Reimagining Santa's Grotto: The Restart Project
The mental image we were brought up with of Santa's workshop was of hoards of elves working away making new stuff, painting wooden trains with paintpots and so on. But what if we were able to shift that image, and instead tell our children that the elves aren't making stuff, they're repairing it? That Santa's crack team, with their little screwdrivers and soldering irons, were breathing new life into tired laptops, mobile phones with cracked screens, and TVs with buttons missing? That new vision already exists, it's called a Restart Party. We caught up with Ugo Vallauri of London's Restart Project to find out more.
I started by asking Ugo to explain what the Restart Project is. He told me:
"The Restart Project is a new social enterprise in London creating a network of community repair events in the UK and abroad, helping people to regain skills around the repair and reuse of small electrical and electronic objects and devices, and developing and delivering services to businesses based on the same concept.
We bring repair back to the mainstream by creating engaging opportunities for teens and small organisations through team building and to learn about engaging ways to bring together teams around discussions and repair and reuse of objects.
My colleague and co-founder Janet Gunter we worked, both of us, in international development for many years. I was living for a few years in Kenya where the repair culture has obviously never died and in fact is thriving. No-one would ever dream of throwing something away. I was working in an area which tries to bridge international development with the use of new communication and new media technologies [here is a good video introduction to Restart].
All these projects always involve, in one way or another, bringing technologies to the developing world. Every time I came back to Europe I had a sense that the more technology we were bringing to other people, the more we actually have to question how we use this technology in general back home, and how non-resilient our technology is, in terms of continuously upgrading and moving on, always being excited about the next big thing; the new technology, the new tablet, the new printer and not really having the same approach. Particularly for people that care about the environment and climate change, not having the same approach we have, for example, around food.
We want to know everything about where our food comes from but the same people might be people that instead keep upgrading their phones or their laptops and not sure about what is involved in the manufacturing and disposal of these objects. That’s where the idea really came from.
If people came to visit, what would they find? Where are you, what happens, what’s your place?
We have an office in central London. We don’t really exist here in the same way we exist through our events. Our events are all pop-up events that happen in all kinds of different places where a network of volunteer repairers, experts, coaches with all kinds of technical skills help all participants at our Restart parties in resuscitating devices that people had lost hope on.
Giving a second life to things such as toasters, printers, tablets, laptops, mobile phones and the like. We have hosted such events in all kinds of places, from community centres to pubs, art galleries, schools, universities, even in a church in North London.
How fixable are things nowadays? My sense is that most people’s experience is that you can buy a printer for 40 quid and they go wrong so easily. Can you actually fix those things? Most people would just throw it away and get another one.
Most consumer products that we use today still are fixable but obviously manufacturers have made certain compromises and trade-offs in the way they miniaturise products, which has led to consumers accepting certain products non knowing the trade-off that they were accepting. So in many cases we can still fix quite a lot of things.
However, the cost of doing that, if you were to pay someone per hour to do it, would not be comparable to buying a new product, which is also due to all the externalities linked to the disposal of products and the manufacturing of them, and the whole distribution networks are not taken in to consideration, not to mention all the technological costs linked to production, rare materials, disposal and appropriate disposal [here is Janet Gunter of Restart speaking recently at TEDx Brixton].
Even when we accept that things are recycled and disposed of in ecologically approved ways, we really often don’t realise that a lot of the substances go through a massive shredding process where we are led to believe that recycling is the right thing to do. We really should be questioning this and focusing more on reuse and repair before we even consider recycling.
What does the time you’ve spent taking these devices to bits and trying to reuse them tell you about the mindset of, and the pressures on, the people who design them in the first place?
Certainly designers are aware of the trade-offs. In my experience it’s quite easy to agree with them that things could be done differently. But the pressure they are put under by whoever does the brief reduces their chances of having a say when in comes to making decisions that could change the upgradeability of products. If you look at today’s modern small laptops, the ultrabooks, the thinner laptops, nothing prevents manufacturers from making choices that would make it still possible for users to upgrade their products, for example by increasing the amount of RAM memory after they are purchased.
Some manufacturers, the majority of them actually, are now soldering the memory to the motherboard of the computer which means you no longer have the freedom to change the memory or increase the amount of memory, let’s say after two or three years use of the product. That is not really due to a need to further reduce the size of the product. In fact there are comparable products that don’t make that kind of trade-off.
How do you find or train people who actually have the skills to be able to repair these things?
This is one of the most interesting aspects. We didn’t know about this when we started. There’s a wonderful community of people out there that were basically waiting for these kinds of events to happen, to be able to be given a chance to contribute and inspire a community of users. The most extraordinary thing is that we’ve actually just promoted this event and a lot of people have come forward and they were ‘one of us’. There are fantastic skills out there. Actually, the massive projects are actually reskilling entire communities, making sure we have more widespread access to tools and to the knowledge that will help us live in a more resilient way.
Our relationship with technology is actually possible because there are people that until now were quite hidden, maybe working on the side and not appreciated for the kind of technical hardware and software skills that they had. They are extraordinarily happy to provide those skills for the rest of their communities. What I always tell people who want to start a Restart party in their community, and Transition Town or other organisations that want to get involved is "don’t worry, repairers will come".
What’s more crucial is that you organise an event, publicise it properly, and that you have a few initial technicians that you already know. But many more technicians and people eager and happy to help will come up and share their skills. People love to share their skills. It’s really an old myth, the fact that people with technical skills don’t like to share them. We’ve found an incredible community of people who work day and night to increase this movement because they just have a variety of wonderful skills and they’re so much up for sharing them.
Is it not the case that our Western economic model, which depends on economic growth, depends also on us buying things and throwing them away? If everyone started doing Restart Projects everywhere and repairing everything and not throwing anything away, would that not bring our economy to its knees?
Clearly we see this project at the crossroads of the old economy and the new economy that we would like to see. The new economy is one that sees growth in terms of services and providing a new meaning for local economic development: one less centred around products and use and abuse of resources and one more centred around skills and people and making sense of human relationships. Quite contrary to of the criticism around this, we believe firmly in using this project to create more awareness and demand for commercial repair services as well as community oriented ones.
We are looking at models where the use of new resources and the disposal of old ones only happens when people are empowered to make that decision. So they will go out and buy a new computer or a new mobile phone when indeed it is what they need and not what they’re led to believe is the right thing to do.
Obviously this is a model that scares a lot of people because it implies a rethink of how we create value. Currently we create value, funnily enough, out of the disposal of electronic waste. There’s what we call the outer circle of the circular economy which tries to make products more easy to disassemble at the end of life, as opposed to focusing on what’s really crucial for us, which is making products easier to repair so that less waste is generated to begin with.
In this way we create more value and more jobs around the repair of things at a community level, where it’s cheaper, there’s no shipping back and forth, and we can rebuild more meaningful relationships considering specifically that our high streets, as we all know, are dying. So many shops have closed and so many spaces are empty and this we see as an opportunity to really reinvent how this service is delivered and redefine creative values to our goods here and now.
What’s the relationship been with Transition? There’s some connection between yourselves and Transition Brixton, am I right?
There’s been connections with Transition both in Belsize where I’m from and Transition Brixton and we’re now talking to other groups. We’ve done an event together with Transition Dartmouth Park, one with Primrose Hill, one we’re discussing with Kensal to Kilburn and we’ve been in touch with other Transition initiatives across the country who want to get involved and replicate the model. We see this as a great opportunity, because the Restart party, and you’ll find more information about this on our website therestartproject.org.
Restart is a format that every organisation can incorporate and reuse locally as long as it’s kept as a free event supported by donations but open to everyone and very inclusive, as well as being centred around joint learning between people who repair and people who want to learn how to repair the things that they have broken at home.
We see a fantastic opportunity to help Transition Towns use a format that will bring them a new way of getting in touch with their local community, both in terms of new types of volunteers who might not have had a chance to share their skills and not seen themselves as valuable resources for their communities. It’s also a way to create events that speak to a wider portion of society.
What we noticed during these community repair events is that there is an easy way to talk to people of all kinds, from people who really care about the environment and see it as a matter of principle not to throw things away, to people who might not be able to afford a commercial repair and have been harder to reach out to for whatever reason.
The nature of popping up in all kinds of different venues really helps create a dialogue with a much wider set of groups in the communities around us. We’d love to collaborate further with the Transition movement in establishing many more Restart parties across the world.
You talked about how you see and how you’ve planned and designed Restart as being a social enterprise. Could you tell us a bit more about that – how do you see this becoming something that’s able to be financially self-supporting and create livelihoods for people and so on? What’s that model?
We’ve just launched a series of services called Restart Your Workplace, and we see this as a quintessential part of our plan. We noticed that the kind of services we provide to communities obviously make a lot of sense especially in their complete, independent nature. But some of the key values of those events make sense in all kinds of other environments. So we designed a few services that we’re promoting to businesses.
One is around what we call Restart Pop-Up, which is like a clinic that we can take to any organisations for any number of hours, where community repairers will help fix and repair things that belong to employees or things that belong to the company creating a service that people can use during one hour, their lunch break, during a corporate event and creating a buzz and sharing some of our best resources and the best learnings and our wonderful repair culture.
Then we’ve created a more professional service called Restart for Teams which is based on creating a more learning-oriented half-day team building event where a team works in small groups with our best coaches learning the key skills that could transform you from a passive consumer to a much more engaged repairer, getting to know your products; learning how to take a smartphone apart and change the battery and double its future life and learning how to use the basic tools. Using this as a collaborative effort that brings things together, enhances problem solving and is also a lot of fun.
The third one is aimed at small organisations. Not-for-profits are particularly stressed about their IT costs and we help them figure out a way through our trainings to be more resilient and use what they already have in terms of technologies in their business at its best and reducing unnecessary costs in terms of hefty fees paid to an external consultant.
We see this as exactly the same philosophy as what led to the launching of the Restart project but taking some of these key elements to new audiences and reinforcing our message. We’re talking exactly how the same resilience and the same skill sharing are taken into new environments where people see value for them and helping us further develop the community services that we want to develop and provide for free to everyone.
How’s that going? Are you pleased with how it’s been developing and the interest it’s been generating?
In terms of interest it’s going great. We’ve run some wonderful pilots with a number of organisations and we are now relaunching it and marketing it more aggressively. It looks like a lot of people really enjoy this fresh approach and we are lining up quite a few events for the beginning of next year.
You were one of the businesses that appeared in the New Economy in 20 Enterprises report that REconomy did. Do you feel part of a wider new economy movement, and if so, what does that mean or look like for you?
We obviously feel part of a much wider movement. Even just in terms of repair, we’re clearly not alone. There’s an ecosystem of new services and products that are creating value in this area, from companies producing tools that help make it easier for repairers to do their work, to other projects similar to ours but perhaps without the drive to reach social enterprise status and focusing more on community values around repair.
But of course we feel very much part of this new wave, trying to create economic value around new ways of approaching environmental challenges and local engagement, local community development.
It’s very hard at the moment because it’s much easier to come up with a great idea and to push it these days with the internet to reach global visibility around that than to really create a business case for it of course. But we find it a particular time, both in terms of the environmental awareness that seems to be happening in this community and the push for a rethink of our relationship with waste, very much in line with all the social enterprises that are working around food and trying to create a more meaningful relationship between our skills and how we can create value that makes sense for our communities around it.
If you’re successful and the idea that you have really takes off and we see Restart happening everywhere, in an ideal world, what does our relationship with ‘stuff’ look like? It seems at the moment our relationship with stuff is an unhealthy one which generates disappointment and debt and waste and so on and so on. What does a healthy relationship with stuff look like?
It’s a great question, because we have just come up with a new tag line for the Restart project, which says ‘let’s fix our relationship with technology’. We are not just looking at fixing products per se, but really using this as a way to reflect on how we relate to specific objects that are so commonplace in our daily life at this point.
We believe that getting to know a product, including getting to know how you take it part, and having much more open information about where its components come from will help us appreciate in a much more detailed way and fall in love in sense with the things we have as opposed to basically having a very transient relationship with them.
The more we see groups wanting to replicate our work from New Zealand to the US, from Italy to South Africa, we have started to realise that a focus on bringing people together and solving problems at a community level helps people realise that it’s much more important to focus on what we can learn together through these objects than to be always bombarded with marketing messages trying to push to us innovations that are often just perceived innovations, not bringing any more value or better relationships with the people surrounding us.
We believe that ideally, we should come to terms with how much stuff, technologically speaking, we are surrounded by, and learning to make sense of what we have, using it at its best and learning how to repair and reuse. Not everything, obviously, we can’t expect everyone to learn how to repair everything, but to be aware that repair should always be the first option and the fact that something stops working is not an excuse to really move on and go and buy the next flash thing. We should always be mindful of the kind of relationship we have with things.
In a way, people have developed a relationship with objects, we know a lot of people who wouldn’t ever throw away an old mobile phone because it still contains memories, whether in terms of an old SMS from someone special or the memory of a time when that phone was operational. We want to help increase this relationship, just reduces the chance of having to give up on things just because of the way consumer society has been pushing us to move on without us really wanting to necessarily [lastly, here is an interview with Ugo from Smart Monkey TV].