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Visiting Access Space

We recently had the opportunity to visit Access Space, the pioneering centre in Sheffield where repair culture, reuse, making and remaking all magically come together. Making and fixing might now be fashionable words, but the venues hosting them often feel like temples where all sorts of gadgets and 3D-printers are the stars, and if you do not know all the jargon, you are not truly welcome.

Access Space could not be more different: as soon as you enter, you are right in the heart of the action, in what immediately reminds us of the lively vibe of some of the most authentic telecentres, internet cafés in the Global South. Some people are busy browsing the internet on the available refurbished PCs running Linux Mint. Others are sitting around a table, discussing, playing table games, sipping tea.

People of all ages and backgrounds come to Access Space to access knowledge, more than just technology, and to share it with peers. We get a chance to give a presentation about The Restart Project, and everyone gathers in front of the projector to take part in the conversation, including volunteers, staff members and international visitors from the Pixelache network of digital festivals.

Access Space has been refurbishing PCs for many years: the team explains us that the advantage of having a space such as theirs is that storing so many spare parts for laptops and desktop PCs allows volunteers the luxury of making mistakes. When things break while you’re trying to fix them, it doesn’t really matter.

Photo of James Wallbank by Flickr user CampusPartyBrasil
Photo of James Wallbank by Flickr user CampusPartyBrasil

The value of the equipment is nothing, explains James Wallbank, the visionary founder of Access Space: the true value is in the sharing of knowledge and information that happens around the joint repairing and repurposing of technology. Years ago, at a time when the world was obsessing over the so-called $100 laptop, James came up with a provocative and inspiring concept: the zero dollar laptop.

Today this is even more relevant: ubiquitous computing technology combined with free and open source software mean that the cost of accessing technology is mostly the cost of learning how to refurbishing and mastering open tools.

But Access Space is much more than a refurbishing centre: it is the first making space we visit that spells out inclusion as a key priority for its activities, whether exploring the potential for digital fabrication, bridging repair cultures, exploring repurposing PC components to build an ad-hoc boombox or reflecting on how to reuse the internals of otherwise discarded printers.

Taking inclusion and openness to the next level, Access Space created its own version of a FabLab – a ReFab Space, “with a focus on fostering enterprise, free and open tools and the reuse / recycling of materials.” For example, James tells us that the true wasted value of a lot of malfunctioning printers is to be found in the overly-subsidised, often still working motors inside them.

Community repair activities involving volunteers and participants have been a common feature of Access Space, although often happening in informal ways. We look forward to testing how to work together with them, perhaps running Restart Parties if the local volunteers will be interested in trying them out to further involve the local community.

Most importantly, we cannot wait to collaborate with the whole team to explore how we can build a locally-meaningful, future economy based on resource efficiency, people’s skills and creativity. If you are ever in Sheffield, make sure to visit Access Space, particularly if you are looking for inspiration to run your future Maker/Hacker/Fab space.

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