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Cultures of Repair, Innovation

Cultures of Repair, Innovation. Presentation to the University of Cape Town & Mareka Institute, South Africa, 2006

Update: a slightly more print friendly version of this post appears here and the slides of the presentation can be downloaded via here [4MB].

In an effort to understand the total user experience I've taken time out during recent field studies in emerging markets to explore local repair cultures. The journey has taken me to cities such as Chengdu, Delhi, Ulan Bataar, Ho Chi Minh and Lhasa with recent brief stopovers in Kampala and Soweto. They all contain clusters of shops and market stalls selling a mixture of used and new mobile phones, and whilst (in this instance) size does not necessarily matter, they often operate on a scale not seen in cities such as London or Tokyo. The mobile phone market around Chengdu's Tai Shen Lan Lu Market for example stretches across number of streets and shopping arcades and includes 100's of small shops and stalls. If you want a snapshot of urban mobile phone consumers in emerging markets this is a good place to start.

All you need to get started. Delhi, 2005

What sets these locations apart from cities in more 'emerged' markets? Aside from the scale of what's on sale there is a thriving market for device repair services ranging from swapping out components to re-soldering circuit boards to reflashing phones in a language of your choice , naturally. Repairs are often carried out with little more than a screwdriver, a toothbrush (for cleaning contact points) the right knowledge and a flat surface to work on. Repair manuals (which appear to be reverse engineered) are available, written in Hindi, English and Chinese and can even be subscribed to, but there is little evidence of them being actively used. Instead many of the repairers rely on informal social networks to share knowledge on common faults, and repair techniques. It's often easier to peer over the shoulder of a neighbour than open the manual itself. Delhi has the distinction of also offering a wide variety of mobile phone repair courses at training institutes such as Britco and Bridco turning out a steady flow of mobile phone repair engineers. To round off the ecosystem wholesalers' offer all the tools required to set up and run a repair business from individual components and circuit board schematics to screwdrivers and software installers.

Wholesaler in Tai Shen Lan Lu Mobile Phone Market,  Chengdu, 2006

How are mobile phone repair cultures different from the everyday repair shops for other mainstream electronics filled with televisions and video recorders? For a start consider the volumes of mobile phones in the marketplace compared to other electronics. Network effects soon kick in - it's easier to find a dead RAZR to cannabalise for spares than spares for a Sony DVD drive drive quite simply because there's more of them about. The physical size of the products to be repaired is also an factor - consider the space required to store and repair 200 mobile phones vs CRT televisions. As objects that many consider essential tools for everyday life mobile phones are carried, dropped, sat on, run over, submerged in a wide variety of situations leading to use cases outside the parameters of most phones. Finally, for many emerging market consumers the phone is considered an essential tool for conducting a successful business whether it's a boda-boda driver in Kampala (gentleman on moped in photo, below) or a midwife in Xiamen. If a person has the choice between repairing a television or a (shared) mobile phone which do you think he or she would choose first?

Television repair. Lhasa, 2005

Boda-boda driver. When your mobile phone is necessary for your livelyhood - how long do you leave it bofore it is fixed? Kampala, 2006

Each of the cities mentioned above offers more formal repair services, usually officially through customer care service centers, but the scale and sophistication of what is on offer informally is way beyond what many readers of Future Perfect will be familiar. And yes, many of the places mentioned already have networks to (from my observations) efficiently recycle, repair and re-use a wide variety objects including electronics . But in the spirit of the Future Perfect let's start with a very basic question - why do these informal repair cultures exist at all? What is so different between London and Lhasa or Helsinki and Ho Chi Minh?

Circuit board repair is also possible. Ji Lin, 2006

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.

It's worth acknowledging that grey and black goods and services are also part of the mobile phone market ecosystem - whether it's passing faked goods off as originals or offering pirated software. Some markets also sell a wide variety of phones that copy the industrial designs of other products, examples are shown here and and example of how it can unfold here (these two links are unrelated). These are however, only a part of the whole market ecosystem and from my understanding are small in scale within the context of the physical markets' themselves, compared to the repair services on offer. And before you ask - no, I'm not arguing that piracy is a minor issue.

Used mobile phones with warrantee. Ulan Bataar, 2006

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 (though this could be offset by other factors such as inefficiency of using old batteries).

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? And, turning to my original interest in this topic and the work we do in the Mobile HCI Group, given the range of resources and skills available what would it take to turn cultures of repair into cultures of innovation?

It's all down to team. Delhi, 2006

I'm at Cape Town University today discussing qualitative research methods and Informal Repair Cultures. The slides of the presentation can be downloaded via here [4MB download] and related presentations here.

Writing from Cape Town | July 3, 2006 | Permalink


Check out Brian Larkin's "Degraded Images, Distorted Sounds: Nigerian Video and the Infrastructure of Piracy (2002)", for something similar. The underlying theme in the article is, that the lack of intellectual property law, and the resulting decentralization of the Nigerian piracy infra, is the foundation which keeps the distribution system alive.

There is some interesting developments in things, which might be called "fabrication documentation platforms", like www.instructables.com, which allow the creation and "social enrichment" of guides on creating/hacking/improving anything.

Posted by: vt at July 3, 2006 10:38 PM

Thanks for the links Ville.

Posted by: Jan at July 3, 2006 11:54 PM

Great post, Jan. I posted a sort of follow-up here: http://www.cityofsound.com/blog/2006/07/local_repair_cu.html

Posted by: Dan at July 7, 2006 4:39 AM

Am involved in design and innovation (TRIZ etc) images make you stop and think - keep it up

Posted by: EAMONN at December 1, 2006 11:18 PM