How education can help the “right to repair” movement

by | Oct 26, 2023

Through awareness and education, individuals may become more conscious of their future spending choices, ultimately contributing to the success of the right to repair movement.
Computer parts.

The “right to repair” movement is gaining momentum on a global scale, advocating for policies that allow consumers to repair the electronic devices they own. This movement has arisen over the past several decades from mounting discontent with the artificial obstacles created by manufacturers, which hinder product owners from independently repairing their equipment.

“Imagine that you spent over a thousand dollars on your laptop just a few years ago, but now it barely holds a charge,” wrote The New York Times. “Without a new battery, you’re tethered to an outlet, which is both wildly inconvenient and not the point of a laptop.

“But it turns out that a new battery is impossible to install anyway, so you feel forced to drop another grand on a new laptop, even though your old one works perfectly fine otherwise. This is actually a near-universal experience, whether it involves a laptop, a phone, or a car.”

Environmental and economic consequences

Though the debate has become somewhat controversial in recent years, it’s important to recognize that the situation was not created by accident. Repair costs that exceed the price of buying a new device, planned obsolescence, and the manufacturing of poor-quality products designed to shorten their lifespan in order to stimulate new purchases are all troubling practices driven by profit motives.

These practices not only harm consumers but also exacerbate the escalating problem of electronic waste, with current estimates predicting that e-waste will reach 75 million metric tons by 2030, with 53.6 million metric tons discarded in 2019.

While policy has been slow to catch up, many see the right to repair as a step toward a more circular economy, one built on re-use.

“The right to repair movement is a stand against this kind of throw-away culture and the cycle of damage that comes with it,” explained Sam Fishlock, a senior teaching fellow at the Engineering and Design Institute-London (TEDI-London), in an email. “It’s a way of giving consumers a more complete ‘ownership’ of the product by ensuring the access to knowledge and spare parts required to repair products and extend their lifespan. 

“If our products were designed in such a way that recognizes the components that are likely to fail first — and make them easily replaceable without specialist tools or too much knowledge and guidance, then a lot of waste could be diverted.” 

But for this to happen, there are major constraints that will continue to restrict consumers’ ability to repair electronic devices and machinery, one major hurdle being a lack of knowledge of how products are built and work.

In a recent study published in Global Challenges, Fishlock, along with his colleagues Matthew Thompson and Anoop Grewal, explored the role that universities might play in filling this gap.

Universities and sustainable engineering

According to the team, universities worldwide are seen as having a crucial role in creating a more sustainable future, acting as pillars, both nationally, internationally, and locally, for driving this development.

“The right to repair is a pressing issue, but […] most undergraduate engineers are not generally aware of the movement or how to design for it,” said Fishlock. “Most engineers clearly wish to have a positive impact on the world and the environment but we recognize that a lot of engineered products have a poor impact on the environment after their usage.

“We wanted to inspire our students and introduce the tools to design with these principles in mind at an early stage in their training.” 

In their pilot study incorporated into part of a first year engineering course at TEDI-London, the researchers asked their students to design and build a robot vacuum cleaner according to right to repair principles. 

They opted for a project-based learning model, which, according to Fishlock, ensures that any principles, laws or techniques are applied immediately, and then embedded properly. “This means we really learn them!” he added. “Applying knowledge in a theoretical way (for example to an exam) means that we tend to ‘cram’ but quickly forget anything we’ve learned. For such an ambitious task, the module ran quite smoothly!”

Anecdotally, Fishlock described that the students appeared to be highly motivated to design products with longer lifetimes such that anyone who might potentially own them could repair them. “We definitely saw students become more aware of how badly designed much of ‘the world’ is,” he said. “There was a clear change of attitude, against the status quo and towards a culture which values our household products as lifelong investments, rather than throwaway junk.”

“We hope that, upon graduation, these students will help to drive change in how products are designed!” he continued. “With more trained and motivated engineers increasing the supply of repairable products and more demand and support for right to repair movements, we hope that the overall negative impacts of electrical products will decrease over time.”

Beyond just university-level courses, Fishlock also indicated the potential for greater outreach. “The principles of the right to repair movement are simple and common sense,” he said. “These can be understood and implemented at different levels and we would definitely wish that similar projects, and repair clubs, could be run in schools and in corporate training.”

Fostering a culture of repair and sustainability

With a recent increase in political backing, including major legislative pushes in the US, UK, and EU, the right to repair movement appears to be gaining ground and strengthening its position.

A surge in public support, repair cafes, websites offering instructions for consumers on how to repair various devices using generic replacement parts, and its growing visibility are all contributing to its persistence and growth.

“The future [of this movement] depends on us!” said Fishlock. “If we, as the population, communities, engineers, companies, and politicians demand better access to repairable products, then we can drive the change.”

However, it’s important to acknowledge that this progress is not inevitable, as there are numerous stakeholders pushing back against these efforts.

Nevertheless, by raising awareness and educating the public on what makes a product easy to repair, individuals may become more conscious of their future spending choices, ultimately contributing to the success of the right to repair movement.

Reference: Sam Fishlock, et al., Sustainable Engineering Design in Education: A Pilot Study of Teaching Right-to-Repair Principles through Project-Based Learning, Global Challenges (2023). DOI: 10.1002/gch2.202300158

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