Earlier this year, I was privileged to work on a co-authored book project for the ITU. This was published by the ITU as ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation, and was launched at the World Telecommunication Development Conference in Argentina in October. The chapter that I led was entitled ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements, and provided a challenging account of ICTs and sustainability.
Each chapter was accompanied by a single case study – although I had argued strongly that there should be more than one case study for each chapter, so that a range of different examples and perspectives could be included. I had worked with several colleagues to produce great examples that would exemplify some of the key arguments of the chapter, but sadly these were not published.
Hence, as a supplement to the book, I am including these now as blog posts. This is the first, and was written with the help of the amazing Ugo Valauri, co-founder of the Restart Project:
The Restart Project: local, community driven initiatives moving beyond the throw-away economy
One effective way of reducing the environmental impact of ICTs is simply to use them for longer. The Restart Project, a London-based social enterprise that encourages and empowers people to use their electronics longer in order to reduce waste, is an excellent and innovative example of such initiatives. Launched in 2012 with its first “Restart Party” pop-up community repair event in the UK, it has inspired groups in 10 other countries to replicate similar initiatives in Europe, North Africa and North America.
Most energy used and most emissions generated during the life of mobile phones occur during its production process. Hence, if people use their mobile phones for longer, and repair them when they are faulty, their overall energy impact can be dramatically reduced. The figures are striking: the average mobile phone made in 2015 produced 36 kg of carbon emissions in manufacture, equivalent to 16 weeks of laundry in affluent countries; the total carbon footprint of the 1.9 billion mobiles sold in 2015 was roughly equivalent to Austria’s total carbon emissions; if every mobile phone were used for one-third longer than the typical 3 years, there would be an emissions saving equivalent to Singapore’s total annual emissions.
The Restart Project is both about changing people’s attitudes and also helping them to make a practical difference. It works with communities, schools and companies to value and use ICTs longer, and to document the barriers to so doing. This is done through convening hands-on learning events, known as Restart Parties, where volunteers help people fix their own small electrical and electronics, and also through helping others to do the same globally, not least through developing educational resources to inspire younger people and sharing tips for repairing different kinds of equipment. Acting together, they draw on the skills that everyone has, and collect and publish data on the products they fix. Just over 50% of all products taken to Restart events get fixed by volunteers. By collecting data on common failures and barriers to repairability, Restart hopes to inspire designers, manufacturers and policy makers to fix some of the problems that cannot be solved: early software obsolescence, ease of disassembly and availability of spare parts are all common problems. The combined impact of the over 200 Restart Parties held by April 2017 prevented 4,011 kg of waste, and 88,687 kg of CO2 emissions, which is equal to driving a car 739,000 km or the emissions caused in the manufacture of 15 cars.
Their guidance for hosting Restart Parties is clear and simple:
- Offer free entry to the public (although you can suggest a donation);
- Promote a collaborative learning process;
- Fix other stuff like bikes if you want, but you’ll need at least three-to-four electronics repairers;
- Tell the Restart Project about your party beforehand, and share the results with them; and
- Be insured! The Restart Project is not liable for events we do not organise. If uninsured, please work in partnership with a group that is.
Such efforts, though, require funding, at least of the central team running and administering the parties and undertaking the research. Not everything can be done by volunteers. The Restart Project has to date been funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the Shuttleworth Foundation. Some of their activities are supported by running special events for local authorities, cultural institutions and companies. They are actively looking to generate additional income from consultancy built on their insights on participants’ frustrations and recurrent faults and direct donations from the general public.
Many more initiatives such as the Restart Project can readily be created by local community groups across the world; as the Restart Project claims, “We’re fixing our relationship with electronic – putting people and planet first”. Such initiatives are truly focused on finding ways through which ICTs can indeed deliver a more sustainable world, and thus help to make progress in achieving the SDGs. If everyone kept their mobile phones, tablets or laptops longer, manufacturers would have to prioritise provision of better repair services, spare parts and refurbishing of devices, and the environmental impact would be significant. It would be one way through which everyone in the world who owns a digital devices could contribute to achieving the SDGs.