City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Jan Chipchase has posted a fantastic summary of what he calls local
repair cultures
, as seen on his research travels across Chengdu, Delhi,
Ulan Bataar,  Ho Chi Minh, Lhasa, Kampala and Soweto. Jan describes the
highly innovative practices involved in acquiring, modifying and
repairing mobile phones in the bustling street markets of these cities.

India repair market image by Jan Chipchase

The activities can be simple to complex, ranging from "swapping out
components to re-soldering circuit boards to reflashing phones in a
language of your choice." The techniques are sometimes documented in
reverse-engineered manuals, but generally move more rapidly through
physical, social networks: "It’s often easier to peer over the shoulder
of a neighbour than open the manual itself"

Chengdu repair market image by Jan Chipchase

These repair cultures appear intensify in pace and scale even more than
traditional consumer electronics repair cultures around TVs, DVDs etc.,
largely due to the number of mobile components available and the
importance of the device itself in contemporary life.

There’s an entire ecosystem – from training to wholesalers –
articulated in Jan’s post, accompanied by his wonderful pictures (for example, those above). What
immediately springs to mind is a question that jumped out at Jan too:

"Why do these informal repair cultures exist at all? What is so different between London and Lhasa or Helsinki and Ho Chi Minh?"

Jan’s self-answer is clearly part way there at least:

"The informal repair services that are offered are quite
simply driven by necessity – highly price sensitive customers cannot
afford to go through more expensive official customer care centers and
even if they could their phones are unlikely to be covered by warrantee
– having been bought through grey market channels, been sent as gifts
from friends and relatives abroad, or were locally bought used, second
or third+ ownership. In many cases these users cannot afford to be
without their mobile phone, not in the social sense of being out of
touch (which is valid enough), but in many instances because their
livelihoods depend on it. On the supply side there is a ready pool of
sufficiently skilled labour, ready access to tools, components and
above all knowledge."

And yet I wonder whether there is more to it still, which veers closer to culture and history rather than simply economics.

At the first Design Engaged, I talked for 30 minutes or so, circling around the related topics of self-centred design, adaptation and hackability and so on, mainly in the context of social software (seeing a relationship between representation of self and adapting products to your personal needs.) In the Q&A aftermath, Mike Kuniavsky made a typically intriguing point that perhaps highly adaptive, iterative characteristics are useful, and indeed entwined with, the rapidly changing disruptive phases of new technology, but then things settle to well-worn patterns i.e. the design of major portals like Yahoo might be settling down some years on, rather than facilitating constant change. Mike’s response floored me slightly, and I gave a meandering response which essentially related to adaptation cultures in South Africa reusing motorcycle engines to charge cellphones, and that new technology introduction there would have to rely on entirely different approaches based around enabling re-use of components, recycling of products, high adaptation, shared ownership models and so on.

Mike seemed puzzled in return. Perhaps, as I later realised, I hadn’t clarified the main point I was trying to make. Which was: I wonder if some cultures were simply more attuned to adaptation than others. That some cultures would require the ability to adapt, recycle, misuse and recombine, perhaps more than those the first few generations of interactive products have been built for.  Moreover that the ‘Western (Northern) economies’, for want of a better phrase, might even be neglectful or worse in terms of engendering true adaptation.

I don’t have answers here, yet the levels of adaptation seen in the street markets of Delhi and Chengdu are simply off-the-scale compared to London, despite what you might sometimes see at Brick Lane market. These are obviously adaptive design practices, on a vernacular tip, wrenched from a technology platform which is generally built to be locked, used as it comes, and replaced within 18 months. It indicates the glorious lengths people will go to to adapt technology. So is this simply a function of economics (scarcity and poverty forcing re-use) or is adaptation culturally attuned?

From a traditional perspective, one might argue that London or Helsinki are the more ‘developed markets’ and that, therefore, their citizens should be enjoying the fruits of this. Yet let’s look at the consumer benefits Jan lists for those in these other cities:

"For consumers the informal repair culture is largely convenient, efficient, fast and cheap, reducing the total cost of ownership for people for whom a small drop in price may make the difference between having or not having a phone. The culture of repair also increases the lifetime of products lowering their environmental impact"

Wouldn’t we all want such benefits?! Lower total cost of ownership. Reduced environmental impact. Personally modified. Sounds good to me. I’m not suggesting we should torch all Carphone Warehouses and force the entire mobile phone retail sector to be conducted from the back of a truck as a result, but how can conditions apparently borne out of poverty, and almost implicitly assumed to be to do with lack of progress (cf. the phrases ‘developing world’ or ‘bottom of the pyramid’) offer such potentially universal benefits? Jan’s closing questions are entirely apposite and he, and his employer’s Nokia Research, should be applauded for this research in the first place:

"What can we learn from informal repair cultures? Aside from the benefits, what are the risks for consumers and for companies whose products are repaired, refurbished and resold? Given the benefit to (bottom of the pyramid) consumers are there elements of the repair ecosystem that can be exported to other cultures? Can the same skills be applied to other parts of the value chain?"

Given that the street finds its own use for things, let’s be acutely aware that different streets have a different sense of what is useful in different things. Let’s get into those different streets and start observing and enabling this experimentation and adaptation. If we find a use or behaviour which appears to have some more universal benefits, outside of that particular urban context, let’s try to fold that back into the platforms we’re making for multiple urban centres. Even if it appears to migrate from Ho Chi Minh to Helsinki, rather than the other way round.

Future Perfect: Cultures of Repair, Innovation


2 responses to “Local repair cultures”

  1. Abe Avatar

    The big piece of info that I really like to see in addition to Jan’s excellent work is a way to put it all in context. He’s out there hunting for this sort of stuff, a fact that certainly gives his report a certain bias. Just how many cell phone users are using these services? What are the demographics? How easy are they to find? In New York you can find this stuff, but you need to hunt, at least coming from a white middle class background. Part of it is certainly cultural, and part economic. The economics of buying an non-warranteed phone, or repairing a post-warranteed one are such that they are rarely worth it to a person whos time gets billed at say $20 an hour, let alone $200 an hour.
    The other interesting thing is the market culture. In the west markets tend to be privatized, stuck behind doors. A vender in a street market or bazaar is just way more public and accessible than one hidden in the back room of your local mobile dealership. And since this sort of activity doesn’t quite scale to include ad budgets, it remains niche and hidden, available only to those who seek it out actively.


  2. Jan Avatar

    Hei Dan, Abe,
    The research is both qualitative and full of my personal biases – but which is one of the reasons why it was so much fun to undertake.
    There is another side to the whole repair culture/mobile phone market which is that the ecosystem also makes it (marginally) easier for people who wish to always-have-the-latest phone, which it could be argued caters for greater consumption. Fancy phones break too, and repaired fancy phones are (or should be) cheaper than new ones.
    I agree that informal ecosystems exist to some extent in every culture, but the fact that it is not obvious suggests many things about our priorities as a society, both good and bad.


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