Ugo Vallauri: Electronic Waste & The Restart Project

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 1 October 2019

Ugo Vallauri is an Italian researcher based in the UK and cofounder of the Restart Project. His vision is to fix our broken relationship with electronics, and promote repair, reuse and recycle as the new norm. The Shuttleworth Foundation supported Ugo between 2016-19, and his fellowship has been a tremendous success, shifting thinking at consumer, industry and policy-making levels. As we look back on Ugo’s work to date, we caught up with him to discuss his own experiences...

“All the fellows struggle to bring about change in a range of different fields. The fellowship is a reminder that we’re not alone.”

Background: The product problem

Our insatiable hunger for electronic devices is quickly turning into a significant and pressing issue. Over 50 million tonnes of e-waste ends up in landfill sites around the world as former owners discard phones, fridges, TVs and computers at the slightest inconvenience, and upgrade to a slicker model. Each new purchase is likely to meet a similar fate as its predecessor, after only a couple of years.

This throwaway culture is increasingly prevalent in the developed world and has gradually become the norm. Ugo Vallauri first noticed the new phenomenon when he returned to Europe after a stint in Kenya. The Kenyans would fix everything they could - through necessity. In stark contrast, Westerners did not - for convenience.

“I was frustrated,” Ugo explains. “In Europe and North America, people would stop using tools and products the moment they stopped working, without trying to repair them. No second lease of life. No reuse. They would just give up and buy a new one.

“Our co-founder, Janet Gunter, had also returned home after living in Brazil, Mozambique and East Timor. We started to share ideas about why this was happening, and we identified issues with the way we consume and the way we relate to products in our everyday lives.

“All these devices and black boxes are more necessary to go about our normal and working lives. But we know less and less about how they function. We take them for granted.”

The inverse correlation between the advance of consumer technology and the knowledge we have about the devices we rely on is not the only issue. Built-in obsolescence is an increasing feature in modern tech, and more electronics than ever before are software-enabled. Once that software fails or support for it is discontinued, we often have no choice than to buy a new model. Furthermore, we risk losing warranties by trying to fix our gadgets ourselves, because the manufacturer’s business model of choice is often based on closed design.

With this in mind, we should all be raising serious questions about ownership. If we cannot repair our devices, can we really claim them as ours in the first place? Given it’s often cheaper to buy new than repair, it’s no surprise that the throwaway culture of contemporary times is growing - and actively encouraged. It is a process that will not slow without intervention.

“Most people did not see this,” says Ugo. “It is not very visible, but the fact is that products are increasingly made to become throwaway.

“But it’s easy to concentrate on the doom and gloom and horrible practices involved in electrical waste disposal. Or how so little of it actually gets recycled, and how there’s potential for environmental disaster when people from developing regions reuse and recycle in unsafe ways.

“So, we decided we wanted to put forward a positive message from the beginning … to develop a global, critical perspective on the environmental issues and the concepts of innovation around how electrical products are pushed to consumers. And trying to do it in a way that would be hands-on and helping people make sense of these big issues in a way that was empowering rather than disempowering.”

The Restart Project: Origins

The Restart Project was officially born in 2013, after starting life the year previous as a small repair session in North London. Members of the local community arrived with broken devices - from printers and clocks to mobiles and laptops - to be greeted by four volunteer ‘repair heroes’ who offered their fixing skills and experience. It was a huge success, and word spread. Ugo and Janet felt this was an idea with legs.

“It grew quickly,” says Ugo. “We started to attract some media interest, and we managed to get some funding from organisations, although this was always for specific aspects of the project; not to grow Restart as a whole or allow us to take a risk.

“For instance, we used some money to build an online tool helping groups log their repairs, so we could start talking about the environmental impact and contributing to the types of product repairs they were seeing.”

The localised, community aspect of Restart has always been critical to bring people together, encourage skill-sharing and empower them with confidence to repair and reuse their possessions. But the data collection tool showed nascent signs of a much more ambitious narrative. Could you take a community of people doing hands-on work and get them to think differently about the legislation around the right to repair? And could openness play a role in negating the physically- and philosophically - closed ecosystems imposed by many major manufacturers?

“It was only during the course of the fellowship that we have been able to really scale this part of the work,” Ugo continues. “But we felt we could play more of a role in helping groups and organisations in different parts of the world, and to increase the range of groups so we could reach out to them. We didn’t want to own this space, just let it flourish and help progress the conversation.

“And the benefits of openness in this area are massive. There’s an obvious layer of it around open source software and data, and the fact we have always been transparent about the tools we build and why we build them. But there’s something deeper there.

“If you openly show others and share what you do, the more opportunities arrive, and the more people take a similar approach. Of course, there will always be cases where people take and don’t give back, but there is an opportunity to build a conversation. The idea is not about acting as a single organisation. It’s more about bringing an alliance together to have a much broader impact.

Funding & Fellowship

Ugo became a Shuttleworth fellow in September 2016 with a focus on repair, reuse and repurpose that promised fresh, open thinking to an array of issues including environmental protection, the maker movement, access to knowledge and open data. His idea to kickstart an evolution towards openness around electronics devices at all levels - from consumers with little or no experience to all-powerful manufacturers and policymakers - was bold and ambitious, and would require a significant amount of risk.

It was well worth the investment. Over his three-year fellowship, Ugo has seen the Restart Project grow from strength to strength in multiple areas. Volunteer-led Restart parties have become hugely popular in many communities in the UK - while not quite ubiquitous, most people can find a host venue within an hour’s drive - but, most importantly, he has established essential relationships from Europe and the rest of the world. Less than twelve months into his fellowship, Ugo and his team launched the very first International Fixfest.

“We ran that in 2017,” he explains. “We had communities from Argentina, Canada, Northern Africa and Asia with the idea of trying to make what we are all doing more visible. There’s a thriving group of repair campaigns around the world, and all of them face different problems. If we work together and inspire by adding new layers, we can be more ambitious and work in a less fragmented way, rather than being small, individual communities. We’ve just supported a new German partner to run the second Fixfest event next September, and we also tested the idea of throwing national events in the UK and Italy.

“It’s all coming together, and more groups want to be part of it. We always aim to provide a way of channelling people’s frustration and positive energy towards making this network bigger. This way, our combined efforts can contribute to a bigger coalition rather than just a nice, local activity.”

As the repair community grows, so does the available data. With accurate data, you can establish the real problems on the ground and use them as a counterbalance to the dominant narrative of the manufacturing corporations. It is also critical to the principles of the Open Repair Alliance, of which Restart is a founding member. The idea is to build an Open Repair Data Standard and use the information to tell stories about the positive impacts of repair, which could then inform advocacy and policy.

“The only data source previously available to people, researchers and legislators tend to come from corporate sources,” says Ugo. “And OK, we might not be comparable in terms of size of the dataset, but it shows that another way is possible and trigger different thinking, even in other actors that you haven’t directly collaborated with.

“That’s what open really is. You’re not just influencing directly, but you are showing that it’s possible to do things differently. That’s what we have explicitly seen with our work with the data standard that we started the Open Repair Alliance.

“This has inspired a broader coalition of organisations to talk more in the context of a European project that will start next January. It will expand the vision and look at how citizens can contribute with better data to improve the repair economy. So, open can have an indirect benefit, in addition to the direct benefits.”

As this nascent movement grows, we are starting to see real-world examples of its impacts. Manufacturers are sitting up and taking notice. It is not unusual to see them co-opting the idea of promoting repair, albeit with the caveat it should always, always be done by a professional. Not quite in the original DIY spirit of Restart, of course; but the needle is moving.

The same is happening in the policy-making space. Ugo and his Restart team are amongst a network of groups who have worked for several years on the Right to Repair Campaign in Europe and the UK, with the idea of pushing for EU policy change. The team spent over twelve months pushing the European Commission to consider proposals to create better product standards for longer-lasting appliances and electronic products. There has been an element of dilution after push backs from industry lobbyists, but the principles of many of the original suggestions will remain. And in 2021, repair provisions forcing manufacturers to change their ways will be enshrined in European legislation.

“Currently, we see Europe as the most strategic place to push for this change,” explains Ugo. “It has the potential for a sufficient level of demand for products to be made in a certain way, and 28 - or perhaps, soon, 27 - countries would be required to have products more repairable than before. It also has the potential of impacting similar policies in other parts of the world.

“But this is only a first crucial milestone. The hope is that it will trigger a much broader movement because the reality is that the legislation will only improve fridges, washing machines, dishwashers and televisions. There are a lot of other products out there. The ability to repair your smartphone is missing from the regulations so far.

“It’s absurd. If you ask anyone in the street, everyone would agree with you that they want the ability to repair products and there is a high level, cross-party support for these ideas. Yet, the powers that be have invested so much in their marketing machine to prevent common-sense thriving. It is such a fight to push back.

“So, you can see that this takes time. You can’t make a significant change in a year, and this is such important reasoning for the Shuttleworth Foundation’s investment in long-term goals, without the need to achieve change in a short period.”

Looking back

Ugo has been on an impressive journey since co-founding the Restart Project. In 2012, he was fixing posters on lamp posts to encourage people in his local community to come to a repair party. By the time his fellowship came to an end, he was in Brussels, influencing the EU for its right to repair legislation. His accomplishments have been more than impressive, bringing together wholly disparate groups, seeing the different opportunities within them, and turning them into a single collaborative network with a shared vision. If you can galvanise people to the cause you hold dear, it’s half the battle, and while Ugo feels there is much to be done, he can be incredibly proud of what he has achieved so far.

Although this fellowship was primarily about hardware - a theme we have looked at in-depth many times over the years - Ugo’s work has helped us gain a greater understanding and informed our ideas for the future. If we fund new open hardware projects, we now know more about longevity in design, accessibility and the role openness can play in making products repairable while having a greater understanding of the implications of social justice issues and true ownership. All are pieces of the same puzzle. And for Ugo himself, the fellowship has provided an array of positive learning experiences.

“The fellowship gave me extra confidence,” he explains. “How to inspire others to take responsibilities and how to question how we do things. I guess I also learned how it’s better sometimes to be patient and appreciate you cannot achieve everything straight away. But also to try and be open to changing my views on things and trying new things out.

“And I think, one really important aspect was being able to check in with a fantastic group of people.

“All the fellows struggle to bring about change in a range of different fields. The fellowship is a reminder that we’re not alone. And even though we’re working in very different sectors with different barriers and challenges, we are all people that try to do all we can and to bring a vision into the eyes of other people around the world.

“It’s been great to learn together. And reflect, in person at the gatherings, feeding back into each other’s initiatives and learning. You start to know it’s not just you struggling with ABC and XYZ - other people are going through the same or similar issues, and others have solved or dealt with them.

“Having a group you can fully trust for advice, and who share things they worked on in the spirit of openness - it works. The community is so generous in its approach, and it’s not about being in the same cohort, it’s also everyone else who used to be supported by the Foundation. It’s like being part of a family of people that are all trying their best for you.

“I’ve been so fortunate to receive this level of support. People are just there when you need them, they genuinely care about your work, and try to help whenever possible. It is amazing and completely unique.”

Moving forward

Ugo has made impressive progress with the Restart Project, but there is no intention to sit on laurels. As he moves from Shuttleworth Fellow status to alumni, the push for a broader right to repair will continue. Resistance is already well-established - corporations will not allow tampering of their profit models without an argument - while political uncertainty poses other potential challenges.

“The future is positive,” says Ugo. “We are a small organisation, and we have some funding from other foundations, which will allow us to attract additional resources. But our model of change is more about our strategic objectives for all of our network, not just us. So we are not trying to achieve everything ourselves, and that should increase the chances of success for everyone.

“I am worried about the current climate, in that fundraising to campaign in an organisation that might be outside of the EU might be difficult. But I also see a lot of hope from the growing network of organisations in Europe and abroad.

“We just need to keep pushing the approach and bring together wider groups. We are now working with an environmental organisation and trying to work with consumer rights organisations, as well as community repair groups, and - increasingly - reaching out to repair businesses.

“There are still important questions to ask: How can we speed up system change? How can we change the environmental crisis we find ourselves in? By bringing together broader coalitions, we also find the new voices that we haven’t heard up until now and make them a lot more visible. And we increase the chances of getting answers and success.”

Connect with Ugo

Get involved with the Restart Project

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