Makers, fixers and circular economies

The connection between grassroots making and fixing movements and innovation for low energy demand may not be immediately obvious. When thinking about energy demand and resource use it is reasonable to focus attention on immediate and intensive activities, such as heating homes or offices, or making energy-using products more efficient. However, if we think about the energy used to make and distribute the products used in those built environments perhaps links with making and fixing become less tenuous? Products ’embody energy demand in terms of the resources required to mine, process, manufacture, and distribute them. As products break and become discarded, so further energy is demanded in the production of replacements.

Even relatively low energy using products like laptop computers attract criticism about the energy (and water) demands in their manufacture. The manufacture of microchips is energy intensive and has a material intensity in order of magnitude higher than ‘traditional’ products. With more products going digital, through the incorporation of smarter control systems, for example – and speculation about them communicating with one another and us via an ‘Internet of Things’ – then perhaps we need to think about embodied energy?

Discussion about the ‘circular economy’ is trying to address the issue of material flows through production and consumption. But even recycling and reprocessing operations can be energy-demanding. Work has to be done to gather up widely dispersed materials and process them into concentrated quantities and high quality forms suitable for feeding back into distant manufacturing processes. So, in attending to the design of circular economies, perhaps we ought also to be attentive to energy demands designed into those systems?

With these thoughts in mind, I participated in a fascinating conference on Makers and Fixers: Circular Economy and Grassroots Innovation. Held at the Centre for Sustainable Design on Tuesday 3rd June. A mix of researchers and practitioners presented and discussed a variety of grassroots initiatives for the repair and upgrading of products. Activities included Repair Cafes, Restart parties, initiatives for improved product repairability, and community spaces for hacking and fixing products. Ten lessons from the conference have just been posted online. The lessons called for products to be designed in ways easier to repair, or for infrastructures and institutions to be more supportive towards makers, fixers and repair and upcycling, and for repair-friendly business models to be taken seriously.

More fascinating for me, however, were glimpses of a more social rather than technical aspect to repair. Some grassroots innovators at the conference were incredibly aware of the affective issues in repair, and which they used to inform their activities. So the idea with Repair Cafe is not simply to access a volunteer expert who can fix your stuff, but to be encouraged and helped into having a go yourself, and developing your own skills and knowledge; and then sticking around to help other people, perhaps drawing out capabilities in yourself that you were not so aware you had. There is an emphasis on sociability, skilling, sharing, and being part of something. These initiatives are not solely about a repair service provision where it was previously absent. Emphasis in many of these initiatives rests in the social relationships in repairing stuff.

When, for example, my daughter and I take her bike and fix it with the help of others at a community workshop, then the values, relationships and possibilities that we are expressing and reinforcing, through activities involving tools, bike components and other workshop participants, are different compared to dropping the bike off at a cycle shop and paying someone else to do it using similar tools and the same bike. Similarly, working with experienced others at, say, a Restart event, means they can help demystify opening up a broken laptop, and encourage my courage to try and fix an overheating graphics card (or something?!).

Of course, matters of time, availability, priority, confidence, and factors such as the social standing of Do-It-Yourself and Do-It-Together, will affect which course of action is taken. The action taken might not be the ideal one; there can be conflicting relations to keep up, involving work, school, family and friends.

As such these initiatives could potentially generate knowledge that might help us understand aspects of the complex relationships people have with the material things in their lives. Such an approach provides a different angle on matters compared to the organisation of collection systems, infrastructures for repair, upcycling and remanufacture, and business models for such activity. Insights might be found for how more enduring product careers could be cultivated over time. Furthermore, some of the sociability in grassroots initiatives might begin to shed light on why people would actually want to relate to repairing and fixing more things.

I emphasise begin to help us understand. Because surely the picture is more complicated? In some areas repair remains widely practised, such as with bicycles, cars, and treasured clothes and furnishings; but in other areas it has reduced in recent decades – such as in electronic goods, less treasured clothing and furnishing. And we all have flats and houses full of stuff that we don’t throw away. So understanding better why people throw some things away, surround themselves with other stuff for long periods, and care deeply for other stuff would open discussions about the circular economy to the critically important topic of material culture. Research in material culture points to the complex work that objects provide in people’s social relationships. So even before we arrive at repair as a solution, we need to listen carefully to why and how people care for things differently, keep things, use things, throw some away, and where repair does and could fit into a world of relationships.

Returning to repair and the conference, then there are also less personal relationships to consider. Several conference participants discussed how the systems that make stuff available to us, and those that might repair some of it, involve relationships with politically and economically powerful producers, regulators, and retailers. Indeed, discussions at the conference about the day-to-day challenges confronting grassroots initiatives made these all too evident. Whether it was the challenge of finding an affordable space to meet and practice; or handling the different requirements and agendas imposed by grant funding sources, sponsors and organisers of innovation prizes; or the difficulties of overcoming the adhesive holding a component in place; or non-standard micro-screws between you and removing a panel; or warranty issues when taking something apart; and so on. In a myriad ways, broader challenges derive from the political economies of designing for linear production. In a very down-to-earth way the practices in grassroots repair and hacking initiatives connect to those broader relationships.

Discussions at the conference indicated mobilisations afoot to address some of these issues: design standards for dismantling and repairing; ironing out warranty issues; support for socially-oriented business models; the provision of physical workshop spaces and community fabrication and hacking infrastructure. Will they re-shape the powerful political and economic relations invested in linear systems of production? It is an important struggle.

But just as important are the personal relationships we have with stuff. Perhaps an ultimately powerful activity in repair cafes and meet-ups is to explore those complex social relationships: how intimate relations in material culture also relate to political economies of production. There is a lot of emotional energy embodied in objects.

I began by thinking about the embodied energy in products. Considered in that way, then grassroots initiatives in repair is considered to be a relevant low energy innovation. Particularly innovative, in the context of circular economy debates, is emphasis on the sociability of repairing. That opened discussion to the complex social relationships between objects, people, and institutions. Here practice and research could arguably go further in exploring the social relationships involved in the materials and energy of stuff. Grassroots making and fixing initiatives provide one way into that material world.

By Dr Adrian Smith