Grassroots Innovation and the Circular Economy

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* Report: Grassroots Innovation and the Circular Economy. A Global Survey of Repair Cafés and Hackerspaces. By Professor Martin Charter & Scott Keiller. The Centre for Sustainable Design, University for the Creative Arts, July 2014


Executive Summary

"This short report is a summary of the findings of research undertaken by Professor Martin Charter and Scott Keiller of The Centre for Sustainable Design®. Interim data were previously presented at the workshop ‘Makers & Fixers: The Circular Economy and Grassroots Innovation’ held at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA), Farnham, UK on 3rd June 2014 ([1]).

Members of Repair Cafés and Hackerspaces around the world were invited to take part in online surveys between May 2nd and May 30th 2014. Survey questions explored motivations for participation, activities undertaken and expectations for the future. Emphasis was placed on understanding the importance of sustainability as a driver for participation and in relation to the activities undertaken.

Findings suggest that volunteers at Repair Cafés are most strongly motivated to take part because of what they can do for others, namely their desire to help others live more sustainably, to provide a valuable service to the community and to help improve product reparability and longevity. Increasing product longevity is one of the central considerations of Circular Economy thinking and one which the newly emergent Fixer movement clearly supports.

Repair Café volunteers also appear to hold the view that the concept of manufacturer ‘in-built obsolescence’ is a real issue, across a wide range of electrical/electronic products. Results also clearly suggest Repair Café activities are not limited to just repair. Modification to clothing is offered by most Repair Cafés and modifications to and upcycling of electrical and electronic equipment and components is also undertaken at some cafés.

Hackerspace members, although interested in sustainability are not motivated to be members of Hackerspaces because of this. Their motivations to participate are largely related to meeting others who share their interests, to being intellectually stimulated and to learning new skills. However, the results indicate that activities pertinent to sustainability/Circular Economy include repair, upcycling and specifically projects related to Home Energy monitoring and control.

The example given by Reading Hackspace at the June 3rd workshop of using 3D printing to produce plastic parts to repair a child’s cot, demonstrates how such technology can be used at Hackerspaces as a means of extending the lifetime of consumer durables.

Hackerspace survey respondents expected that in the next five years there would be greater links with other Hackerspaces/Makerspaces and that Hackerspace activities will lead to more new business startups. Furthermore, forty percent of respondents expect that their Hackerspace will provide space and support for new business start-ups."


From the introduction


"The linear industrial processes of ‘take, make, dispose’ that have driven economic growth and shaped lifestyles in the developed world are not sustainable. The linear economy has required an easily accessible supply of cheap materials and energy and both are expected to become significantly more expensive during the course of the 21st century. Radical change by business and civil society is needed to enable the transition to a more Circular Economy, which is restorative by nature, where waste is reduced or eliminated entirely through for example, development of new business models, eco-design and product life extension.

The growth of the grassroots Maker movement has been hailed as the new industrial revolution and has the potential to herald a new post-consumer, more sustainable approach to production and consumption through local peer production and the development of innovative products and services that are fit for purpose and longer-lasting (Anderson, 2012).

Repair Cafés and Hackerspaces are two examples of new Places & Spaces that are emerging from a new wave of grassroots organisations where people come together in ‘community workshops’ to experiment with, modify, make and fix products.

Increasing product longevity is one of the central considerations of Circular Economy thinking (Ellen McArthur Foundation, 2012) and a concept which the newly emergent Fixer movement appears to embrace. The 'fixer economy' has existed for a long time eg car repair, but new organisations are helping product owners to repair and maintain consumer products. The Repair Cafés Foundation, founded in the Netherlands in 2010 provides support to a network of over 500 active Repair Cafés around the world (Martine Postma, pers comm 2014). A Repair Café offers a free meeting place for people to bring products in need of repair and to work together with volunteer fixers, to repair broken products.

The growth of Hackerspaces has been rapid, increasing from fewer than 20 in 2005 (Baichtal, 2012) to 1035 active Hackerspaces today (Hackerspaces, 2014).

Hackerspaces are physical places where people with an interest in technology can meet and work on their projects. Projects characteristically include software and hardware development but can also include the more traditional ‘maker’ arts and crafts. Their growth has been facilitated by new and affordable technologies, particularly the advent of cheap computing and digital fabrication devices, such as 3D printers, the use of social media as a means of sharing information and the principles and products of ‘open source’.

This research documents the demographics, interests and motivations of members of Repair Cafés and Hackerspaces around the world. It records the activities undertaken in these community workshops and members opinions on how they expect their organisations to change over the next five years. Particular emphasis is placed throughout the work on understanding the importance of environmental, social and economic drivers as motivations for participation and of the activities undertaken."