Science as a tool for understanding the world takes some beating. Most agree that there is a physical reality that trundles on regardless of our own minds. We may disagree about a lot of things, but if we can at least arrive at a consensus on physical reality then that’s a start. True scientific knowledge […]

Science as a tool for understanding the world takes some beating. Most agree that there is a physical reality that trundles on regardless of our own minds. We may disagree about a lot of things, but if we can at least arrive at a consensus on physical reality then that’s a start. True scientific knowledge is different from other kinds of understanding because ideas are allowed into this revered realm only after they’ve survived unrelenting tests of veracity against a barrage of evidence. You may know that it is right to seek contentment in your life, but this is not the same as knowing that we inhabit a spinning sphere, made habitable by the sun, the hot and massive gaseous centre of our lonely star system.

On the other hand, science can also be seen as a cash-cow that acts against the public interest. According to some, a blind belief in science has overcome religion as the dogma of the age. You may think this is an exaggeration, but consider the following example. Earlier this year, Aviva Presser Aiden, a successful scientist, was funded $100,000 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation “to build a microbial fuel cell that could charge mobile phones in Africa.” You can’t fault the lofty aims of this project, but the means of pursuing it are simply ridiculous. Pure scientific research is one thing, but trying to develop such a complex, costly and unproven technology to do something as simple as charge a phone is unreasonable to say the least. Surely the same money would go further if invested in simpler solutions like bicycle generators, wind turbines and cheap energy storage? It’s like passing your child an oxy-acetylene gas welder to open a tin of beans. This example may be tragic, but it’s small fry compared with the kind of corruption of scientific method that goes on in the mighty agro-chemical and weapons industries.

The moral of the story so far is that science can enhance the world but is not immune to corruption. Technology should be seen as a tool. Bear in mind exactly what you want to do with it or you could become the tool. Think of the smartphone user too busy on Facebook to see the beautiful sunset.

But how do all these ideas link back to bicycle trailers, here and now in Sheffield? Based partly on this kind of thinking, a group of students have banded together in an attempt make technology more appropriate for meeting people’s needs. We are part of an international organisation called Engineers Without Borders (EWB) that was set up to harness technology for poverty alleviation in developing countries. EWB also diverts creative talent away from the multinational corporations who suck up the souls of so many graduates and towards projects based on the idea of appropriate technology.

What is an appropriate technology? You can spot one a mile off using the following criteria:

Simple – If it is too complex for people to understand, it’s not going to get used properly or be fixed when it breaks.

Scalable – Can you easily multiply its effectiveness by building lots of them? Resilient – Takes a long time to break and can be fixed when it does.

Open source – The plans are available to everyone.

According to this scoring panel, the latest smartphone craze looks like an absurd step backwards, while the humble bicycle trailer is catapulted into the number one must-have accessory. Let me explain.

Used correctly, bicycle trailers may mean that single parents don’t have to be dependent on a car to do the weekly shop, allowing more money for food and other necessities. Depending on what you’re into they could help you collect leaves in autumn, carry supplies on a long distance bike trip or even take your dog places when he’s too lazy to walk. Given enough time and support from your mates, you can even undertake a low-energy house removal by bike trailer. I’ve seen this happen twice. In short, bicycle trailers can give you independence. The technology opens up new opportunities and frees you from dependence on oil.

The above ideas work in our country, but when taken abroad a bike trailer can be even more useful. A trailer can double as a back-saving hand-cart where roads are intermittent; they can reduce the toil of wood and water collection duties. Of course, a bicycle trailer’s capacity to complete all these tasks reliably and efficiently depends on careful design and sturdy build. Fortunately a number of manufacturers and shops have cottoned on to this, and there is now a wide range of bike trailers for you to choose from. If you want to go down the low-energy route, there are a number of decent designs on the internet that rely on salvaged materials. Scrap yards could provide the frame materials. Recycle Bikes off Chesterfield road can provide salvaged 20″ wheels when they are available. This city’s engineering heritage could help you build a bike trailer that’s ideal for you.

But bicycle trailers really thrive in community groups. Their load-carrying capabilities make them ideal for tasks undertaken in teams and cycling on the roads with a trailer attached feels much safer when you have company. Abundance Sheffield, which distributes fruit via bike trailers, is a textbook example of how useful this technology can be. This is why we are setting our sights on bicycle trailers for community use. We envision sound-system trailers for music groups, all-terrain trailers that can transform into handcarts for festivals, and bespoke trailers with tool holders for gardeners, craftsmen and bicycle mechanics. You can even get cinema bike trailers that can carry the projector, speakers and generators needed to power a film. EWB Sheffield has built one and it works a treat.

So here’s where you can get involved. EWB has just secured £1,000 of funding from a charity called the Bethan Reeves Community Action Trust to build bike trailers. In today’s economy this could get you 400 pints of quality Yorkshire ale, a few throwaway consumer items or 1/20th of a new car that will be worthless in 20 years. Tempting as these investments may be, we will spend every penny of our funding on bicycle trailers for community projects in Sheffield. We will build and then donate these trailers to worthy causes over the course of 2011.

What we are asking for is designs, ideas and drawings. What is the bike trailer of your dreams? How do you imagine it being used in a specific community project? If you send an idea that is detailed, cost-effective and simple, we’ll be more likely to build it. Equally if the design is interesting and looks as if it will get used every day for community projects, that’s an advantage too. Bicycle trailers may be a small and simple technology, but when used in the right way they can provide a cost-effective solution to local transport needs.

Please send any ideas or questions to shefbiketrailers@gmail.com

tonystrailers.com/cargo
re-cycle.org/trailer
tinyurl.com/3gmmgbr

ROBIN LOVELACE.