Ugo Vallauri
Ugo Vallauri. Photo by The Restart Project (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Electronics enable and mediate our relationship with the Internet. But companies are increasingly shrinking product lifespans by either ceasing to issue software updates, or by failing to provide product support. Some manufacturers even pre-program devices to fail after a set period of time. Though these practices may serve business interests, they are costly for both consumers and the environment.

Ugo Vallauri co-founded the London-based Restart Project to help people regain control of their devices by organizing community repair events where they can learn to fix them. Vallauri sees the Internet as an ecosystem with an environmental footprint. The relationship between users and devices is central to a sustainable environment. At repair events, participants develop new skills, spare landfills unnecessary waste, and organizers gather valuable information about common system failures and fixes to make the case for more repairable products.

As the ‘Internet of Things’ expands our reliance on gadgets, it is no longer just the lifespan of a printer or laptop that we need to worry about. It’s also our coffee makers, garden sprinklers, and other home appliances that rely on up-to-date software and technological expertise to function. The scope for electronic waste is dizzying, considering that each of these devices risks becoming defunct within a few years. “We need to be more collectively aware of the limitations and the challenges in keeping all these devices sufficiently up to speed,” cautions Vallauri.

While there are profit motives for selling consumers new devices regularly, support and maintenance can also be too costly for some companies, says Vallauri. The Restart Project and the broader repair community want to reverse the trend of shifting this cost onto consumers and the environment, and instead create a world in which quality and longevity are viable business models.

In 2017, The Restart Project celebrated its five year anniversary by organizing a major gathering in London, FixFest, that brought together community repair initiatives from across the globe. Attendees launched an International Day of Repair (to be marked every October) and created a new Open Repair Alliance to help push manufacturers and regulators for change.

Just as The Restart Project is seeking to fix devices and our relationship with them, they are also working on empowering people to understand, navigate, and improve the broader Internet ecosystem. Conscious of how male-dominated the electronics repair community can be, the Restart Project is working to make their events and hackerspaces more accessible to women and gender nonconforming participants through their Rosie the Restarter series.

People with limited technical expertise harness the power of their devices every day. With a little help from groups like The Restart Project, they can gain even more control and understanding of technology. That’s good for consumers, for the environment, and for the Internet.

This article is based on a longer interview with Ugo Vallauri featured on Mozilla’s Storyengine website.