#17 sharing
Lisa Schäfer

Let Us Fix it

Repair Cafés offer room for fixing your bike and exchanging knowledge over coffee – and thus tackle sustainable development on the local level.

On an ordinary afternoon, somewhere on planet earth, urbanites grab their broken watches, coffee machines, toy cars, bicycles or favourite trousers and head out for a meeting in their immediate neighbourhood. What these everyday objects have in common is their owners’ reluctance to toss them away and replace them with a newer model. In a suitable location, perhaps a community hall or a co-working space, these people come together with volunteers with specific repair skills, like electricians, IT specialists, tailors, restorers and so forth. Everything in this microcosm is donated from the tools, working materials and the rent for the meeting place to the time participants spend there and the skills they offer. Although the immediate aim of these gatherings is to repair and restore objects, the basic idea and indirect impact go much further. These meetings involve capacity building through knowledge sharing and both contribute to and reflect development – not to mention the long-term social benefits.

“to make ‘repair’ a part of the local community once again.”
(Repair Café Foundation)

Repair Café is the name that today unites 970 locally organized non-commercial meetings all over the world, from Santiago de Chile and Frankfurt/Main to Bangalore. The first event took place in the Netherlands in 2009. It was so successful that Martine Postma was inspired to set up the Repair Café Foundation - an initiative was born. The non-profit organization provides starter kits for people who wish to open a Repair Café, which include guidelines mapping out the different steps for preparing and holding a meeting and concrete support based on the foundation’s wealth of experience. The Repair Café Foundation defines the organisation and its aims as follows: “to make ‘repair’ a part of the local community once again.” More specific that means that the Foundation “aims to maintain and spread repair expertise, and to promote social cohesion by bringing together neighbours from all walks of life and sets of motivations in the form of inspiring and accessible meetings.”

Although a café’s concrete aims may appear highly context dependent, Purna Sarkar, co-founder of Repair Café Bangalore, explains that the overall aim of the first Indian initiative is “[t]o encourage and support livelihoods of neighbourhood repairers [as] [t]hese individuals are side-lined with the advent of the use and throw culture.” While this statement suggests to understand the meaning of “livelihoods” not merely in a tangible way, the initiative’s goal reveals a social and ecological dimension that seems to be shared throughout the Repair Café community.

Dominik Peper, initiator of Repair Café Frankfurt-Sachsenhausen, sees these two dimensions as key to the café movement. Pablo Munoz, co-founder of Repair Café Santiago, shares Peper’s view. He describes the social benefit generated by them, noting that working with strangers as a social group that is committed to sharing their skills without expecting any remuneration is a shared rather than an individualistic way of life. It can be seen as an attempt to rebuild community by building trust based on a group of people who share an understanding of what it means to help and share, according to Munoz.

Repair Cafés are intended to be more than just a platform for free repairs.

Knowledge sharing goes well beyond the pure transfer of information on a certain topic. It is the exchange of individually acquired skills or expertise on a specific topic, such as how to repair a watch that did not live up to its claim to be waterproof. Repair Cafés are intended to be more than just a platform for free repairs. Meeting with someone who has the skills I need to repair my watch is a two-way interaction and a form of socialising with a shared objective - a timepiece that is up and running again.

But why would anybody be willing to share their expertise without wanting payment in return? Why would they give away the knowledge they spent hours, maybe years learning? Peper underlines that the respect received “for the knowledge and the know-how” and the idea of “doing something useful that helps other people” appear to be the main reasons repair experts volunteer, as is “[t]he joy of doing handicrafts” itself. “Some do-it-yourself enthusiasts see this as an opportunity to share their passion with other like-minded folks,” says Sarkar when asked why experts and non-professionals alike participate in these events. They stand fully behind both the means and the ends of the café concept – wanting to avoid waste and liking to help and interact with strangers. This seems to support the assumption that positive incentives affect people’s intrinsic readiness to share.

…aims and potential of this kind of knowledge sharing are much more common than one would assume.

It seems the main hurdle that usually stands in the way of knowledge sharing, is a dislike of sharing the expert knowledge. For example skilled workers of a company might not be willing to share their expertise concerning complex working routines with new colleagues. This does not apply to the Repair Cafés. There may be two reasons café participants are willing to share their repair skills. First, there is no requirement to share, since all experts work on a purely voluntary basis. Second, participants seem to link the opportunity to share their knowledge with certain incentives whose positive connotations might motivate their commitment. Although the representatives of the Chilean and the Indian cafés agree that a common socio-cultural background is a major reason the initiative’s cafés are more prominent in Europe than in other parts of the world and base their arguments on differences between Repair Cafés in the global North and South, the findings suggest that the motivation, aims and potential of this kind of knowledge sharing are much more common than one would assume.

…the less heterogeneous income distribution and experience with the welfare state in Europe may explain why the concept is spreading more easily there.

Munoz argues that the less heterogeneous income distribution and experience with the welfare state in Europe may explain why the concept is spreading more easily there. Since income inequality is higher in Chile, it may take more time to convince more people of the benefits of this collective approach. This could be the case when taking into account that low-income earners are short of time and focus on earning their bread and butter instead of devoting themselves to a community of unknowns. However, Repair Café Santiago started with 20 volunteers in March 2015 and after a TV report on the initiative, had received about 1,000 inquiries from potential volunteers by the third event. This demonstrates that the potential of this initiative is not necessarily lower outside of Europe.

But apart from that, where is the link between the global phenomenon of the Repair Café and the broad concept of “development”? A look at the foundation’s website shows that the majority of Repair Cafés are located in Western Europe – a region that is generally considered being “underdeveloped”? As recent debates have shown, “development” is only a term opening up a variety of different concepts that often fail to grasp the complexity of societies. For example the GDP only focuses on traded goods. But also broader measures like the United Nations’ Human Development Index, are still not sufficient to grasp what the term ‘development’ could imply. It is important to understand that the development industrial nations reflect has no intrinsic merit that would justify looking at this way of life as an unconditional role model. So to suggest that the Western industrialised lifestyle is at the top of an uncontested scale of development and to therefore advocate that anyone supposedly 'below' this desired level should aspire to achieve it, is short-sighted.

An alternative approach is provided by Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, namely the capability approach.

An alternative approach is provided by Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, namely the capability approach. Along with economic factors, it takes the social structures and cultural practices facing an individual into account – as opposed to ideas that focus on a state in its entirety. His normative framework suggests understanding development as a comprehensive process and focusing on people’s capabilities and freedoms in terms of whether they are able to do and be what they want to. It raises awareness of the need to seek measures for human well-being beyond economic parameters, and suggests there may be certain services and goods that further or limit our capabilities. Sen’s approach also helps to grasp the possibilities within Repair Cafés. According to his concept, social cohesion and the conscious use of resources are among the potential indicators of well-being. It is therefore sound to view knowledge sharing in the context of Repair Cafés as revealing and promoting capabilities. In the long run, locally shared knowledge may contribute to development in the sense of sustainability by reducing waste and increasing the global consumer society’s ecological consciousness.

„The idea of the Repair Café in India contributes to development by countering the throwaway culture and helps the sustainability cycle.“
(Purna Sarkar, Repair Café Bangalore)

Purna Sarkar agrees with this point of view: “The idea of the Repair Café in India contributes to development by countering the throwaway culture and helps the sustainability cycle.” The foundation itself underlines that “the Repair Café helps to change people’s mindsets. This is essential for kindling people’s enthusiasm for a sustainable society.” This is not to say that the number of Repair Cafés we might find in an area or country allows us to draw conclusions about its developmental status, but rather that the more prominent concepts of development neglect important aspects of overall development by tending not to focus on the individual, for example.

In the end it is not a secret that global challenges call for global answers – the ideas embodied by the Repair Café Foundation are an example of how to tackle some of them.

Photo: “Umbrella issues” by Brett Davies
2014 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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