We were privileged to get a slot at TEDx Brixton in July and we thought we would try to say something that has been on our minds for a while.
The global conversation for sustainability in manufacturing is shifting to the “circular economy”, like at Davos, where the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has promoted the concept and the opportunities for companies in this field. Up until now, the focus of the circular economy has been primarily on design products for easier disassembling and recycling – the outer circle – which implies creating a closed loop of materials and in the case of electronics, recovering metals in our gadgets.
This is something only feasible at scale, something the big companies can profit from. The mainstream activities of the outer circle of the circular economy – shredding and melting — are very energy intensive, and the jury is out about how efficient they are. But more importantly, this kind of “outer circle” is hard for people to relate to on a human scale.
The “inner circles” of repair and reuse seem to have been fairly mute in these public discussions on the “circular economy”. For us, these are the circles where we can approach a future economy on a human scale: making sure that the products we buy are more repairable, long-lasting by focusing on creating local opportunities flourish for repair, reuse and refurbishing. This is where we can transform our reality.
Here’s a personal example of how person to person interaction could be the basis for new, localised economies of repair.
I bought my first smart phone over a year ago. After only a day or two of using it, I noticed it could barely handle simple tasks. We tried in vain to find ways of coping. Then it dawned on us, there was no coping – the phone was shipped with an unusable hardware and software configuration. We spent months trying to find a solution. There were heaps of comments on online forums, but nothing definitive, and nothing that somebody like me could understand. We tried and failed numerous times. I despaired.
Then I learned at one of our Restart Parties that Ben, one of our repair volunteers, had the same mobile. Later he told me he “cracked” the problem.
Ben walked me through the installation of the alternative operating system (known as ROM). I did the last steps myself. I cannot describe the feeling. (I would like to say that I will use the phone for many years to come, but only time will tell.) More than that, I feel that I have taken back control.
Like everybody else, for us, imagining a future economy where we are more linked, more resource-conscious and more resilient is not easy. We are not sure what the future holds. But we do know that our high streets are dying and growth in retail cannot seem to save local jobs.
No shop or storefront would go the extra mile like Ben. So let’s imagine the rebirth of local economies of maintenance and repair, where you could easily find a trusted “Ben” near you every time you had a problem like mine. You could meet him at a monthly Restart Party. Or you meet him at a café and you could pay him in cake or in cash, which ever works. Or you could find a number of Bens at a weekly pop-up clinic in the local community centre, or at a small storefront they rent together.
From our point of view, the inner circle of the circular economy is a local circle, it is for citizens, small companies, community initiatives to reinvent. We are the inner circle.
That said, reuse and repair initiatives like ours will not simply flourish by themselves in isolation. People, community groups and small-scale entrepreneurs will drive them, but they will need more than just a pat on the back from local authorities. They will need real, proactive support. Finding affordable space is an issue where councils can help, boosting the repair economy.
Moreover, innovative start-up companies like Sugru, iFixit, Bare Conductive and Ragworm can provide new tools and materials that facilitate hacking and repair. They should be seen as a vital part of the repair economy.
Additionally, reuse and repair initiatives must work harmoniously with corporate recycling interests. People who repair and reuse are much more likely to responsibly dispose of a device when it reaches end-of-life, and when a device is declared “terminal” by repairers or volunteers, they can help guarantee it goes into the WEEE waste stream. So recyclers only have to gain by linking with these people-centred economies.