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Why We Need To Stop Upgrading and Start Repairing Our Broken Electronics
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We have a vision for how communities in the future should look differently at the way we consume products, and also the way products should be designed.

In a world where technological devices have transcended their functional uses to become status symbols, persuading people to repair, rather than upgrade their broken devices is no easy feat. Moreover, the tech giants producing these devices seem set on making them as non-repairable as possible. From complex and impenetrable designs to irreplaceable batteries with limited shelf-lives, even the savviest technicians struggle to resolve the seemingly predestined malfunctions that render some of today’s devices lifeless.

Yet, from the polluting and unethical mining of critical raw materials to their near-zero recycling rate, the production and endless upgrading of our electronics is unsustainable. The mainstream mindset needs a radical reprogramming. But where on earth to start? Ugo Valauri, Founder of the Restart Project, has a pretty good idea of where…

Great to have this opportunity to speak with you, Ugo. Let’s start with asking, in your own words, what is the Restart Project?

The Restart Project is a charity empowering people to put repair at the heart of the solution when something gets broken. It inspires communities to bring back repair by running pop-up repair events.

It helps us rethink our relationship with electronics, regain an understanding that we should all put repair as the first answer when something goes wrong. We should also rethink who and how in our communities, and our cities, can keep up with repairing all the kinds of things that we keep breaking.

So it’s more than repair workshops; would you say it’s a vision for the future?

Yes. We have a vision for how communities in the future should look differently at the way we consume products, and also the way products should be designed. Regulations should allow the production and sale of long-term, repairable and re-usable products.

We started as a community group running pop-up restart parties, where a few volunteers would invite members of the public to try to fix things in a social context. Now we’re campaigning for the right to repair at the European level. to make sure that in the future, manufacturers that want to sell new products also have to make them in a way that they can be disassembled and repaired without damaging them further.

And we’re also campaigning for access to repair tools. Repair spare parts and repair manuals should be universal, not just for expert professionals or authorized repairers. Access for everyone is important. They can minimize the missed opportunities for when, for instance, your headphones stop working from one channel and you think you need to throw them away and buy a new pair.

That’s a big one actually, we must throw away millions of pairs of headphones every year…

Yes, and there’s no repair business that can handle them because no one is providing that service anymore. But with access to the right tools and manuals and spare parts, it’s much more likely that someone else will be able to fix them.

What about Apple’s policy by which their warranty won’t cover your product anymore if you’ve tried to fix it yourself?

Apple makes some products to self-destruct. Their wireless headphones’ batteries, for instance, hold no charge after a year and a half to two years. There is no way to replace that battery, not even if you go to Apple for the replacement. They have to sell you another one. This is just plain wrong and it is obscene and should simply not happen.

Apple is just one example, but they’re not on their own, there are many other products as such. Apple is important in all of this because it’s a trillion-dollar company, but other companies are doing plenty of other things that are questionable.

Community repair workshop at The Restart Project

For example?

I have a Google phone. This week, Google announced they will no longer release security updates for this phone within three years. So they decide it’s time to put it to rest – and the phone is fine! It has plenty of memory and a good camera. They updated its operating system to the very latest version just two months ago. Why are they doing this, unless other than to try to convince me that I should buy the new model?

We’re fighting against something that’s really widespread. Everyone experiences that. The solution is to change the rule for everyone so that these behaviours are simply no longer possible for manufactures.

It’s so easy for them to throw on the market any kind of new thing every six months or every year and not care about the maintenance of all the things that they’ve already put into the world.

Is there a good phone company that people should be directed toward? One that’s genuinely recycling and doing more to minimize its impact?

Absolutely. It’s the phone that you already have in your pocket. You should try to extend its life by finding a way to replace the battery and take good care of it. And that should be the first option when it comes to buying another phone.

What we’re trying to do is to help people understand what are the trade-offs that they are going through. We remind people that it’s perfectly fine to buy second-hand devices and ensure that they, for instance, replace the batteries if they’re not performing well. But we don’t think there’s a single product that provides the right answer to our questions. They just don’t exist.

There are so many problems tied into one. Unhealthy consumerism being a big issue. Then there’s a lack of time. In the modern lifestyle, we’re all so busy working and commuting… Where’s the time to find a repair shop that’s open outside all those working hours?

It’s a bundle of issues. If a product is not designed to be easily repairable, repairing it with the help of a professional will be more expensive than it should be. If you can do it yourself, it will be much more affordable.

There’s something profoundly wrong about the way the system works. We are trying to be part of the solution making some of these obscene realities more visible. And provoking our thinking around why do we accept this in the first place? How can it change?

So as well as empowering people with new skills, would you say you’re trying to create a more fundamental shift our relationship with our possessions?

Yes exactly, it’s about imagining a world where we actually care for the products that we have and we take care of them. The longer we own them, the more we care for them, the more we’ve had a direct role in extending their life.

That’s why running repair events is for everyone. Being more directly involved with the mechanics, taking something apart and learning its workings, empowers people to care about devices. And that’s specifically why repair should be public.

It should be accessible and visible and transparent to everyone, the opposite of what manufacturers are trying to do. They are trying to protect it not just in terms of intellectual property, but also making it extremely hard to access. Unless you are the chosen authorized repairer.

What do you say to tech companies whose profits rely on the upgrading cycle?

Our approach is not to say that companies shouldn’t be making a profit. But the overall environmental and social costs generated by the massive power imbalance between manufacturers and consumers should be revisited. It is simply unfair to people and planet that manufacturers can get away with putting products on the market that are not designed to last.

According to our vision of the world, if you are a manufacturer, you have to take responsibility. You should ensure that if something goes wrong with the product you sell, people should be able to decide when and whether to replace it.

Often, this is not the case. So we did some campaigning demanding that everyone should have the right to access spare parts and repair manuals of all products. And that products should be designed to facilitate repairs, not to hinder them.

Thanks to the initial 2021 regulation, manufacturers producing washing machines, dishwashers, fridges, televisions, and lights will have to commit to providing access to parts and repair manuals for at least seven years, after retiring that product from the market. So if your washing machine breaks, it will less likely that you won’t be able to find a replacement part.

This is just a tiny initial victory. We consider it a major milestone. No regulation before has ever mentioned repair provisions. But it’s just the beginning. The industry fought back massively, especially the countries that are strong manufacturers, like Germany and Italy.

For washing machines, it hasn’t been possible to prevent the so-called bundling of spare parts. For example, the ball bearings are a small component that tends to break. If it breaks, chances are that you’ll have to replace the whole drum, which might cost £200.

That makes it extremely unlikely that anyone would choose to repair it rather than replacing it. The industry is strong and it has plenty of tricks. For this reason, people’s awareness needs to increase, particularly at the time when we’re finally waking up to a climate emergency and the need to reduce our overall environmental impact.

Too often, we do not consider the impact of all products produced abroad. For instance, the CO2 emissions of a product imported from Asia are substantial. Take a smartphone, for instance. Most people still wouldn’t know that approximately 80% of the entire environmental impact of these devices occurs before you’ve ever switched them on.

We’re living in a massive lie when we’re told that it’s good to recycle

The consumption phase is when you’re using your phone and recharging the battery every day. That counts for maybe 15% of the total environmental impact over the course of three years. The resources and the energy employed in creating the device counts for 80%. We’re told to upgrade and that the models we bring in will be recycled responsibly.

In recent months, we’ve worked with our partners on bringing to light the fact that you cannot recycle critical raw materials. Either at all or in small percentages. Because the system is not designed to recycle them. It’s a lie that every material gets recouped and turned into a new product. And so we are kind of living in denial… We’re living in a massive lie when we’re told that it’s good to recycle.

It’s as if everything has been designed to encourage us to be bad humans from every angle…

Yeah. Most people really don’t want to have a negative impact, but they end up having it irrespective of their intentions. If you try to recycle something, you’re left with very few options, or with so many caveats. That’s why repairing things is a good start. The most ethical and green way forward is to keep using something that ultimately still serves your needs. It’s not about being anti-innovation. Everyone enjoys a new product that works better, but often this not the case.

For instance, take a new TV. The software behind it is no longer supported after a couple of years. It’s very frustrating. Getting to know products and understanding what are some of the limitations that the current design provides is quite enlightening. It helps everyone understand why being a bit more frugal in the way we consume new products is to our advantage.

A volunteer in our community wrote a wonderful post on our platform restarters.net, chronicling his story with this monitor he has been using for 11 years alongside his laptop. Like a workhorse companion. When it stopped working, he took it apart and changed to capacitors. But to no avail.

So he got hold of a device that helps test capacitors and saw that everything else was fine. He put them together and soldered them back in, and the monitor started working again. Others were commenting that it was probably a so-called dry joint, which means that a contact wasn’t working anymore. He ended up replacing just these two capacitors and re-soldering something.

And how much does a capacitor cost?

He spent £1.20. And buying a similar spec monitor, second hand, would have cost him £120.

That’s crazy…

It’s not just the fact that it was super cheap. This was something that he’s been using for a long time and it didn’t need replacing. There was no reason to throw this thing away just to go and buy another thing. When a simple solution can maybe give it another two, three years of life.

Most people really don’t want to have a negative impact. But they end up having it irrespective of what they’re trying to do.

And these are stories that we need to flourish. And it’s not just about what you do at a community repair level. It’s about regaining confidence with a network of professionals that keep our stuff functioning. Like maintenance repair stores.

That’s why part of our work has been about mapping repair businesses that do their work with pride, that see themselves as part of the solution. Because restart parties are limited. In one neighbourhood there might be an event per month perhaps, allowing to repair maybe 25, 30 products.

It’s a really nice story and it’s made me realise that I feel more relaxed in my relationship with my laptop since coming to your repair workshop! I’ve had three Macbooks in my life, because two have ‘died’, and I realize I’ve had this underlying anxiety about when this one’s going to expire. But since seeing a Macbook taken apart at your repair workshop I’ve felt better about this. It made me realise it doesn’t have to mean ‘the end’…

You’re lucky because that model, the one you have is still relatively repairable compared to the subsequent one…

It’s so good. I can’t imagine ever needing a different model…

For most of us, the things we do with them have not changed very much. I mean, sure it’s nice to have light devices but the even lighter versions are harder to take apart or almost impossible to repair. So hold onto it.

I’m going to, definitely. And then I’ll bring it to one of your repair workshops. Hopefully not very soon though…

What progress have you seen both at the government level and in the private sector?

There is a growing movement of people and organizations that are tackling these issues and making them more visible. We collect data through all the events that we run. Hopefully, it will contribute even further, showing some of the key barriers to repairing products.

We’ve started to analyze the data we collect as part of our global network of community repair events. In particular with computers. EU regulations will be reviewed in the next year. We hope that we’ll be able to bring a different perspective to the table. Normally, the only source of data that legislators can access is the data that corporate benefactors bring to the table. Which is crazy.

In Europe, things have been very slow, but we’ve reached the first milestone. From 2021, regulations will be valid without need for further action by any of the members’ States across. This is a big deal because it will form the basis for further discussion for other product categories, beyond the five that I mentioned before. But also because it starts being potentially influential for the way other parts of the world will legislate for this matter.

We’ve seen mention of what this legislation would mean in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions. In some countries, there is a push to come up with a Reparability Score Index. That will mean that when you are buying a product, you would be able to see not just its energy-efficiency rating, but also how repairable it is.

France seems ahead of the game on this. Their parliament and Senate are currently debating it [Reparability Score Index]. In the UK, DEFRA is looking at some similar things. Even if the UK decides its future lies outside the EU, we might be able to bring to life a similar product scoring system. So when you’ll be able to see whether a product is meant to last or not when you’re shopping.

A Reparability Score Index… will mean that when you are buying a product, you would be able to see not just its energy efficiency rating, but also how repairable it is.

However, the devil is always in the detail. We haven’t seen a draft of what this would look like yet, in the UK context. We are following and trying to influence as part of our European campaign, the way that Europe will make progress on this, but it’s still early days.

To sum it up, there’s been some progress. Especially seeing as regulations could have been vetoed by some member states. But it didn’t happen. There’s a lot more to be done. Starting with creating a registry for repairers, able to access all the spare parts and the repair information.

And making sure that it is as inclusive as possible. Ideally, also being able to include initiatives such as ours among those that can access this information. Because the current regulation doesn’t make universal access a reality yet. So there’s been progress, but it has been very slow…

I’m sensing that…

What about human behaviour change? How do we influence change on the individual level, in your opinion? Does it have to come from the grassroots? Is a multi-pronged approach best? And, most importantly, how do we get this mindset change to happen fast enough?

I think everyone needs to play their role. And there are signals of change. I think the work that we do is very important, particularly at the moment. It’s fully visible and so we’ll document it and report it on. But obviously, the private sector can play an important role in anticipating what will become a legislation requirement in the future.

Occasionally, there are some companies that already provide access to spare parts and repair manuals. So these are good things. It’s already possible also to make better decisions as consumers of products. But we all need to contribute to turning repair and buying for longevity. Making them the new normal and making it cool.

We’re starting to see even some mobile service providers saying “buy a secondhand device.” So it is changing. But we need a lot more. There are some interesting trends, like some businesses that provide warranty on a secondhand product similar to that which comes with a new product. So this can contribute to reducing people’s fears about buying a secondhand product.

It all matters. I think work at grassroots has this role to kind of show where we can get, but then inspiring people that run businesses to do the same thing, and governments to follow and help the vast majority of businesses to implement similar approach, is crucial. So we need everyone.

Where can people find you? How can they get involved?

In London, there’s a network of events and restart parties that happen almost every weekend. You’ll find them on theresearchproject.org/london. You can find all upcoming worldwide events on @theresearchproject.org/events.

And what skills does a volunteer need?

Any skill that they like to share, whether it’s helping to put on, run and promote events, helping with software or hardware issues. Whether you’re a music or high-fi equipment or phones expert, there’s always a place for you! Or blenders or turntables. Everyone is welcome.

We also run community events for the volunteers to share their skills and have a series of events for women and non-binary people. This is to create a safe space for learning repair in a non-male dominated way.

We have an online community, researchers.net, where everyone can get involved. And I think that’s it.

Anything else to add…?

Yeah. You mentioned phones. Phones are complicated. We’re not trying to offer a free repair service. What we’re trying to do is to provide a space for people who want to learn more about repairing. For example, take a cracked screen.

If you’d like to procure your own spare part and have a go at fixing it with help from a volunteer, this the right place. If you’d like to just bring apart and have someone do it for you, for free, it’s not. We have a repair directory which can recommend excellent repair businesses that can help you with that.

For 11 London boroughs, we list reliable repair businesses that have good online reviews. That offer a warranty on the repairs and have a physical store that you can access.

So that if you have a problem you can go back. That’s part of our strategy for making repairing more visible and trusted. So that it’s not just about meeting up once a month.

Anyone can join for updates on therestartproject.org. You can find info on our EU campaign on the right to repair at repair.eu. And that’s about it.

Brilliant. Thanks so much for talking to us Ugo, and thank you for what you’re doing with the Restart Project, it’s inspirational.

Check out www.therestartproject.org for more info and follow @restartproject to stay up to date on upcoming events.

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04 / 12 / 2019 // Written by Juliet Kennedy
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