FAIR Denmark has closed up its workshop. This blog post gives more background on why why decided not to continue FAIR Denmark and what we think needs to change to make similar work succeed in the future.
Context: If you aren't familiar with our work in the past >1 decade, you should try scrolling through our photo galleries.
This blog post starts with a lot of analysis, but we’ll round off with a delightful Utopian vision ☀️
New challenges for refurbishing ICT equipment
This part is pretty negative! If you don’t like a bunch of complaints, scroll to the next section ⤵️
To our knowledge, a lot of companies have adopted practices that have made it harder to approach them with our previous socioeconomic mix of ICT reuse, and humanitarian impact:
- Data security: Even though we offer services that can safely wipe data, and even though modern companies should encrypt physical media, we are still seeing these worries turning into blockers for most decision makers. The perceived consequences for leaked data are too large for a volunteer organization, no matter how qualified or experienced, to build the trust needed to handle unsanitized media (more on this later).
- Leasing: Lots of companies have moved to leasing, and the life-cycle of leased equipment after it is returned is opaque.
- Computers are small portable devices: In the past, most equipment was large and not so handy. In order to clear space, it was necessary to get rid of devices. But now that devices are usually laptops, they are stored for free in cabinets and drawers. Portable devices are less modular and less repairable too.
- Easy giveaways: Companies share redundant equipment with employees, since it’s usually not an asset and has been written off as a one-time cost. A lot of devices are already take-home.
Challenges in our general environment include:
- Bureaucratized government support that isn’t suitable for civic society organizations: The small funding pool we relied upon (~¼ of our revenue), was replaced in 2023 with a new funding opportunity that simply isn’t aimed at supporting organizations like ours and favors the Danish educational sector as the primary partner and civic society as an optional secondary partner. That’s because the new funding model is aimed at enrolling Danish students in exchange, rather than directly benefiting the partner country. While that may sound doable, we approached educational institutions but didn’t have the resources to start these partnerships on top of maintaining what we consider primary partnerships (with abroad organizations). We would need administrative personnel on a payroll.
- Impossible to have a cheap workshop close to where volunteers live: We were located in Copenhagen for over 10 years, and we enjoyed a lot of benefits. It meant that volunteers could integrate civic society work in their daily lives by easily passing by the workshop to do day-to-day work. We have looked for other rentals MANY times, so trust us when we say that it’s really really difficult. And we cannot move around every other year. Designing and setting up the workshop was a year-long project.
- Students aren’t able to contribute anymore: Many volunteers in FAIR enjoyed more freedom as students 10 years ago, meaning that it was possible to participate in civic society. When we meet students now, they can only participate in a quick project. Most of our recent contributions have come from internships.
- In Malawi, we experience a similar challenge: Setting up partnerships has less resources, people have more fixed responsibilities and several attempts to engage in partnerships have drowned in bureaucratic procedures.
- Declining longevity of ICT equipment: A quick example is how all computers had VGA cables, but fast-forward we are now at a stage with matching laptops, chargers, docking stations etc. And the laptops are of course harder to maintain and upgrade, requiring more specific spare parts than desktops did a decade back.
Let’s try to address some of the challenges with some more direct recommendations.
Firstly, we know that there is still a GIGANTIC GAP between rich and poor countries. At some point, we had a little hack to redistribute resources and it worked well as a model. Now we need a new model, but we don’t know how it will look. Regardless, we think that redistribution of resources is still as relevant as it has ever been.
What we were doing would still make sense today.
The following list contains some suggestions of ways to address the challenges outlined before. We’ll conclude this with a fairy-tale Utopian concept of how we’d like our work to happen (with the one giant exception that we’d like global inequality eliminated).
What we would like to see is:
- Certify NGOs that refurbish: Our practices have always been simple and safe, and visiting our workshop and meeting with FAIR volunteers was always the best way for any company to build trust. Our contracts also had FAIR guarantee to pay compensation if anything was to happen due to mismanagement of data. But as mentioned earlier, since GDPR came into effect, we were increasingly challenged by companies asking for a seal of approval. Such a certification needs to come for free, because we are nonprofit, and we are doing good things. But as such, the certificate would be an opportunity that could boost more refurbishment.
- 100% responsibility from companies and organizations that purchase ICT equipment: Earmark ICT equipment as a future contribution for social good. The technological wheel keeps spinning, so there is no reason to think otherwise than a planning of a just future for your equipment. You will replace it.
- Organizations with reuse as a goal in itself! Organizations that reuse equipment (such as FAIR) are vital to understand the challenges that producers keep putting up with planned obsolescence and bad quality. We need a loud voice that tries to reuse and refurbish equipment to expose problems. This voice can even include commercial refurbishers.
- Maintenance in aid intervention: We have ONLY experienced how ICT projects that deliver equipment need to address maintenance and support. Equipment needs support and repair, no matter the context. TRAIN! PROVIDE SPARE PARTS! PLAN FOR REPLACEMENTS! Even if we weren’t shipping refurbished equipment but new equipment, it would still need repair and maintenance. Many ICT interventions using new equipment don’t recognize this need. We need a wide recognition of the need for maintenance so we don’t have to promote it on our own.
- Professional equals: The gap between donor and beneficiary can be eliminated when we are reusing and repairing with the same techniques. A computer that needs to be repaired in order to be donated also needs to be repaired and maintained by a beneficiary, so we can eliminate this distinction and work as equals on a technical level.
- Enable civic societies with resources and trust: We always found it ridiculous that our volunteers had to bother with so much work around finding affordable workshops and lifting the burden of rent. All the available grants for aid work do not allow for rent to be paid, and why should they, when the rent is for a private landlord in a rich city? Let students and workers enjoy more freedom to volunteer in civil work by having spaces available in the city!
- International collaboration for reuse of ICT equipment: We have developed our own workflows, logistics and software. But this should be infrastructure that’s easy to copy between small organizations globally. Building refurbishment processes and a software platform that can be reused in themselves would enable so much more than having each refurbishment NGO working as a little silo of knowledge and infrastructure.
- Open Source in education: School curriculums need to adapt to a wide variety of software and hardware platforms, and this remains a challenge. Official digital educational resources should promote openly licensed software, and content. Only supporting one single commercial actor (you can probably guess which) extends their monopoly. But we have seen many things change for the better. The struggle against smaller compatibility issues continues, for instance exam papers with platform-specific instructions. We see the switch from commercial software to open source software as a bit of a paradigm shift, and it would lend a great deal of help to these efforts if open source software and content is promoted by all highest levels of government.
- Open Source in aid: In a Western aid funding scenario, we would like to see recognition of openly licensed software and content. The EU is already promoting a strategy for European governments to build and use open source software for their projects, so why is government aid related to tech and ICT not doing the same and thus allowing commercial interests into aid projects?
…and there’s more we could add! It’s definitely not a problem to come up with great ideas on how to build a better environment to make reuse and refurbishment more successful.
Let’s allow ourselves to dream and be naive for a while. By removing all practical boundaries of how the world really works, we can see where we want to go much clearer:
Through an honest understanding that ICT equipment is born out of a huge environmental impact and should have its full potential human value unlocked, organizations that buy equipment choose to uphold a pledge to take responsibility for their equipment’s maximized life, impact and value. Buyers of ICT equipment understand its huge positive role in education for the children and youths in the world’s most poverty-impacted places. Everyone agrees that insisting on continued life-span of ICT equipment where it has the greatest human impact is a bare-minimum of wealth transfer, amounting to a moral imperative.
Acting out this moral imperative comes at no real risk for an altruistic company: In order to manage data security, certified NGOs ensure that the refurbishment process is efficient and safe. The NGOs even collaborate in a global network to build the best possible infrastructures for refurbishment and repair.
These local refurbishment and repair activities are carried out in fully equipped workshops by volunteer professionals, and everything is subsequently stored in a warehouse on pallets, ready to be packed in shipping containers. The workshop and the warehouse is provided free of charge, and the certification is done by a third-party free of charge. NGOs and volunteers can focus on their work, rather than fundraising to cover banal operational costs. All of the refurbished equipment is tracked throughout the process to ensure full transparency for anyone who has contributed equipment.
In the recipient country, the educational ministry is directly involved in handling maintenance and training and is running their own workshop that’s identical to the source country’s workshop. Infrastructure for repair and logistics is shared between the source country and the beneficiary, so they find lots of ways to collaborate and develop their efforts.
Finally, at educational facilities, the equipment realizes its potential through a range of open source software and educational content. University students visit sites and have important internship opportunities, and share important research and observations to continue the development of open source software and educational content, as well as doing on-site maintenance and teacher training.
Why did we write this blog post? We hope to use it as a reference for future initiatives. Maybe our own, maybe someone else’s.
You’re always welcome to keep in touch. Our lines are still open. Practically speaking, FAIR Norway continues to operate, and we do not have intentions to pull down our website.
Oh, and by the way, you can also follow FAIR Denmark on our new Fediverse account: https://fosstodon.org/@fairdanmark