Ivan Illich (1926 - 2002) became prominent in the 1970s with a series of brilliant, short, polemical, books on the major institutions of the industrialized world. They explored the functioning and impact of 'education' systems (Deschooling Society), technological development (Tools for Conviviality), energy, transport and economic development (Energy and Equity), medicine (Medical Nemesis), and work (The Right to Useful Unemployment and its Professional Enemies; and Shadow Work). Ivan Illich's lasting contribution was a dissection of these institutions and a demonstration of their corruption and counterproductivity. Institutions like schooling and medicine had a tendency to end up working in ways that reversed their original purpose. However, his work was the subject of attack from both the left and right. In the case of the former, for example, his critique of the disabling effect of many of the institutions of welfare state was deeply problematic. However, Disabling Professions is a book all professionals should read to understand their “seamy” side, as Illich called it.
The writings and ideas contained in “Tools for Conviviality” are at the heart of many Working Centre projects. We ask the questions that Illich asked, “How can tools liberate us and serve others while providing daily subsistence?” Illich’s answer was to challenge groups and individuals to develop their own philosophy of tools by reflecting on how a humble tool like a shovel can help us heal our alienation to the world. The Working Centre interpreted this approach into the projects that we call “community tools”.