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Make and fix: the new industrial revolution

The linear industrial processes of ‘take, make, dispose’ that have driven economic growth and shaped lifestyles in the developed world are not sustainable.

The platform of the linear economy has been 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, where waste is reduced or eliminated entirely. This could be through means such as development of new business models, eco-design and product life extension.

There is evidence of emergence of a grassroots movement around the world focused on ‘making’, where individuals are coming together in FabLabs and Makerspaces, for example, to share information and collaborate to create new prototypes for products. 

A less well-documented trend is the emergence of more informal places and spaces that have been set up to experiment with, modify and fix products, such as Hackerspaces and Repair Cafés. These are becoming potential catalysts for the development of innovative products and services that are fit for purpose and longer-lasting. The convergence of these grassroots movements has the potential for a new industrial revolution focused on postconsumer, more sustainable, localised approaches to production and consumption enabled through local peer production.      

Increasing product longevity is one of the central considerations of circular economy thinking, as documented by the Ellen Mc-Arthur Foundation. It is a concept the newly emergent ‘fixer’ movement appears to embrace.

The ‘fixer economy’ has existed for a long time, for example car repair, but new organisations are now helping product owners to repair and maintain consumer products. Reading Hackerspace recently highlighted at a ‘makers and fixers’ workshop that it had used 3D printing to produce plastic parts to repair a child’s cot, demonstrating how use of technology can extend the lifetime of consumer goods.   

The Centre for Sustainable Design, a research centre focused on product sustainability and sustainable innovation based at the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham, Surrey, completed a survey of members of Repair Cafés and Hackerspaces worldwide in May.

Survey questions explored their 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.

The resulting report, Grassroots Innovation and the Circular Economy: Global Survey of Repair Cafés and Hackerspaces (download at economy-innovation), documents the demographics, interests and motivations of members of the two organisations around the world. It records the activities undertaken in these community workshops and members’ opinions on how they expect their organisations to change during the next five years.

Focus was placed on understanding the importance of the environmental, social and economic drivers as motivations for participation and of the activities undertaken.

Repair Cafés

The Repair Cafés Foundation, founded in The Netherlands in 2010, provides support to a global network of more than 500 active Repair Cafés. 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.

In the research, 158 responses were received from participants at 144 Cafés from nine countries, including The Netherlands, Germany, the UK, Belgium and the US.

The findings suggest that volunteers at Repair Cafés are most strongly motivated to take part because of what they can do for others: to help people live more sustainably, to provide a service to the community and to help improve product repairability and longevity of products – one of the central considerations of the circular economy.


Hackerspaces are 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 arts and crafts.

The growth of Hackerspaces has been rapid, increasing from fewer than 20 in 2005 to 1,035 active sites in 2014. 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.

In total, 95 responses were received from participants of 45 Hackerspaces from 18 countries, including the UK, US, Australia, The Netherlands and Germany.

The research found that Hackerspace members, although interested in sustainability, are not motivated to be members because of this. Their participation is largely related to meeting others who share interests, to being intellectually stimulated and learning skills. But they undertake activities pertinent to sustainability/ circular economy such as repair, upcycling and specifically projects related to home energy monitoring and control.

Respondents expected that, in the next five years, there would be greater links with other Hackerspaces and Makerspaces. They also predicted that Hackerspace activities would lead to more business start-ups, with 40% expecting their Hackerspace to provide space and support for such companies.                               

Professor Martin Charter is director of The Centre for Sustainable Design at the University for the Creative Arts.

Further information:

Research findings

Repair Café

About respondents and their Cafés

  • Male: female ratio 60: 40
  • Most (35%) aged 55-65
  • c. 70% have Bachelors or postgraduate degree
  • c. 75% meet at a fixed venue
  • c. 60% meet once a month
  • c. 95% existed for 2 years or less

Top three reasons why respondents volunteer/participate at Repair Cafés:

  • To encourage others to live more sustainably
  • To provide a valuable community service
  • To be a part of the movement to improve product repairability and longevity

Activities at the Repair Café

Items most frequently brought to Repair Cafés include small kitchen appliances, clothing, bicycles, lighting and DVD/CD players, with printers and electrical tools considered to be the most frequently in need of repair. Respondents believe this is due to ‘planned or in-built obsolescence’.

Product modification and upcycling are also undertaken at Repair Cafés. For example, around 40% of respondents’ state that modifications to clothing to improve fit are undertaken ‘always or often’ at their Repair Café, and around 10% ‘always or often’ undertake the upcycling of waste electrical equipment or sub-assembles into new applications.                

The top three expectations of how Cafés might change in the next five years

  • Greater links with other Repair Cafés to form more effective local repair networks
  • Greater involvement with campaigning to improve product repairability/longevity
  • More involvement with wider sustainability issues


About respondents and their Hackerspaces

  • Male : female ratio 90:10
  • Most (40%) aged 25–34
  • c. 70% have Bachelors or postgraduate degree
  • c. 95% meet at the same fixed venue
  • c. 70% open all/most days
  • c. 55% existed for four or more years, open all/most days

Top five Hackerspace interests

  • Coding and software development
  • Making electronic devices
  • Modifying electrical /electronic devices
  • Repairing/fixing electrical/electronic devices
  • Hacking for sustainability

Top three reasons why respondents participate at their Hackerspace

  • To meet others who share interests
  • To be intellectually stimulated
  • To learn new skills

Activities at the Hackerspace

Coding, making and fixing electrical/ electronic devices were given as the most frequently undertaken activities at Hackerspaces. Other activities included reuse of scavenged components, upcycling projects, art projects and home energy monitoring/control systems.  

Top three expectations of how Hackerspace might change in the next five years

  • Greater links with other Hackerspaces
  • Greater links with Makerspaces
  • Hackerspace activities will lead to more business start-ups

Interview with Victoria Jackson, co-founder of Brighton Repair Café                   

By Professor Martin Charter

When did you set up Brighton Repair Café (BRC)?

November 2012.

What are the main changes you have seen since you set up BRC?

It has gained momentum through word of mouth and social media. The interest in our acti viti es from mainstream media and institutions has also increased in the past six months as the ‘fixer and maker’ movement have become more visible.

What was your inspiration to set up BRC?

The Repair Café Foundation in The Netherlands. One of our co-founders, Susanne Malmqvist, read an article and said “why don’t we set up a Café in Brighton?”. We were all studying for masters degrees in sustainable design at Brighton University at the time, and saw it as a social activity that embodied our interests in sustainability.

What is the age range and background of attendees?       

From seven to 90. But due to the age group of the volunteers, organisers and our network of friends, there are marginally more 25 to 45- year-olds. The backgrounds are varied, from the retired locals to internationals who are only in Brighton for a short time, as well as teachers, students, the unemployed and everyone in between.

The split between males and females is fairly equal now. When we were more focused on clothing and textiles there were more women, but as we added bikes, electrical and furniture repair the number of men has risen.     

What are the main products you deal with?

Varies from one session to the next, depending on which repairs we are offering according to volunteer availability. It ranges from clothes to socks and household electrical goods. We have a lot of enquiries about electronic repairs, but we don’t have any volunteers as yet who can help with this.

What are the motivations of attendees?

Curiosity, not knowing where else to go to ask about their broken things or not being able to afford repair costs.

Are there concerns emerging in relation to built-in product obsolescence?

Yes, there is a frustration among participants on the short lifespan of modern goods.

Do you have any professional repairers?

Not so far. Everyone who volunteers has a day job – some relate to the repairs they offer but they would not call themselves professionals.

What is the role of BRC in the Brighton repair community?

We network with Freegle reuse network, the bike hub, Cranks, Space Place, Magpie and other community groups who are interested in waste reduction.

What role do you think repair cafés can play in the movement to a circular economy?

They shift consumers’ relationships with products, and get us to start thinking beyond the service of a product to consider the materials that go into them and how they are designed. This affects future consumption choices and raises awareness of product lifecycles.

Further information

Many of the issues highlighted in the research will be discussed at Sustainable Innovation 2014, held in Copenhagen, Denmark, 3 & 4 November 2014.

Grassroots Innovation and the Circular Economy: Global Survey of Repair Cafes and Hackerspaces can be downloaded

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