FSE 1: Inclusive repair practice and policy: How do broken electronics contribute to social exclusion, and how can repair policy be designed with inclusion in mind?

Faculty: Faculty of Science and Engineering

Supervisors: Dr Lara Houston; Prof Chris Foulds

Location: Cambridge

The interview for this project is expected to take place on Tuesday 18 April.

The challenge

We have a problem with electronic waste. The global manufacturing of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) has been estimated to cause 580 million metric tons of greenhouse gases emissions. Increasing the lifespan of devices by 50–100% could mitigate up to half of these total emissions (Singh et al., 2022).

A crucial part of the transition to a circular economy lies in the hands of citizens, in making their devices last longer through maintenance and repair. However, not all citizens have equal ability or access to maintenance and repair services.

Research on digital inequality shows that many low-income households now have access to technologies, but that these are ‘dependably unstable’ devices that frequently break down (e.g. Gonzales, 2014).

This may be magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the current cost of living crisis, where broken electronics may lead to new forms of exclusion for those that haven’t experienced it before.

The research

Efforts to boost maintenance and repair need to be economically and socially inclusive, in order to achieve a just circular economy transition.

This PhD project aims 1) to develop citizen and community perspectives on repair and exclusion, and 2) to identify repair policies that boost inclusion, at the local, national and international levels.

1. Gathering citizen and community perspectives

The research will involve working with community repair organisation The Restart Project. Since 2012, Restart have organised pop-up community repair events for broken electronics. Members of the public bring their broken electronics and work with skilled volunteers to disassemble, clean and fix them.

Restart have helped hundreds of groups set up, support or promote similar events. The online platform they've developed features over 550 groups active in 27 countries, organising a staggering 4500 events, where 21,790 devices were fixed - preventing an estimated 63,477kg of waste and 786,601kg of CO2 emissions.

You'll work with Restart, and at their events, to develop citizen and community perspectives on breakdown, repair and exclusion using a range of qualitative methods.

2. Policies for inclusive maintenance and repair

The second part of the research will involve reviewing recent policy innovations that aim to boost maintenance and repair.

For example, in 2015, France became the first country in the world to outlaw premature obsolescence (the deliberate shortening of a product’s lifespan) and since 2021, has required repairability labelling. In 2016, Sweden gave its citizens a tax break for repairing their electricals. Currently, European and UK policy-makers are updating Ecodesign product regulations to include access to manuals and spare parts.

Do these policy innovations help to make maintenance and repair more accessible for citizens? How might they be re-designed to take citizen and community perspectives into account? You'll be involved in developing new recommendations for policy on repair and inclusion.

Joining the GSI

The Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) is a welcoming and supportive research group. We host a community of PhD Researchers working on related topics, such as just and inclusive sustainability transitions, the circular economy and policy analysis.

PhD Researchers are recognised and valued members of our group. We share an open-plan office space in Cambridge and participate in collaborative activities, including regular writing, research, and training events.

We recommend that you get in touch with us for a friendly, informal email chat before applying – contact Lara Houston: lara.houston@aru.ac.uk

Apply online by 19 March 2023

Funding notes

This successful applicant for this project will receive a Vice Chancellor’s PhD Scholarship which covers Home tuition fees and provides a UKRI equivalent minimum annual stipend for three years. For 2022/3 this was £17,688 per year. The award is subject to the successful candidate meeting the scholarship terms and conditions. Please note that the University asserts the right to claim any intellectual property generated by research it funds.

Download the full terms and conditions.