sources of information
The diversity of various institutions and individuals concerned with low-cost building materials and construction technologies is reflected in the pattern of information provision, both through informal exchange and formal information service provision. This institutional diversity and the very rapid growth of interest and activity have resulted in a situation where mechanisms for information exchange currently available are widely recognized as being inadequate.
Among the major information sources, the following are considered as the most relevant ones.
Conferences and workshops are important for interpersonal communication
1. Conferences, meetings and workshops
Among the various means of information transfer, interpersonal communication through participation in meetings, conferences or workshops is preferred. Over the past few decades the increase in the number of conferences and different types of meetings of international and regional scope, in all areas of building materials and technologies, has been large, and the published proceedings of such events are heavily cited in the review of literature. In fact, such events are good sources of information, because they establish forums for the exchange of views, provide exhibits, permit site visits, and facilitate personal contacts among different groups having mutual interests.
Even though interpersonal communication through meetings is regarded as being very effective, there is clearly a limit to the extent to which this kind of information transfer can be generalized and extended, if only for the financial burden, both for the organizers and the participants.
Meetings are important for exchange of views
The importance of identifying institutions and individuals as potential sources of information on building materials and construction is well recognized. Collection and dissemination of such information is usually organized through published directories or databases developed in relevant libraries and/or documentation centres.
Directories are meant not only to provide a roster of names and contact addresses, but also to stimulate intercountry cooperation. Recognizing the need for better knowledge of, and closer links between institutions dealing with human settlements issues, UNCHS (Habitat) undertook, as early as 1978, the preparation of a series of directories and guides to information sources on institutions, organizations and individuals involved in the field of human settlements. Each directory and information source deals with a different aspect of human settlements such as: training, financing, and construction materials, among others. The most comprehensive and up-to-date directory published by UNCHS (Habitat) is the Habitat Directory (HS/106/86)* which lists 1784 names of organizations dealing with human settlements, in three languages.
* Symbols in parentheses are the sales numbers of the publication.
Bibliographies and directories are important sources of information
3. Referral services
Referral services are meant to supply appropriate information to other dissemination centres or individuals. The major functions of a referral service are:
(a) To collect, on a world-wide basis, information about date and information resources on a specific subject;
(b) To prepare a comprehensive inventory of the kinds of data/information/services available from these sources with a detailed subject index for access;
(c) To guide users to the appropriate sources of the required date or information.
4. Bibliographic references
Bibliographies are considered as being among the most relevant information sources for all those who, in one way or another, are involved in a specific sector of the building industry. Undoubtedly, all actors involved in the building sector, who want to keep abreast of developments in the building-materials and construction industries, need up-to-date reference material in their day-to-day work.
UNCHS (Habitat), in its endeavour to achieve its objective of fostering technology exchange and information dissemination, has produced a series of bibliographies on topics related to human settlements. Among these bibliographies which relate to the building industry are:
- Bibliography on Local Building Materials, Plants and Equipment (HS/22/82E)
- Bibliography on Small-scale Building Materials Production (HS/154/89E)
- Bibliography on Earth Construction (HS/169/89E)
- Bibliography on Passive Solar Systems in Buildings (HS/173/89E)
5. Periodicals and other technical publications
During the past few decades, a number of international, national and non-governmental organizations, in an attempt to collect and disseminate information, have launched programmes for publishing periodicals, such as journals, news bulletins, and books, which are considered quite satisfactory and effective for the user-communities.
Exhibitions could be good sources of information
Even though, publishing specialized periodicals has a very long history in developed countries, the process, particularly in the field of low-cost building materials and technologies, is in its infancy in most developing countries and the number of publications dealing only with the problems of developing countries in this subject is very limited. Commercial publishers, in recent years, are showing an increased interest in texts relevant to developing countries, but much of their outputs tend to consist of case-studies which attract limited interest outside the country concerned. Moreover, by their very volume, journals being published world-wide may be presumed to contain much information on specialized topics, yet, there is often a considerable amount of duplication and of publication for the sake of doing so. Therefore, in order to improve the quality of the journals specializing in the low-cost building-materials sector, there is need for increased cooperation between the relevant institutions in developing countries and the publishing organizations.
6. Technical assistance programmes as information sources
An examination of technical assistance programmes, both international and bilateral, indicates that the experience gained in them provides a potentially valuable source of information to and about developing countries. The extent to which the information generated might be generally available is hardly known. However, much of it warrants systematic and wider dissemination, especially at the regional level and in terms of technical cooperation among developing countries (TCDC).
In the context of technical assistance programmes initiated by the United Nations system, the establishment of regional and global networks in specialized areas, as a means for collecting information and establishing databases, is considered as one of the most effective methods, and if operated on a sustainable basis, could become a vital source of information in a specific subject area. These networks, in order to function effectively, would obviously need various types of means such as: equipment and hardware; software; personnel; and premises. It is difficult, however, to estimate in quantifiable terms the extent of the means necessary for the operation of a network or one of the documentation centres in the network. This would depend on the number and characteristics of the users to be served, the volume of documentation to be processed, the documentation method used, the services to be provided etc. Therefore, as a preliminary step to each case, these various elements must be the subject of a detailed assessment and analysis making it possible to estimate in quantitative terms what means are required.
C. Services to the users **
** In the preparation of this section, the use of the Handbook for Information Systems and Services (ISBN 92-3-101457-9), published in 1977 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, as reference and source, is acknowledged.
If a successful flow of information has to be realized, then services such as searching and retrieval, dissemination, notification, translation and document reproduction, to mention only a few, have to be rendered to the users. Information may be recorded in a document whether public or confidential, or it may exist in the memory or notebook of a personal source. Information services are usually composed of primary sources as well as compendia and a variety of traditional retrieval guides. As no document collection is self-sufficient, it must identify other sources of information through catalogues and directories. Between information and its user there are the operations of the information service, such as dissemination which is initiated by the information services, and searches and retrieval, which can be initiated by the user. The main categories of user groups, in this regard, could be defined as: those expressing individual queries and those expressing wider and more permanent interests that are to be regularly matched against new acquisitions in the documentation services. Either type of group consists of a set of keys which should be compared with document profiles. The simplest form of matching is to require that all user keys must be present in the profile of a document before the latter's location is reported.
Another important function that an information service should carry out in order to render services to users is reviewing publications upon their receipt for the purpose of selecting information pertinent to the programme of a specific user-group and to note individual items to be brought to the attention of users. This is generally known as current-awareness service. A refinement of the current-awareness idea is the selective dissemination of information that is designed to serve the individuals directly.
Technical co-operation projects are potential sources of information
Translation and document-reproduction services are also considered important services that should be provided to the user communities. Translation of documents, very often, imposes great barriers to the transfer of information. Whether the actual translation occurs in the processing or dissemination phase, the information service may be expected to provide full document translations or vernacular summaries of foreign language material. Document reproduction, similarly, cannot be considered as a purely technical matter. Therefore, the level of reproduction facilities and capabilities has a direct bearing on the effective service that a documentation service can provide to its users.
The figure shown below is a chart of the flow of information to a scientific and professional user.
D. Examination of the present situation and the obstacles to the flow of information
In the context of developing countries, even though information exchange in the building-materials sector is not the sole prerequisite for intercountry cooperation for promoting the sector, it is a vital input to the complex and resource-demanding process of technology transfer. Some developing countries have over the years been engaged in various levels of activity to promote low-cost building materials, sometimes involving projects which are complementary to one another, at other times involving straightforward duplication of projects. The issue worth emphasizing is that the remaining developing countries would not need to invest in any primary research but to build upon existing experiences and innovations.
For almost every conceivable building material which is likely to have an impact on low-income housing, there is a proved and appropriate technology. Despite this, and in view of a general lack of a systematic flow of information, the majority of developing countries are still stuck with huge resource outlays on the fundamentals of research into innovations in low-cost building materials and often achieving results of no consequence at all to the worsening shelter crisis. The logical step, following the few correct approaches to the promotion of low-cost building materials should obviously be a process of information exchange among these countries to preclude this wasteful trend.
The process of information collection and dissemination through specialized information services and data centres in developing countries is undergoing gradual development. Special libraries and documentation centres are already established in most countries and are usually attached to government ministries or universities. The specialized information and data centres are organized in different ways according to the system chosen and local conditions. State-run centres and non-governmental centres play different roles in specific conditions. However, the assignments of these centres are often not closely linked to each other and in the process of collecting and disseminating information, each centre uses resources from abroad. Moreover, the availability and dissemination of information via data centres are, in general, handicapped by the isolated location of these centres and their local production of national data. Therefore, most scientists are obliged to search for their information needs personally, which is a time-consuming effort.
A model of flow of information to a scientific and technical user. This figure is a reproduction of figure 5.6.1. from UNESCO, Handbook for Information Systems and Services (Paris, 1977).
In the past few decades a number of information and documentation centres in the areas of building-materials and construction industry have been set up and are in operation in several developed countries. The mandate accorded to these information centres are, in many cases, very similar which is to collect, process and store systematically research activities and their findings and retrieve and supply them to the interested parties upon request. Some of them are also established merely to provide technical advice on innovative technologies relevant to developing countries.
These information centres, even though, having contributed considerably in collecting and disseminating information, and while possessing sophisticated and computerized facilities to process information, have, unfortunately, not been able to satisfy fully and effectively the information needs of many developing countries, and, in particular many countries of the African region. Although digital linkages and communication exchange have been successfully implemented, the transfer of technical and scientific research information into practice has not yet been implemented successfully and systematically in many developing countries, and in some cases the existence of successful research results is seldom brought to the attention of users. There are a several reasons for these problems, the main ones being the almost non-existence of well-organized and - equipped information centres at both the national and regional levels, a scarcity of trained and experienced professional staff in developing countries to manage these centres, a lack of adequate policies and strategies to promote the information flow, and, obviously, the existence of financial constraints prevailing in many countries.
Also, there are non-coherent patterns of building-materials production between the formal and informal sectors, the latter generally being characterized by small- and medium-scale producers. However, considering the industry as a whole, there is a lack of appropriate mechanisms for information flow so as to promote the linkages between these two sectors leading to balanced growth, and to bridge the gap between the demand for and supply of building materials. Therefore, national and sub-regional information centres, to facilitate increased awareness among professionals and decision-makers, are considered to be equally important as international or regional information centres.
E. Solutions to the barriers in information exchange
In the preceding sections, a brief analysis of information needs, information sources and obstacles to the flow of information relevant to developing countries has been presented. In view of the multidisciplinary character of information exchange and its importance in the promotion of the low-cost building-materials sector, tackling the obstacles confronting systematic information flow, and devising precise guidelines and solutions, would require a more comprehensive examination of the sector which should be carried out, possibly, in conjunction with some case studies. However, in the context and limits of this article, some proposed solutions may be summarized as follows:
(a) National, regional and international information centres/networks should be established, and, if in existence, their capabilities to coordinate and to work in liaison with research institutions and successful entrepreneurs in the area of building materials and technologies, should be strengthened.
(b) All national research institutions, universities and any establishment involved in the building-materials industry should be aware of the existence of relevant information centres and should be committed to cooperate with them in regularly supplying relevant information on their activities and work progress.
(c) The information centres should have professional competence and should be in a position to process the information gathered from various institutions and to store it properly for easy retrieval.
(d) Governments of developing countries, donor countries, and non-governmental and international organizations should support the information centres during their initial stages and up to the time when they can become self-supportive in their operations.
(e) The information centres should devise guidelines and evaluation procedures for the institutions and/or individuals who are suppliers of information, so that wasteful efforts in compiling and processing of information could be minimized/eliminated.
(f) In view of the poor communication systems prevalent in many developing countries for the efficient flow of information from information centres to the user-communities, it is the vital role of the information centres to ensure a systematic flow of information between the suppliers and users of information. In this regard, information needs must be examined from the following aspects:
(i) The aim of the information (for what use, by whom, in which type of institutions);
(ii) The nature of the information needed;
(iii) The form in which information is, or might be, delivered.
(g) The information centres/networks should endeavour to publish and disseminate periodicals, journals, technical notes, audio-visual material and any other suitable publications with the aim of informing the user-communities on research results, innovations, case studies etc.
(h) The information, technical data and case studies published must include relevant and useful material. They should avoid duplication and should be simple and able to be understood by specific categories of user-communities.
(i) Conferences, seminars, workshops, exhibitions and similar events are important tools for the purpose of information exchange. Therefore, efforts should be made to encourage their organizers and increase the number of such events.
(j) Referral material such as bibliographies, directories, compendia etc. needs to be published and disseminated, and if already in existence should be updated as appropriate.
Information exchange is a vital component of technology transfer and an important input to the process of promoting the building-materials industry.
Existence of national information services, in order to facilitate translation of research findings into industrial production, and create necessary linkages between research and development institutions on the one hand, and entrepreneurs, on the other, are considered as important as the regional and international information centres.
In the process of collecting and disseminating information, the needs of specific categories of the user-communities should be taken into consideration, e.g., the type of information needed by professionals or researchers should be different from the information needed by policy-makers. Likewise, the user-communities must be made aware of the sources of information. They must be furnished with such information as could be deemed useful and relevant to their area of specialization.
Organization of conferences, workshops and similar events as a medium for information exchange, as well as publication of directories, bibliographies, journals and the like, on specific aspects of building materials and related technologies, are very useful tools in facilitating increased awareness among various categories of user-communities.
In the past few decades some non-governmental and international agencies in developed countries have established databases and information systems on the general building and construction industries, with very few of them specializing in the areas of low-cost building materials and related technologies. Even though their achievements are highly appreciated and accepted by different categories of user-communities, their efforts have not yet been effective in stimulating and improving the process of information exchange in many developing countries, in particular, in the countries of the African region. This is, mainly, because of the poor communication systems in many developing countries, a lack of coherent and sustainable links among various institutions in different countries and a lack of sound management on the part of the information centres.