Primarily a civil society response, this grassroots-led model is emerging outside of the traditional realm of corporate interest. As such, it could undermine efforts by business leaders who are experimenting with product leasing and repair models.

According to a study from the Centre for Sustainable Design (CfSD) at Farnham’s University for the Creative Arts, these community workshops are ideally placed to act as circular “incubation hubs” allowing a free flow of ideas around product innovation.

It predicts that business start-ups will emerge from hackerspaces as a result of this experimentation. The study points to the fact that 3D printing is being used in some to print replacement components to enable product repair and life extension – this in itself could lead to commercial opportunities.

“As a result of the increase in repair or fixing activity amongst individuals and within repair cafes and hackerspaces, there will be increased knowledge over the workings of products and the issues that drive products to end-of-life,” the study notes.

Interestingly, concerns are already being expressed by a number of large corporations over warranty invalidation and potential safety issues resulting from an increase in individual and collective repair activity. However CfSD director Professor Martin Charter believes there is an opportunity for collaboration.

Speaking to edie, he said: “Brand leaders may decide to reach out to grassroots innovators as part of open innovation strategies to expand their outreach for new ideas. Some companies might start to employ the experts from repair cafés to retrain designers, engineers and other staff [to] identify opportunities for design for disassembly.”

This could prove invaluable if the European Commission starts to incorporate material efficiency aspects with the realm of the Eco Design Directive and extended producer responsibility following the launch of its circular economy package last week, he added.

The CfSD study examined the motives of repair cafes, where people attend to fix products, and hackerspaces, a type of open community lab where people collaborate to build, modify and repair products.

According to CfSD, these types of community workshops are starting to play a contributory role in working towards a circular economy as activities are often focused around boosting product durability and extended lifecycle thinking. The research revealed that for repair cafes in particular, sustainability was a strong underlying motivator.

Professor Charter believes that as these workshops expand, they will become an essential circular economy accelerator in a number of cities.

He told edie that there are estimated to be up to 500 repair cafes in the Netherlands with 100 each in Belgium and Germany, compared with around 10 in the UK. Over the next five years, he predicts worldwide numbers will grow by 10-20% per annum.

“[Repair cafes] are likely to have greater involvement with campaigns against built-in product obsolescence and create better links with other repair cafes to form more effective local repair ecosystems,” he said.

Maxine Perella

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