Restart Project fixing our broken (relationship with) electronics

Last night I went to a new year party held by the social enterprise the Restart Project and heard about their achievements over the past year and plans for the future.

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I’ve previously met Restart’s founders, Janet Gunter and Ugo Vallauri to hear about their work and to explore common interests and opportunities to work together. They are hugely impressive individuals with a clear purpose and a passion that is infectious.

Restart is based on a simple premise – that our relationship with electronics is broken and we need to fix it. Whether it’s the latest must-have iPhone or broken bits of computers that fill our cupboards and drawers, it’s clear that we are, as a society, buying a lot of electronic equipment…without thinking very much about what happens to the ‘old stuff’. Electronic waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the UK and it’s costing a huge amount of money to dispose of redundant tech.

What the Restart Project does is encourage and empower people to use their electronics for longer by sharing repair and maintenance skills. They hold events – Restart Parties – where people are invited to bring their electronic equipment to be repaired by a team of enthusiastic volunteer repairers. Those turning up are taught new skills and encouraged to extend the lifespan of electronic devices and divert them from going into waste.

The project clearly offers so benefits on so many levels. It brings people together to interact, meet, talk and do things together, building social capital within communities. It helps people to learn new practical skills that can be used to save money and time. Among younger people ‘getting your hands dirty’ with electronics could easily lead to opening minds – and doors – to career opportunities in computing and coding or engineering; industries that the UK needs to continue to grow the availability of skilled labour in. And of course, Restart delivers on its primary purpose – to prolong the lifespan of electronic equipment, which saves people money and might just save the planet.

Everything about Restart inspires and excites me: the combination of social, economic and environmental benefits is clear and the potential huge.

I can also see the potential for technology to be redistributed to those who may not have access to even older equipment. I can remember back in the 90s taking donations of computers from companies and spending hours on end formatting old PCs and installing basic software on them to then distribute them to homelessness charities and groups.

Even though I do – I must confess – like to upgrade my phone and computer(s) every few years, I always try and find a home for the old kit. The emergence of the resale market for mobile phones over the last few years is an example of how much opportunity there is for us to make better use of old electronics.

IKEA’s head of sustainability recently suggested that we had reached ‘peak stuff’ and that consumers’ appetite for buying home furnishings had reached saturation point. If we want more new stuff, I’d suggest we need to think more about what happens to the old stuff….the Restart Project might just be the answer.

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How a simple letter got people online – saving Essex Council £20,000 a year

Essex County Council, like most other councils, spend a lot of money processing paper. Some of that goes on administering Blue Badge permits that allow disabled drivers to park closer to where they’re going. With the continued pressure on public service budgets, it’s hardly surprising that they should want to look at whether they can reduce their costs and make the process cheaper and more efficient. An obvious way to do this is to get people to renew their permits (and do an array of other things) online rather than more expensive face-to-face or paper based administration.

So we set out to help them test, through a Randomised Controlled Trial, whether small changes to the Blue Badge renewal process could encourage channel shift – that is moving people from one channel (paper/face-to-face) to another (online).

The results showed it worked – passing standard tests of statistical significance.

Just by making small changes to the renewal letter that goes out to Blue Badge holders we managed to reduce the numbers of people that renewed by post by almost 20% (8.6 percentage points).  And because we used an RCT to test it, we can be confident that the difference can be attributed to the changes we made to the letter.

Blue Badge renewal by type

Blue Badge renewal by type

By simplifying the letter – stripping away anything we didn’t feel was absolutely necessary to include and making it clear to the reader precisely what they had to do – we made it more likely that people used the online renewal process.

Martha Lane-Fox, in her 2010 role as Digital Champion, looked at the costs (and savings) of government conducting business online, rather than face-to-face and paper. She estimated that the public sector would save £12 for every transaction conducted online rather than by post.

For Essex that figure would mean that this small change to the renewal letter will save them around £20,000 a year. Of course set against cuts of £50m this year it’s a drop in the ocean. But if every service or process were able to find similar efficiencies for a fraction of the costs of implementing them it would soon add up.

Simplification wasn’t the only effective way we found of reducing paper renewals. We also found that by telling people that renewing online saved the Council money and helped protect frontline services also encouraged channel shift. This small change in the renewal letter reduced paper renewals by over 18% (7.7 percentage points).

The RCT gave the Council strong evidence of what works, enabling them to adopt the simplified letter as their new standard renewal letter.  Since they did so, only 5 percent of renewals are done by post, with over half of all renewals now being done online (the remainder are done over the phone).

Post-trial renewals by type

Post-trial renewals by type

The trial has helped the Council move toward online renewals for blue badges and we hope it can act as a model for the more general transformation of services across the council.

Small things can make a big difference.

Read the full report on our online Blue Badge renewal trial.