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BBC World Service: CLICK: How to say “no” to an upgrade

the restart project

Last week I attended an edition of Click, the BBC World Service technological and digital news radio programme hosted by Gareth Mitchell.  The theme of the programme was how we can repair and prolong the life of our technological products, to help reduce e-waste and preserve our natural resources.

The show’s guests were Janet Gunter, co-founder of The Restart Project; Tessa Wernink from Fair Phone; Annie Warburton from The Crafts Council and Sound Artist Graham Dunning.

We live in strange times, with farmers and independent businesses in the state of Nebraska, US, fighting for the ‘Right to Repair’ Bill, which has currently been stalled in court by large corporations such as Apple while  Sweden are giving tax breaks to people who are repairing a wide range of products from bicycles to washing machines.

Whilst previous generations would have seen repairing and prolonging the life of products as a normal and necessary thing to do, now most people do not know how to sew on a button, which according to Annie Warburton from the Crafts Council, is the main cause of clothes being thrown away and ending up in landfill.

The Restart Project, a social enterprise that helps people repair their electronic products was inspired by the founders work in international development in Africa, Latin America and Asia; finding that people in these communities were more resilient in their use of technology and more likely to fix broken products than the upgrading mentality of western cultures.  However, comment from Kenyan based contributor Juliana Rotich, hinted that although there is a healthy culture of repair and recycling across Africa, there is a rising trend in Kenya for people moving towards replacing products with upgrades.  This leads us to ponder whether innovation and resourcefulness comes from scarcity and necessity, as opposed to our abundant lifestyles in Western culture that often lead to laziness and our throw-away culture.

Aside from the psychological barrier of ‘I can’t possibly fix this,’ one other reason for products becoming harder to fix is that devices are getting smaller and harder to get into than they use to be, as well as repair manuals becoming a thing of the past.  Another threat to would-be repairers is the control being asserted by manufacturers across the value chain, particularly when it comes to copyrighted software that cannot be upgraded with the repair of the device.

The mission of the Fair Phone is to create social and positive impact in the supply chain of electronics and design.  By offering a modular phone, of which 125,000 have been sold so far, the product allows people to take apart the phone easily, replacing broken screens and batteries simply and with less expense than other smart phones.

In parallel to growing relationship and dependency on technology, is the growing resurgence in craft practices and cultures.  Annie Warburton gave innovation as the reason for the rise of interest in craft skills, siting Wedgewood as an example of how craft has always been driven by innovation.  The two forces driving the appetite for craft are that we are living screen based lives and craft brings us back to our bodies and gives us a sense of empowerment.  The second driving force is the exchange of skills currently happening across the globe, with over 3000 maker movements connecting and exchanging ideas from different perspectives, such as surgeons working with tailors to develop new surgery techniques.

The closing remark came from Gareth Mitchell’s co-host, Bill Thompson, who said that we “should start to feel embarrassed about throwing things away that don’t need to be thrown away, we need to change our attitudes.”

Now we just need to ask ourselves, what it will take for more people to change their attitudes, raise their awareness of the planned obsolescence  being designed into their products, and the social and environmental harm being caused by the mining of rare earth minerals? We must demand change from manufacturers and better legislation from governments.

To listen to the Click progamme http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04v84qh

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