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Producing great online repair events – learning from around the world

The coronavirus pandemic has presented huge challenges to communities around the world. As specialists in running local events, community repair groups and networks are certainly no exception as we’ve had to cancel or postpone most of our activities.

Fortunately, we see the world through the lens of repair and are practised problem-solvers. At Restart we’ve been inspired to see how groups around the world have adapted by keeping their communities connected and repairing through the internet.

But moving community repair online isn’t necessarily a simple process; the events we run as community groups and networks offer so much. A repair event is a social space for the community to gather. It’s a chance to share and learn new skills, save waste from landfill and divert CO2 from the atmosphere. It’s also an educational opportunity to learn about wider issues such as the Right to Repair and the upstream impacts of the products we buy.

Let’s explore how different groups and networks are continuing this work online.

Online community repair events: the social element

The most popular model so far is simply to replicate the offline repair event experience as closely as possible: set up an online video conference room and invite repair volunteers and people with broken items.

This is the approach adopted by Repair Café Paris, whose 9th arrondissement group is inviting the local community to sign up to online sessions for help with repairs. They run sessions on Saturday afternoons via Zoom with a handful of interested repairer volunteers. The team spends time with each attendee individually, helping them diagnose issues with their broken item, providing information about possible solutions and then walking them though how to fix it.

When an object is repaired online, the person who managed to repair their object on their own bursts with pride and happiness. They never would have thought themselves capable of it.
– Emmanuel Vallée, Organiser Repair Café Paris (9eme arrondissement)

While events have been going well, group organiser, Emmanuel, acknowledges that “the objectives are not the same as a face-to-face Repair Café.” Each online event is only long enough for a handful of repairs, so it’s the quality of interaction that matters most: the chance for the group’s volunteers to stay connected over a shared activity.

Similar events are being run by other groups around the world, including Reading Repair Café (UK), Repair Café Aschaffenburg (DE), Repair Café North Carolina (USA), Repair Café Steenokkerzeel (BE), Marlow Repair Café (UK) and more.

US-based Fixit Clinic and Repair Café Malmö have teamed up to take this concept to a wider audience by hosting international repair advice sessions via Zoom. Twice a month, repairers and owners of broken things based anywhere in the world can sign up to join a virtual Fixit Clinic and get help in English or Swedish. As in Paris, the number of repairs attempted is limited, especially when compared to an in-person event. However, these sessions use separate online rooms for repairs, allowing multiple advice sessions to take place at the same time and increasing the number of people helped.

^ Virtual Fixit Clinic, 5th of April 2020

We hosted a webinar with the organisers of Fixit Clinic, Repair Café Malmö, Reading Repair Café and Marlow Repair Café about their online events. Learn more about how their events work here.

As noted by Fixit Clinic founder, Peter Mui, this format not only helps people repair their own items, but can also be a way to promote repair to new audiences and even has some advantages over traditional repair events. For example, it’s possible to assess items normally too large to bring to an event in person.

But perhaps the most important benefit of these kinds of online repair advice events, is the community element. By offering social spaces built around repair, these groups are helping their repair communities stay in touch as well as forming new networks of repairers around the world.

At Restart, we’ve taken a lighter approach by organising online socials for our community in London. These usually involve gathering in a video call with a drink and playing games like pictionary or taking quizzes. We’ve learned that you know the community is bonding when everyone recognises each others’ cats!

On-demand repair support

Instead of translating in-person events online to offer live repair support, others have been working to maximise the number of repairs they can facilitate by offering on-demand repair advice.

Back in March, Repair Together—the Belgian network of Repair Cafés covering Brussels and Wallonia—began receiving a deluge of requests for help with repairs via email. Many were related to sewing machines that had broken down from heavy use while making face masks for medical staff. In response, the network launched an online repair advice service.

The idea is simple: anyone can complete an online form about a broken object while Repair Together’s large community of repair volunteers browse the entries and assign themselves repairs. Since the initiative launched in early April, over 70 repair volunteers have taken on more than 150 repairs. Around half of this total have reached a conclusion with 65% of those being fixed successfully.

“This remote repair action, even if it does not in any way replace the ‘physical’ Repair Café, brilliantly shares the values we defend: weaving social bonds, training citizens to repair […], preventing objects from ending up in the trash and promoting the right to repair.”
– Emmanuel van der Bruggen, organiser, Repair Together

Elsewhere in Belgium, community repair group Maakbaar Leuven are running a similar initiative for Flanders. Repair Connects is a portal through which the public can report a broken item, submit photos of the problem (and the product’s barcode) and be matched up with a volunteer repairer.

We at Restart are offering our own online repair support. Anyone can tag us on social media (@restartproject) and we’ll ask some basic questions before posting the request in our online forum. Here, our community offers suggestions that we can pass on the person in need. This is similar to Leeds Repair Café, who are using their Facebook group to offer repair advice to people locally.

Focusing heavily on repair presents a few challenges. Many people requesting help may not have access to the tools or parts required to complete the repair. They are also unlikely to be in a position to attempt any repairs that are more complex or risky. In such cases, we’ve found that helping people find reliable repair businesses is often a good solution. This approach also lacks the ‘liveness’ of an event and isn’t as social an experience, although this is often a matter of preference. Nevertheless, it does offer greater flexibility and can scale well, as Repair Together’s experience shows.

Focusing on education, skills and awareness

In-person repair events are not just great opportunities to fix stuff, but also to learn how to repair and why it matters in the first place. While the groups and networks mentioned so far do address these questions in their events, others have adopted different online event formats to focus specifically on education and awareness.

One such network is Repair Café Wales, who are now running a series of interactive online repair tutorials via Microsoft Teams. Each session focuses on a different set of skills requested by the community, including woodworking, sewing and bike repair and is led by a volunteer experienced in that area. The audience can join sessions live or follow along with a recording.

^ Listen to John from Repair Café Wales explain how these events work on the Seismic Wales podcast.

Similarly, the French spare parts company, Spareka, ran an online ‘repair school’ in which 250 participants were invited to ask questions about fixing domestic appliances (including ‘white goods’ such as washing machines and fridges). A technical expert then answered these questions with the aid of schematics and other resources on the company’s website.

By embracing digital mediums to find ways of teaching important repair skills, these initiatives offer engaging supplements to existing sources of repair information such as iFixit and our own community repair wiki.

Repair Café Bengaluru has taken this concept further still by offering a 6-week online repair summer school for children aged 8 to 14. Having originally planned a series of in-person sessions, group organiser Purna and her team moved quickly to adapt the programme to be delivered via Webex. Over 11 sessions, the summer school introduces kids to a wide range of skills, from woodwork and stitching, to electrical repair and plumbing. Each session covers a different topic and the children are set homework to clean or repair certain items at home.

Teaching children about the importance of repair has long been a priority for the team here at Restart too. With so many children stuck at home and schools and parents looking for engaging educational content, the time seemed right to develop an online workshop for kids. We decided to focus on smartphones. Starting with a live disassembly, we used an animated video to guide our discovery of the materials inside the phone and where they came from. This journey allowed us to to explore the upstream impacts of the products we buy and how repair can help reduce our environmental impact. We’re now hoping to work with schools to develop this further.

Addressing the bigger picture is also important for Karen & Danny Ellis of Mend It, Australia, whose main goal is “to continue to raise awareness of repair and the right to repair.” Together with Moonee Valley Repair Café, they broadcast informal interviews with guest speakers about a range of repair-related topics. This recently included a chat with Right to Repair researcher Professor Leanne Wiseman from Griffith University. By hosting these interviews within an online repair event, Karen and Danny hope to reach a larger audience.

Choosing what we value and being clear

If there are lessons to be learned from running repair events online, perhaps the first is the importance of focus. Online activities can be highly effective. But online spaces are fundamentally different to offline ones. They tend to be better suited to a narrower focus, which means it’s hard to reproduce the wide range of positive impacts we’re used to seeing from events.

By adapting our activities to fit online spaces, repair groups and networks across the globe are having to decide what is most important for their community. Whether it’s keeping our communities connected, helping people repair broken belongings, teaching repair skills or advocating for the Right to Repair, the approaches described here all prioritise different outcomes.

So, when thinking about running an online event, it helps to ask: what do we want to achieve?

Once you’ve decided on an approach, the second lesson is to set clear expectations. Who is it for and what’s the purpose?

The organisers we’ve spoken to agreed that their most successful events were those with the clearest aims and audiences. People want to know what they’ll get out of attending your event, so tell them.

Finally, ask for help. If you’re thinking about running your own online events, you don’t have to start from scratch. Our online community is a great place to get advice from other organisers and repairers, including most of those mentioned above.

Based in the UK? Register for Fixfest UK 2020, an online gathering for the UK repair community starting in June.

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