Introducing TFP archive posts: Ugo Vallauri and The Restart Project

Ugo VallauriFrom 2011 to 2014 Transition Free Press featured many dynamic and innovative projects initiated by Transition and community-based social enterprises. During the next few months we will be posting some of the highlights from our archive. You can see the whole range in our seven issues online. We start (appropriately) with The Restart Project from TFP5, and an interview with its co-founder Ugo Vallauri with TFP’s editor Charlotte Du Cann.

What’s the best thing that has come out of Transition? High on the list of everyone’s answers must be the sharing and learning of hands-on skills.

One of the most innovative skill-share enterprises to have emerged, The Restart Project, brings ‘the great reskilling’ to a whole new level. Tackling the tricky area of electronic repair, co-founders Ugo Vallauri and Janet Gunter have put the solution to high consumer waste – literally – into the hands of the people. Their London-based Restart Parties began in 2012 as a way for communities to repair their own electrical goods and are now springing up around the UK and in other countries from Tunisia to the US. I asked Ugo what made the project so dynamic:

“There is something truly unique and magical about experiential projects where the concept comes alive as soon as you walk into the room. Restart is about people deciding for themselves how we resist this insane culture of planned obsolescence and start to provide a true alternative. As much as campaigning about waste is important there is something transformative when you take responsibility and become part of the solution.“

Restart parties team up local people with expert volunteers, known as Restarters, and together they work out how to mend their broken kettles, iPads, digital radios and phones. But can everyone do it?

13845714985_a83b523018_z“There are two taboos at play within the small electrical and consumer electronics field. The first is about opening products up because of their design and a fear of handling electrical stuff – a taboo we aim to break by showing a safe way to approach the problem and learn about the key tools to do this work.

“The second taboo is to do with perceiving something as waste rather than as a resource. We are blind to the reality that we throw away so much stuff that could be reused by other individuals in the community. We try to hide it by discarding it into recycling centres and avoid looking at the massive cost and pollution involved in its disposal and transformation into other products.”

Rather than being appalled by the consequences of our ‘recycling’ in places like Ghana (where much of Europe’s electronic waste is burned), Restart approaches the issue from a different angle: “We wanted to come up with something self-empowering with a positive message that was a hopeful, action-oriented answer to these problems. If we don’t challenge the current system here in our own communities we are never going to come up with any practical solution. “At the Parties we always ask: ‘Have you had a situation where something is broken, you don’t know what to do and you put it aside because you are at a loss?’

“Some people might understand the ultimate implications of electronic waste, polluting the outskirts of Accra, but everyone understands the frustrations when something goes wrong in their own household. So by providing a very easy-to-explain solution, you can have an impact on the wider problem, without even realising that the problem exists.

“Both Janet and I had worked in the global South in international development, where there is a much more sustainable approach to technology: an efficient repair economy and appreciation for still-valuable resources. You would never find people there throwing away a functional computer just because it had become a bit slow. “When we came across the work that was happening in the Repair Cafe world, it inspired us to start our own repair pop-up events, as a way to get people interested in what we wanted to discuss.

1798832_472013366236043_1241440713_n-450x600“These events were instantly much more successful than we had originally anticipated. We see repair and maintenance as crucial, but our message also involves a strong critique of how products are made and the economic incentives that companies have around continuing to produce new and more gadgets with incremental upgrades, and promoting them with massive marketing campaigns. Instead we’re trying to recreate a culture and a practice in our communities where we fix not just equipment but also our own relationship with these products.

” For the first 18 months Restart operated entirely as a volunteer collective. At the end of 2013 the project received seed funding, which has allowed the team to launch a new arm of the enterprise – their work with companies. This service brings pop-up repair half-day events or two hour lunch breaks to workplaces and offers one-to-one sessions between employees and Restart repair coaches.

“Here people who might not get a chance to come to our community events can bring their MP3 player or their laptop or their digital radio or their toaster, and have a chance to troubleshoot, take apart and often repair their personal devices.

“If you look at waste as a resource it can jump-start some other conversations in the way your own company does business and we are all up for using these exchanges as opportunities to inspire companies to think differently about the way they operate. For us it’s a great way to be able to reach out to this part of the public that we would not necessarily have a chance to meet.”

The Project hinges completely on finding people who are willing to share their skills. Where do the Restart repairers come from?

“The Restarters are the biggest and the best surprise that we’ve come across. There are a lot of people upset about how consumer society has been shaped so that repair skills are disregarded, or have been disincentivised by a market structure that has pushed many professional repairers out of their jobs (not helped by the cost of spare parts and difficult-to-access repair manuals).

“And so a lot of both professionally and informally trained repairers have come to us. That’s when you realise there are many people in our communities who have plenty of wonderful – and often marginalised – skills.”

14179339301_d93c24d432_zThe Restart team are happy to support community groups and local associations to run their own Parties, but how do you start one up? “We recommend that an initial organiser finds a couple of repairer types to help them with the first event. The skills don’t need to be the ability to take apart a microwave and fix it, which is a fairly complicated thing, but could be the help needed to reinstall the operating system in a computer.

“No one is going to be shocked if some people bring in something that can’t be matched with the relevant skill. You start getting people together and the momentum builds from there.”

Last summer The Restart Project was featured by the BBC and the show went all around the world. How much has that contributed to Restart’s success and furthered its aims? “Well what might appear as successful or a good idea doesn’t necessarily mean that it receives tremendous support in terms of funding, or gets local authorities or waste management companies on board – which is what I would call a success!

“We don’t just aim to create a cute, community-based alternative to the loss of economic opportunities around repair. We want to see this thrive as a self-sustaining set of services, to create new businesses that bring repair closer to the communities we live in and ultimately create an alternative to the massive throwaway, recycle society that we live in.

13846282773_d468adea17_k-640x425“And we also want to create a much wider movement of people globally that demands a different relationship between the manufacturing companies and the products that they unleash on us.

“We’re not trying to advocate a world without technology or without technological innovation – quite the opposite. But we want this to be negotiated in terms that make sense to human beings. So our ultimate goal is to fix our relationship with technology, and that involves companies becoming more open about their practices, creating and sharing the resources to make products more repairable and in the end long-lasting.”

All images from skillshare at El Fabrika, Tunis; 3 top repairs of 2014, London; Restarter Aoubaker in Tunis.

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