Right to repair

Preventing waste is a responsibility
Paul Epp

To be a designer is to be very lucky. It’s our job to dream and to turn these dreams into reality. What a privilege. We get to impose our vision onto the world around us. That’s pretty good.

Of course, it’s not quite so simple. There are many obstacles and challenges, as we well know.

But the basic truth of this prevails. I wonder how often we pause to reflect on our good fortune, in this regard?

We ought to.

Its axiomatic though, that privilege comes with responsibilities. And we have many. We make decisions and all of them come with consequences.

Some are not so welcome. But that’s our job; to make decisions and some will be tough ones. Sometimes it’s a question of who will make the calls, and if we don’t then who will? Who better than us?

One issue that I have been pondering seems to have lots of design implications. It’s the issue of the repairability of the objects that industry makes. And that’s by far the majority of what we consume. We buy a lot and when these things no longer work, we toss them. What choice do we have?

Most things are not designed with the option of repairs. When is the last time you fixed a pair of shoes?

Or a kitchen appliance? A cell phone?

Most things are simply not fixable.

This is either by intention of by a lack of attention. The former may be questionable but the latter is hardly excusable.

Of course, not all of us care to repair things. We prefer shiny new things, either to enjoy their novelty or to enjoy how their acquisition reflects on us. Having new things is a display of wealth, which is, more importantly, a display of success.

But there can be something fundamentally gratifying in keeping things working. The objects we use take on a novel patina from our use of them. They come to reflect us in different ways and it can be satisfying to keep them near. It’s as though they become our friends, and loyalty may make it undesirable to dispose of them. Sometimes we can, but we often can’t.

The issue of repairing may seem kind of old fashioned. And it is. The currents of our culture seem to be carrying us ever further away.

Whereas once we acquired things to own them, now we may be more likely to access things in order to experience them. Ownership may no longer be the relevant criteria. This is very obvious in how we consume music (Spotify?), or movies (Netflix?). Software is now often accessed without ownership: pay to play. The automotive world is taking a serious look at a subscription model. Customers would pay a fee for which they would have access to a car, without any semblance of ownership. This model has many applications and implications, from clothes to furniture and so on….

But ultimately, the objects that get made have to be dealt with as they age. The tricky dilemma of steel reinforced concrete is a very pertinent example. It has a finite lifespan, outdoors, as falling-down bridges illustrate.

Old cars get crushed. Clothes get donated to charity, where they disrupt third-world economies. It’s not an issue that is easy to be definitive upon.

But the principle of fixing things, and its desirability, endures. It seems to make both ethical and economic sense, and even political sense, however challenging the issue is. In fact, there is a movement in support of this, the ‘Right to Repair’. Legislation has already been enacted and more will surely be, despite the irony of what could be considered a conservative notion calling for more government interference.

In order that the things that get made be made in such a way as to be reparable it must be considered at the design stage. Is it? Are designers taking any responsibility here? Are we paying attention? The enthusiasm for 3D printing may be a case in point. It is considered the vanguard of intelligent industrial manufacturing. Rather than simple tools being used to make complex objects, as was initially the case, it is all about complex tools making simple objects. But has any consideration of reparability been included in this utopian scenario?

It’s curious how some old things have gained value because they can be fixed, like old trucks in the Canadian north. Where do you find the fancy diagnostic equipment in the bush?

Designers have a role to play here and a responsibility. Let’s see it.

Paul Epp is a professor emeritus at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.