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.


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.


Rip off Britain rears its ugly head

A charity I’m working with called me yesterday to say that they had just had a call from the telecoms company they have a mobile phone contract with telling them their bill for this month had just gone over £10,000. The usual monthly cost of this mobile phone is £48 a month. To say they were shocked is a bit of an under estimation.


It transpires that what had happened was that someone in the office was having problems connecting their computer to the WiFi. A colleague helpfully suggested they use the mobile to connect, by tethering to a hotspot. They did that, but not realising how it worked they didn’t disconnect their phone and the computer was left on overnight backing up a drive to the cloud. Now that was silly, but it wasn’t a dramatic mistake in the scheme of things…or so you’d think. They apparently – and unwittingly – used between 20gb-30gb of data. It’s a fair amount but nothing too outrageous.

By the following morning the bill stood at £10,000.

That’s right. In just one evening, using just 30gb, they were being charged £10,000.

I pay £5 a month for 2gb of data. But if I paid £10 I could have unlimited data. Or if they’d bought an unlimited data supply for one day it probably would have been just a couple of pounds. They are effectively being charged £9,990 more for the data than if they might have been.

That is extortionate. Staggeringly, ridiculously extortionate.

Secondly, the fact that they allowed £10,000 of charges to be racked up in a single day – on a usual bill of less than £50 a month – is unbelievable. You might think perhaps they didn’t know the costs were mounting up, and it just ‘slipped beneath their radar’. Errr, no. They sent a text message to the phone around 2am saying that the limit on the data package had been exceeded and costs were being incurred. So they knew, but were perfectly happy to let the meter tick away and the costs go up.

They are essentially providing credit without any idea of whether the client can afford it. Unaffordable credit is something that has been in the news a fair amount recently, with numerous stories emerging of payday lenders giving credit at exorbitant levels of interest to people who cannot afford to pay.

Put together the extortionate charges – 1000 times the amount you might expect to pay – plus the unaffordable credit and it sounds an awful lot like the sort of insidious practice that the likes of Wonga have come under fire for.

My advice to the charity in question is to wait until the bill comes and then tell them not to pay and that you’ll see them at Ofcom. Oh and not to do it again – of course. I think they should offer to pay the price of one day’s unlimited data and not a penny more. The member of staff responsible has – as you would imagine – been incredibly stressed about the situation and a great deal of charitable time has already been wasted fretting over what happened. But, as a gesture of goodwill, I think the charity should say they will forgo any claim for distress caused and the costs of wasted charitable time spent sorting it out.

Perhaps the company in question will realise that what has happened and waive the bill. I have seen a similar situation – where a volunteer racked up a large bill calling premium rate numbers back in the early 90s – and the company took the amount of the bill when we complained. Maybe that’s what will happen here.

But I can’t believe this is an isolated case and I am sure that not everyone would be quite so prepared to challenge the charges and would end up paying.

A while back there was a lot of talk about ‘rip off Britain’. Although it’s been less talked about, it seems like it’s still going on.


Update 1st May 2015:

After a fair amount of to-ing and fro-ing and a bit of a wait, BT (for they were the telecomms company concerned) have informed us that they are waiving all the data charges as a gesture of good will. I did have to point out that this was a charity and it was a mistake but they did come good in the end.

A happy ending after all.

Young People & Technology

Preparing young people for a constantly changing 21st century labour market is a core part of the Archer Academy’s vision and ethos. We recognise that whilst traditional approaches to teaching and learning might have been adequate for the way things used to be, but they aren’t going to work in the future, if we want to compete in the global economy of the future. So we’ve built a strong emphasis on developing creative and critical thinking skills into our curriculum and offer a range of enrichment opportunities designed to inspire young people and support employability from age 11 onwards. One important part of this focusses on technology.

Despite the huge amount of tech-focussed stuff going on in the UK (and particularly in London, where we’re based) we’ve found it hard to know where to go, who to talk to and who can help us offer exciting, engaging and appropriate ways of engaging our students with technology. So, as my stock response to this type of challenge, I took to social media seeking the advice of my well-informed and well-connected networks to see what help they could offer. The response was fantastic. So I thought I would share the insight and wisdom offered to me, in the hope of helping others with similar challenges, to cut through the fluff. Here’s what I was got back…

I also got a lot of personal contacts, people sharing my request for help, passing it on to others and people offering support – which is amazing – but I’ve not posted them here as I wasn’t sure they’d appreciate being offered out as a source of support to anyone reading this blog. But I wanted to mention it as individuals who are prepared to help very definitely part of the story!

I’m sure this is a far from definitive list of groups and organisations interested in supporting young people to engage with technology in interesting, creative and inspiring ways…so feel free to add more suggestions to the list (post a comment and I’ll add any suggestions to the list).

I’ll try and let you know how we get on at the school – we did have a very good coding club (and no, it wasn’t called that Warren…it was a Minecraft Club but it was all about coding!) last term but we want to do much much more. And I hope that we’ll get some of the students sharing their experience on the topic too – I’ll be helping them set up their own students blog in a couple of weeks.

Thanks to all of you who offered ideas and insights. This post proves yet again the power of social media!

Links to tech and young people orgs [nb not all of these are doing work in schools or specifically with young people…but might still be relevant]

Make Things Do Stuff –

Facebook policy team –

Young Rewired State –

Mozilla Foundation –

Apps for Good –

Audioboo Teach Computing Podcast

STEM Clubs –

Coderdojo –

Code Club –

Fire Tech

Technology will save us –

Treehouse –

Code Academy –

Suffolk Creative Computing Club –

Khan Academy –

The Hour of Code –


Raspberry Pi Starter Kit – Pimoroni

Little Miss Geek

Changing communities – reflections on catalysing community evolution

Alice Casey’s recent article on Nesta’s Systemic Innovation discussion series raises some interesting questions about the future of communities and public service reform.

I like Alice’s suggestion of three promising ways that innovation is happening in practice:

Structures that value collaboration, relationships that enable power sharing and internet platforms that reveal patterns, help scale and lead to behaviour change.

It’s right to point to the importance of structures that value collaboration, but it’s not right to suggest that these are anything new. Whilst examples of projects like Spice and of community groups evolving to become providers of holistic community services are good to hear about, they are not new. Community trading/exchange schemes that are not based on financial interaction are have been around a long time. Timebanks are now well established, but Local Exchange Trading Schemes (LETS) have been around since the 1980s. I suspect that some bright spark advising a Minister (or Shadow Minister) decided they needed repackaging as something ‘new’ and so there’s a sudden rush to rebrand an old idea in a new wrapper. And, just to be clear I’m not suggesting Timebanks are bad simply because they aren’t LETS and both have their place. But all too often we dismiss decades of learning in the rush to reinvent the wheel for political reasons. The tendency for politicians to reinvent and rebrand the same ideas, without any regard for their heritage and learning from the past is a particular bugbear of mine.

Suggesting community groups providing holistic services is merely an emerging phenomenon is wide of the mark. For over a century the Settlement movement has sought to provide holistic services that meet the needs of local communities, more recently Development Trusts have operated in a similar way (and now the two movements are incorporated into a single association, with the creation of Locality[1]). And more generally, community groups are constantly joining up the dots and filling in the gaps of state provision.

Nonetheless, not every community group or development trust values collaboration and we should not confuse the governance model (eg not for profit) with the way they work – some community groups, charities, local authorities, for-profit-companies value collaboration and some don’t. I do however, agree wholeheartedly that to support and scale up approaches that place greater emphasis and value on collaboration, we need to see significant change in local authority behaviours – along, I would add, with central government and the rest of the public sector, and pretty much everyone else.

The Social Value Act is a useful hook, but if we expect it to be our salvation then we need to think again. I have been trying to do some serious thinking (as part of my work at Lambeth) about how we respond to some of these challenges – such as embedding a robust but manageable assessment of social value in our commissioning cycle. But there is a long way to go before we will have real confidence in any holistic measurement of impact.

Alice refers to ‘relationships that enable power sharing’ based on a shift from a deficit model, to a strengths based approach, which is a very positive development. But again, from my experience of trying to implement this sort of shift, the tricky bit is not in articulating the change, but in working out how it fits together with other bits of the system. For example, what happens when the priorities and ambitions of a neighbourhood differ markedly from the political priorities of an elected council (or indeed national government)? Do we take localism to its natural conclusion and devolve control fully to every neighbourhood? It’s a brave politician that would advocate that….Turkeys…Christmas? And just in case anyone’s wondering…I don’t believe for one second that Eric Pickles brand of smoke and mirrors centralising localism is doing anything of the sort.

But even putting that to one side, there’s still the question of how we connect the unearthed community assets with the state’s resource allocations, prioritisation and service delivery. At the most basic and practical level, these two approaches simply do not fit easily together.

Co-production is also an important part of the jigsaw, and citing Holy Cross (a project I know well) as a good example of co-production is fine, but it is one good, but small, project. How can coproduction work across an entire local authority boundary? In fact administrative boundaries aren’t always helpful, so we need a system that works across ward or council boundaries, as well as across departmental and service silos. And, if we’re properly taking account of social value – then it becomes even more complicated – as we start to ask, what the impact of Holy Cross (or every other individual project) is on the local economy, environment, cultural life, community safety, wellbeing….the list goes on.

Technology too offers potential benefits that can be utilised to support online and offline networking and collaboration. Though of course there are still considerable challenges we face in bridging the unequal availability and capability to use these new platforms. Nonetheless, progress is being made, where technology is applied in ways that fit with people’s everyday lives. And yet too few institutions have made the shift from broadcast to interaction in the way they use technology. There’s a reason social media has the name….it’s social, interactive, communal, shared; a point lost on a great many institutions.

So for me, the simple bit is agreeing that a strength based approach, co-production and using emerging technology are essential ingredients. What I’m not yet clear on – and have spent much time thinking about recently – is what the recipe is and the method we need to use to cook up some change.



[1] Locality was created from the merger of bassac – the membership group for settlements and action centres – with the Development Trusts Association.