Since 2012, the Restart Project has been meeting several times a week in London to fix objects together instead of throwing them away. Now, the network wants to go into schools. Report from Camden.
London, from our correspondent (words and photos)
It’s always the toasters that give out first. But there are also tired computers, Christmas tree lights that no longer blink and iPads with their stubborn screens. On February 27, inside a social center in North Camden in London, the hapless owners of broken electronic devices come together to give them a second life.
About 20 people are seated around the table. Stefania Fantini, a volonteer at the Restart Project and sound engineer, helps Naomi Peck test the Christmas lights one by one, under the attentive eyes of David Jeffrey, a Scot who just returned from the U.S. He also plans to donate his time: “I volunteered at Fixit Clinic in California,” he says. “I’d like to continue here.”
In another corner, it’s more of a battle. Faraz Sayed, a maker we first encountered as a member of the Opto Noise collective, struggles to remove the cracked screen of an iPad. Finally giving in to the lost cause, he redirects its owner to a professional repairman known to the network.
It has now been five years since the fix-it hobbyists first started meeting several times a week to offer their skills to the common good. A bit like the Repair Café network, launched in Amsterdam in 2009, which has since found success worldwide, the Restart Project brings together amateurs, who are often very ecologically conscious. Most of today’s participants heard about the initiative through London Transition, a network that aims to highlight local initiatives in the fields of ecology, health, resilience and any other sustainable alternatives.
Financed by donations from private foundations and services provided to local authorities and companies, the very active Restart Project is spreading throughout London. Several meetings are held each week in different locations. Some branches, such as the Hackney Fixers in East London, have emerged from the movement. “We made a manual, the Restart Party Kit, which explains how to manage one of these events,” says Ugo Vallauri, co-founder of the network with Janet Gunter. Not content with conquering London, the Restart Project also supports projects in Spain, Canada, Norway…
Here, it’s all about electric devices and electronics. “We also emphasize learning together and by doing,” says Vallauri. So volunteers are not necessarily pros but they learn by coming into contact with others. They also host “skill sharing” days, where they teach what they know to others, such as a soldering class. On their wiki, they offer tips to solve the most common problems: how to fix a slow laptop, or the basics of an electric circuit.
In addition to practical matters, the two founders collect data. Each night, they record which devices were brought in and whether or not they could be repaired. In the past five years, they have recorded data from more than 3,000 devices. According to Vallauri, the most common are computers and digital radios. Generally, volunteers are able to fix around 50% of objects brought in.
“The purpose for us is to create an open data standard to help promote more information about the repairability of products and to promote a better design for future products. We come from the perspective of the maker. What can we do beyond just reparing? We want not only to have a passive reaction but also to be a positive action.”
Repair workshop in Parliament
In November 2016, a Restart Project team went to the British Parliament to tinker with five deputies and their assistants, two months after Sweden voted a law to lower taxes on repairs. “It was interesting to repair things with them,” says Vallauri. “They have a rather remote awareness of how the future of product design and sustainability depends not only on the national level but also on the European one, even if the UK leaves the E.U.”
Now, the Restart Project wants to repair things in schools. Co-founder Janet Gunter has just begun a session with a dozen students in a London school to fix things as an extra-curricular activity and discuss more broadly rare materials, electronic waste and impact on the planet. The sessions will be documented and, the founders hope, repeated. “It’s a pilot, we’re trying to see what can be adapted on a larger scale.”