Cities can nudge people to repair broken things

There are good, old-fashioned alternatives to buying replacements and perpetuating a throwaway culture

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, July 14, 2019.  Al Ain Center Computer Plaza.  --  This place is known to be one of the best places to buy computers and other electronic devices with one of the most competitive prices in the U.A.E.  There are also several computer and cell phone repair shops in the small shopping plaza.--  A computer gaming technician installing a liquid cooling system.
Victor Besa/The National
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You can learn a lot about a city by observing what makes it tick and why residents behave in the ways they do or refuse to do – sticking to one side of the escalator, avoiding littering, recycling and so on.

From a city like Vienna, there's much to learn, quite apart from how it managed affordable housing, built great public transport and made generally top-notch hot chocolate common fare. But an especially sound habit – encouraged by policy – is repairing things. It may seem like a simple enough idea, and it is – a combination of old-fashioned common sense, civic pride and environmental brownie points that other big cities should be able to emulate easily.

Even before the EU in November 2023 adopted the "right to repair", Vienna already had in place the altogether sensible practice of "repair networks" and vouchers. That is, to create less waste, the state subsidised residents getting their broken objects fixed. This went down really well with Viennese people, who may have otherwise been stuck with moody vacuum cleaners, busted bicycles or laptops languishing in bottom drawers, as indeed so many of us elsewhere are now. The Austrian government has a repair bonus scheme where consumers living in the country can claim back half the cost of the repair of an old appliance. Vienna's scheme, however, covers a wider variety of items in need of repair. There are numbers to show what a successful programme this was overall.

Through the Vienna Repair Voucher, the subsidy scheme that started in September 2020, some 620 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions have been avoided, as each repair saves on average 24kg of carbon dioxide. That should give us an idea of the difference any collective enterprise can make. Whatever the actual percentage difference it makes to a region's much larger net zero goals, it is still a considerable amount when you think of how easily we can all chip in in similar ways, regardless of where we live. The Vienna repair network reportedly carries out an average of about 50,000 repairs a year. That sounds impressive for a city with a population of 1,975,000 people.

To take a step back though and to anyone who's been brought up in the developing world, policies like Austria's can be both a delight to come across but also confounding. A delight because, of course, it's common sense – what is there to disagree about in getting a laptop repaired instead of just upgrading it? And confounding because haven't millions of us, and our parents, been doing this for ages in any case, whether in the Indian subcontinent or in so many cities across the Middle East? The difference is possibly in instituting sensible habits at a policy level.

If we keep chucking stuff and trading up simply because we can and just because deals on the new products are often tempting, we can't honestly claim in every aspect to be progressing

Informal sectors of recycling and repair have existed all over the world. Anywhere in India, repairs are the norm, whether it is heading to the neighbourhood tailor who, with his blue chalk marker and pedal sewing machine, has the talent to neatly mend the moth-eaten bits of your sweater, or the electrical repair man at the corner shop in some lane that no Google Map is equipped to take you to, who could diagnose and fix countless mixer-grinders. It requires a dedication to find this focused tribe of repair people and to give them your business. Getting stuff repaired also means keeping the repair people in business.

But if we keep throwing stuff and trading up simply because we can and just because deals on the new products are often tempting, we can't honestly claim in every aspect to be progressing. It can be easy to convince oneself that it's not worth the time, the exertion and often the cost of getting old stuff fixed. Some people are also especially big on convenience cost.

Paying, say, Dh40 ($11) to have someone repair a five-year-old spice grinder that cost Dh 99 ($27), plus the chore of taking it to the right place on your weekend, makes neither financial sense nor screams fun. And yet, having appliances or clothes or whatever else repaired rather than discarding them or buying new ones has always made sense – it should, ideally, be cheaper but whether or not it is, it is usually always better in an ethical sense, as fewer odd plastic bits and wires end up in landfills.

In faster-paced lives though in the more developed world, it's easier and more convenient to look online and buy, say, a new spice grinder at one of the big sales or shopping festivals, like here in the UAE, rather than figure out where to take the broken one, how to get there and when to do this.

The access to and scheduling of repairs need to be made more popular as a way of life and not something one looks back on in a nostalgic way. The environmental benefits cannot be argued with, especially in a post-Cop28 world. But there is still a fair percentage of people for whom carbon footprints are not a pressing enough incentive.

As much as the logic behind doing our bit to save the planet is not new, neither is the satisfaction of the sheer effort made to get a rickety wheel of a suitcase repaired or a string of short-circuiting but otherwise very pretty fairy lights fixed (I spent a princely Dh5 [$1.36] on just that a couple of months ago and haven't been electrocuted since).

Being prudent with cash, channelling economically wiser forebears, instead of splashing money on an unnecessary new purchase ties in nicely with what one can do to be more in sync with almost every country's net zero goals and targets of lower emissions.

This sits well especially in a place like the UAE that has been taking several steps towards decarbonising, whether adopting policies that focus on developing a circular economy or decarbonising waste management. In recent great steps, Dubai eliminated single-use plastic bags on the first day of the year where Abu Dhabi had already done so in June 2022.

In championing a circular economy, more can perhaps be done to make more people aware of where in their cities to repair stuff, and if there were discounts on those sorts of transactions, it would beat any banners in shopfronts urging people to hurry and stock up on more things on sale.

Perhaps in coming around to a "fix-it" way of thinking, we can take a leaf out of the Viennese playbook.

Published: January 09, 2024, 7:00 AM