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Design for Repair

Our civilization has become obsessed with newness and disposability. Not that many decades ago, most people scrimped and saved to purchase things that were maintained in good order for many years and sometimes for life. In contrast, today many borrow to purchase transitory possessions that are sometimes disposed of before they have been fully paid for. Manufacturers encourage us to "upgrade" our phones, computers and all mannner of other possessions every year and sometimes even more frequently. Most people also feel no shame when they discard a functional or nearly functional object

In the face of so many grand challenges ahead, we need to develop a new relationship with things. Most fundamentally, we need to start consuming new things less, while valuing the things that we already own far more. This will require a return to an age in which most things are mended rather than consigned to landfill when they go wrong. And to enable this to happen, designers and manufacturers must embrace design for repair.

We really should not have to purchase so many things that cannot be mended when they go wrong, and in particular when just one or two parts fail. Today, far too many products are labelled "no user serviceable parts inside", and we are far too accepting of this. The fact that even the batteries cannot be replaced (or easily replaced) in many smartphones and ultrabook laptops is nothing short of scandalous.

It really is not that difficult to create products that can be maintained for long periods. To make this happen, more of us just need to start asking retailers "when it goes wrong, which parts can be replaced?" If this message starts to be heard loudly enough and often enough, then manufacturers will begin to take notice, and the products on offer to us will start to change.

Some argue that repairable objects are becoming unnecessary due to increased levels of recycling. Unfortunately, this simply is not true. Most recycling is at best "downcycling", with most recycling processes resulting in new materials of a lower quality and with a far narrower range of applications. We must also not allow recycling to become an acceptable penance paid by those who do not want to change their ways.

At a practical level, design for repair requires designers and manufacturers to start using as many standard components as possible, to simplify and modularize their products, to make spare parts readily available, and to provide adequate component labelling and repair guides. To highlight what needs to be done, Make Magazine has produced this excellent Maker's Bill of Rights for accessible, extensible and repairable hardware. Another notable sign that design for repair is starting to be taken seriously is this RCAR Design Guide for good design practice for repairability in the automobile industry.

While it is up to designers and manufacturers to create far more products that can be repaired, a return to regular product maintenance is something that we all need to embrace. As designer Mike Elam argues, today "we no longer value the kind of practical skills that our grandparents would have considered essential to everyday life", and in a world of accelerating resource depletion this really needs to change. We would also start to take better care of our possessions -- and to appreciate them more -- if we regularly began to invest a little personal time in their maintenance.

This topic is discussed in more depth in my book Seven Ways to Fix the World.
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Green Earth

We need to start designing and demanding products
that can be maintained
and evolved for long

Seven Ways Book

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