For most of us, if a gadget or household object breaks we only have a few options: pay someone else to fix it, throw it away or, at best, recycle it. But wouldn’t it be better if we had the confidence and the know-how to fix or customise things ourselves?
That’s the question posed by two creative Hackney entrepreneurs. Jane ní Dhulchaointigh and Daniel Hirschmann both believe that by transforming our relationship with the objects in our lives, we can start to address some of the problems of waste caused by our throwaway culture.
Jane, a former art student who decided to pursue product design rather than sculpture, is the brains behind Sugru.
A new kind of moldable, durable, air-curing rubber, Sugru sticks to almost anything and hardens over night, meaning all sorts of everyday objects can be mended or customised with it.
So far, Sugru — the name comes from the Irish word for ‘play’ — has been used to customise everything from cameras and cars to hiking boots and hospital equipment.
Based in a small factory just of Mare Street, Jane and her team have loyal customers all over the world. The Sugru website is filled with stories from enthusiastic users keen to share their latest repair jobs and hacks.
“Once you see what other people have done and you know Sugru can repair things,” explains Jane, “you start to look at things in your house a little differently.”
“Designers are not the only creative people: users are too. They often know why something isn’t as good as it can be, and waiting for the manufacturer to pick that up is a very slow cycle. Why shouldn’t users be able to directly manipulate their stuff?”
Jane believes this do-it-yourself mindset appeals to people who want to resist our modern tendency towards over-consumption.
“The conventional idea of sustainability is all about recycling,” she says. “We think, way before you consider recycling, you should think about repair. It feels horrible to put something that’s 99% functional in the bin!”
The community of Sugru users has taken these ideas to heart and Jane hears new stories every day from people who have managed to give old objects a new lease of life.
“Our customers are people who feel bad about the amount of waste everyone is creating,” she explains, “and Sugru is one part of their choice to stand up to that.
“They want to stand up to a system that is just throwing out new stuff all the time and they want to say ‘no, I don’t agree with replacing everything that breaks. If I want my hiking boots to last twice as long or my dishwasher to last longer, I can do that myself.’”
These are sentiments shared by Daniel Hirschmann, the artist and entrepreneur behind ‘technology haberdashery’ Technology Will Save Us.
Daniel wants to give people the knowledge and the skills to be more hands-on with the technology that plays an increasingly important role in all our lives.
He was inspired to start Technology Will Save Us after he saw a broken laptop discarded in a Hackney skip and wondered, what if people felt able to tinker with, repair and repurpose gadgets instead of simply throwing them away?
“You go to the developing world and you’ll see a lot more confidence and comfort when it comes to opening up technology,” he says.
“Why? Because they have no choice. You can’t just go to the store and buy a new one: you have to fix it. Over here you have too much choice.”
“We’re too comfortable just replacing and not comfortable enough understanding, and it’s really important to us to try and create that understanding.”
Technology Will Save Us holds regular workshops and talks in Hackney and beyond, all designed to encourage people to get creative and play with technology rather than simply consuming it. Recent classes have included introductions to electronics and DIY speaker building.
“We have a throwaway approach to the technology in our lives because we don’t make it,” argues Daniel. “People have more ownership, more respect and love for things they have a relationship with, things they’ve built or done themselves.”
With that in mind, Technology Will Save Us also sell all-in-one kits to help people make their own devices. It’s all about empowering people, says Daniel.
“We say we like to pre-skill people,” he explains, “to give them the skills they weren’t taught at school and give them the confidence with those skills so they can make better decisions about technology.”
“Too few of the objects in our lives are meant to be opened. If you buy something like an iPhone or a camera, there are often labels on the back which say ‘warranty void if opened’…It’s amazing how that fear of tinkering with our devices has been ingrained in us.”
According to Daniel, overcoming that fear could be a major step in tackling the challenges of waste and over-consumption.
“If we can convince enough people to understand more about the technology in their lives,” he says, “hopefully they will start to make better decisions about the technology they choose to bring into their lives, better decisions about what to do with technology when they’ve finished with it, and maybe even a confidence in trying to repair, reuse, recycle.”
One of the products available to buy on the Technology Will Save Us website is Sugru, and Daniel sees an affinity between what the two companies are trying to achieve: they both want us to have a more hands-on relationship with the stuff in our lives.
“As soon as you realise that you can make something slightly better, that you can improve it, that you can make it more specific to your needs,” he says, “something clicks in your head and you’ll start seeing everything like that.”
The growing community of Sugru users and Technology Will Save Us participants would surely agree.