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UCL Public Engagement Blog



UCL Repair Café: Hope, confidence and friendship

By Jordan Abankwah, on 11 March 2022

The following blog has been written by Sara Brouwer (Institute of Making), Fiona Dear (The Restart Project), Ben Littlefield (UCL Engagement) and Rupy Kaur Matharu (Mechanical Engineering Researchers Society).

The UCL Repair Café that took place on 17th February 2022 was a collaboration between the Institute of Making, UCL Engagement, Dean Sully and volunteers from UCL Conservation, The Slade School of Fine Art, Mechanical Engineering Researchers Society, the Restart Project, Sustainable UCL and JPA Workspaces. (Photo credit – UCL Engagement)

On a windy, gazabo wobbling Thursday, 24 hours before Storm Eunice unleashed 122 mph winds on the UK (United Kingdom), a small group of dedicated volunteers gathered, aiming to do the opposite to weather-based destruction: to grow, re-purpose and repair.
The following blog shares the reflections of some of the key members of the team and lessons learnt for those who might want to take part or set up their own repair café.

repair cafe: people at sewing machines

Context and what was intended – Sara Brouwer

“Repair is a resilient act, material and social; local, adaptive and sharing. It is an act of obedience to oneself and ones communit(ies), and disobedient to hegemonic practices which do not serve the common good.” Quote by Bridget Harvey, https://therestartproject.org/london

The Institute of Making has long studied our attitudes to and emotions around raw materials and made objects. Every interaction with a material leaves a mark and, in that sense, there are no ‘sustainable’ making practices: every action expends energy, creates lasting change. However, as the damage to our environment mounts, we look towards practices that are smarter, kinder, restorative – and repair is certainly that.

Following the Institute of Making’s week-long series of public repair events in October (to honour International Repair Day; highlight our director Mark’s Dare to Repair radio series; and ring in the new Interdisciplinary Centre for Circular Metals), I felt that integrity demanded that we invest in our own on-campus community. Because, as Bridget Harvey’s above quote states, repair is not a one-off stunt, but a sustained social act.

For this reason, I offered to host the UCL Repair Café, a repeating event series where expert fixers teach local participants how to mend their broken possessions. The champion of the UCL Repair Café is undoubtably Dean Sully from the UCL Conservation department, who founded the event in 2017 and, alongside colleagues, students and volunteers, has kept it going ever since. In my role of Repair Cafe host, it was my intention 1) to highlight and celebrate the existence of the UCL Repair Café, 2) to construct a lasting network of ‘repairers’ from a multi-disciplinary range of UCL departments, 3) to provide sustainable planning frameworks for future hosts of the event and 4) to bring energy and enthusiasm back to a hugely worthwhile event following the inertia of the COVID-19 years.

Three people are gathered around a table covered in plants. One of the people is handing a plant cutting to another person to keep.

What happened on the day – Ben Littlefield

With a creak of gears and chains the main roller door to the Institute of Making opened, allowing access (and ventilation) to the eclectic workshop-style space beyond. Several tables had been set up with friendly volunteers staffing each one. At the entrance a couple of greeters spoke to passers-by, the question ‘Do you want to check out our repair café?’ causing at first slight confusion, then curiosity and finally sometimes delight and brandishing of freshly torn pockets or broken phone screens.

On entry, visitors were welcomed by a tiny, table-top rain forest with free plant cuttings and sage advice on plant repair. Further in, a table of softly humming sewing machines restitched sleeves, jumpers and coats, under the expert tutelage of Institute of Making workshop manager Romain. Another table was quickly taken over by darning, with rucksacks, coats and still-warm holey shoes rapidly sporting brightly coloured patches. About halfway into the Institute of Making a tabletop on DIY (Doing it Yourself) advice and conservation explored the problem-solving elements of repairing old gramophones, replacing 100-year-old worn-out pot-metal components with 3D printed facsimiles.

Down a short flight of stairs into the brightly lit main workshop area volunteers from both UCL Conservation and the Slade School of Fine Art shared the joy of not just repairing, but re-purposing – turning broken ceramics into pieces of art, freeing heirloom taxidermy hedgehogs from no-longer wanted plinths and fixing favourite umbrellas. Up a final staircase to the technology laden mezzanine, members of The Restart Project and the Mechanical Engineering Researchers Society repaired speakers, mobile phones and laptops. Beyond the Institute of Making, fixers from JPA Workspaces visited stricken furniture in UCL office spaces, breathing fresh life into swivel chairs without spin, cupboards missing castors or keys, wobbly tables, and desks with missing bolts.

A volunteer from the Restart Project takes apart a broken radio while the owner looks on.

Collaborators perspective – Fiona Dear

I joined the Repair Café as part of the electronics-focused section, run by the Restart Project in the style of our community Restart Parties. I have only recently started at the Restart Project, and this was my first time playing a coordinating role. I got to know the brilliant Restarters (the people who helped with fixing) and watched as participants were matched with a Restarter. They then got to look under the bonnet of their electronics and worked together to come up with solutions. Some left with a fixed appliance, others went away with a clearer idea of the problem and a plan to find a spare part, but committed to completing the fix, either by themselves or with support at an upcoming Restart Party. What was striking was how engaged the participants were: Whatever happened next, they were clearly not going to let their speakers, laptops or phones go without a fight.

As well as the joy of watching the world of repair opening up to participants, I got to take away some new skills and ideas myself. I learnt how to change the battery in my own phone, which is much more complicated than it should be – devices are not built to be repaired. I was also so inspired by the darning table, that that very evening I darned some favourite shoes and am now able to wear them again.

I loved wandering around the other sections of the event. The Institute of Making feels like a beautiful working museum and it was so inspiring to be plunged into a world where the central principles were about valuing the things we have, putting in effort to maintain or enhance them and then cherishing them even more. It was clear that there was a huge appetite for this sort of event – people want to fix things, they just need help and ideas. One visitor thought the repair café was a weekly event – bring it on I say.

Volunteers’ perspective – Rupy Kaur Matharu

Working in Mechanical Engineering means that the death of an “unfixable” electronic device sends sombre waves across the department. Whether that’s a trusty laptop falling apart, a “side project” breaking down, or the lab radio going silent, electronic death makes ALL of our muscles clench and the air turn cold. We, the Mechanical Engineering Researchers Society (MERS), decided to put a stop to this. We teamed up with the Institute of Making, UCL Engagement, The Restart Project, The Slade School of Art and JPA Spaces for the Repair Café.

Coffee chugged, breakfast inhaled, the team were ready to face the repair challenges that came through the door, all ably assisted by the Restart Project specialists. We nervously anticipated dealing with niche robotics and motherboards from dark corners of engineering departments, when in actuality we came across a bunch of phones, laptops and radios from all over UCL. We had the opportunity to speak with the owners, find out about their lives, journeys, and the story behind their possessions. It was amazing to see initial worries that an item could never be fixed evaporate as the day went on, and our own skills of diagnosing and coordinating repairs grow in confidence too.

Thankfully the vast majority of visitors walked away happy with either a completely repaired item or a plan of action to get it going again. Surprisingly, many repairs were relatively simple and transferable between visitors, which also meant that skills learnt on the day could be passed on to office- and lab-mates ready for future electrical first aid!

Looking over the sholder of a person they are holding fragments of ceramics that they have stuck together with resin and green tape

Evaluation – Ben Littlefield

The repair café was visited by 224 members of the UCL Community (including provost Michael Spence and his family), through a simple post-it graffiti wall and sticky dots visitors were asked how they found out about the day, what else would they like help with repairing and what might have changed for them after visiting. Most visitors either heard about the café through an Institute of Making e-mail campaign or were just passing by and were curious (the advantage of being in a busy thoroughfare). As well as the support already provided on textiles, ceramics, electronics, DIY and plants, visitors most wanted help with repairing jewellery and batteries.

Visitors left having learnt something ‘I learned a lot about value in conservation, had no idea!’ valued the experience ‘10/10 Thank you very much to Junaid and everyone for a great fix and friendly welcome’ and left feeling inspired:

‘Fixing stuff is so great, it’s good to feel like you can do something rather than throwing it out! (Restart sounds like a great initiative)’

From observing the event I was particularly struck by how delighted, joyful and satisfied everyone was, visitors through to volunteers – with other comments ranging from confidence, making new friends and even ‘… hope for us all to effect change in a desolate futurescape – Thank you’. I think the real success of the event was bringing together a diverse group of people all interested in sharing their sustainability related expertise and a pure desire to help one another. One of the things I am keen to explore is how a Repair Café approach can work to be a safe, supportive space for students and staff to practice public and community engagement that does practical, immediate good for all involved.

A close up photo of someone's hands as they darn a blue sock with lime green thread.

Summary of key tips, advice and learning, next steps

  • Learning: Visitors seemed to appreciate a mix of bookable and drop-in events, depending on the nature of the repair work. Textiles, shoes and miscellaneous object repair worked well on a drop-in basis, whereas electronics, furniture and plant repair worked well as bookable sessions or appointments, because these objects needed spare parts ordered in advance (electronics) or were too heavy to bring to the venue (furniture) or had to be brought in specially from home (plants).
  • Marketing: Having a venue close to a busy thoroughfare and volunteers out welcoming and inviting people in was essential – half of our respondents said they ‘were only walking past’ and it is likely that visitor numbers would have been much lower without that personal invitation and curiosity. Having a hand-out (a hand-drawn map of activities and the date of the next event) was a useful tool to both orient visitors and a nudge to come back if they couldn’t drop in when they first walked past.
  • Insight: Common themes in the evaluation were a sense of satisfaction, increased wellbeing and making new friends at a time when we are starting to reconnect. It is important to not just see the Repair Café as a space for helping people to fix things, but also a space for people to come together and share stories, learn from one another and delight in the unexpected.
  • Advice: It was crucial for the community aspect of the UCL Repair Café that the next date and location were already decided and were given to visitors of the current Repair Café. This will hopefully create continuity and deepen relationships.
  • Management: as the Repair Café organising community is a multidisciplinary/multi-departmental group of volunteers it could quite quickly get complicated to manage. To recognise the sometimes messy and decentralised approach that works for this event, each repair café is coordinated by its incoming host. We will reflect on how well this works in the future!

Signposting/ how to get involved

Related links to the UCL Repair Café –


Link to membership of the Institute of Making – https://members.instituteofmaking.org.uk

Other Repair Cafes taking place around London in local community settings – https://therestartproject.org/parties/?_sfm_party_groupcountry=United%20Kingdom&_sfm_party_groupcity=London

Hackney fixers – https://sustainablehackney.org.uk/hackney-fixers

Link to International Repair Day
BBC Radio 4 Dare to Repair series with Mark Miodownik
Link to UCL’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Circular Metals
Link to Junaid & Sarasfix, the electronics repair shop who volunteered at the event – https://sarasfix.co.uk

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