What is the best model for refurbishment of digital equipment in the city, from business to individuals and organisations? This question is answered through a blend of desktop research and interviews with local stakeholders.
There are a range of relevant policy frameworks, resource and existing schemes in the UK and elsewhere that can inform the development of a model. Existing schemes have developed around localised conditions, opportunities, networks and individuals which are not directly replicable. Some have been primarily aimed at enhancing digital inclusion or tackling digital poverty, others have targeted wider social, environmental or economic outcomes, or a blend of these
Access to devices is seen as a significant need locally, but is only one aspect of tackling digital poverty. There are several local schemes that have provided IT equipment locally over a number of years. There are perceived positive and negative aspects of these, but none meets all needs, including for specific groups who are identified as either excluded or having wider needs that require additional support. There are possible sources of equipment, volunteers and wider support that could support a new scheme.
The model for Norwich should be effective, secure, inclusive, financially sustainable, high quality and collaborative. The best model in the long-term would be a social enterprise that refurbishes IT devices at scale, and earns income from trading and training.
To build towards this, a pilot should be run based around the process outlined in the Reboot Playbook, which entails sourcing appropriate, reset devices, testing them, diagnosing and repairing faults where possible and recycling waste where not, then cleaning data and installing an operating system on devices, before distributing them in tandem with the wider system of digital inclusion. The pilot should focus on organisational donations of laptops, and should be hosted by a local organisation with experience in running similar projects. This pilot project should be evaluated for its impact on digital inclusion, waste, skills and social capital development, as well as quality and customer satisfaction.
The key question that this report seeks to answer is:
What is the best model for refurbishment of digital equipment in the city, from business to individuals and organisations?
This question was set by the commissioners of the report, and was informed by previous work to enhance Digital Inclusion in Norwich, including within the compass of the Norwich Good Economy Commission’s digital inclusion and innovation workstream .
To answer this question, I have undertaken a mixture of desktop research and interviews with key local stakeholders. Given the wealth of data and practice around digital inclusion and good practice in refurbishing IT devices, as well as a significant body of existing projects, relationships and approaches, I have sought to take an asset-based approach which builds on these firm foundations of insight and experience.
Desktop research was focused on identifying existing practice around IT device refurbishment in the UK and internationally, to understand what good practice could be reflected in any local scheme, and to establish how existing practice sits in a wider policy landscape around digital inclusion.
Interviews with stakeholders were undertaken over a 2 week period around a standard set of themes, which were intended primarily to gather information on the level and pattern of need for such a scheme, and what is already taking place in Norwich and Norfolk, both in terms of access to IT devices, and more widely around supporting digital inclusion.
Stakeholders were identified through an initial list provided by Norwich City Council of those engaged in digital inclusion locally, and supplemented by suggestions from those I interviewed, through a request on social media and through existing contacts.
Interviews lasted between thirty minutes and one hour either online or in person. Where online, these were recorded (with participants’ permission) so that quotes could be extracted accurately, whereas in-person meetings were recorded through note taking. In total eighteen people were interviewed, representing thirteen different organisations, four of which were business sector organisations, two were from the public sector and the rest from the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector.
There are a variety of relevant concepts, frameworks and ways of thinking that inform this report and the recommendations for a future model. The term digital inclusion is one that has become fairly well-established over recent years, and there are several frameworks for defining and measuring it. These include the UK Government’s Digital Inclusion Strategy which says that ‘Digital inclusion, or rather, reducing digital exclusion, is about making sure that people have the capability to use the internet to do things that benefit them day to day - whether they be individuals, SMEs or VCSE organisations.’
The strategy goes on to state that inclusion requires digital skills, connectivity and accessibility, and to identify some of the key groups who face digital exclusion and the issues this causes. This strategy was last updated in 2014, and although the principles and concepts are still relevant and useful, the context has changed, particularly with the advent of COVID-19. The rapid society-wide changes resulting from the pandemic include the wholesale pivoting of huge amounts of service delivery, education and commerce to the online world, which risks exacerbating the scope, scale and impact of digital exclusion . This risk has led to a rapid expansion of practice that seeks to mitigate digital exclusion.
A concept that has been developed by the BBC is that of ‘Digital Wellbeing’ . This is useful in contextualising individual behaviours in the values and needs that underpin them. This evidences how being online and digitally included is a means to achieving particular ends, such as connecting with others, having autonomy and exploring the world. Understanding these drivers of behaviour can help shape schemes in a way that ensures that beneficiaries’ motivation is reflected, as opposed to being shaped around achieving the organisational and policy objectives of the delivery organisations. Another more recently developed framework that provides a helpful way of understanding the issue is the ‘Determinants of Digital Poverty and Inequality Framework’ developed by the Digital Poverty Alliance . This is particularly relevant to this work, given that it explicitly contextualises ‘digital poverty’ in a wider socio-economic context, which gives a clear link to the wider aspiration and policy sphere of the Norwich Good Economy Commission. It also makes explicit that there is a policy horizon beyond simply ‘being included’, which concerns poverty and inequality.
This framework includes five ‘determinants’ of digital poverty, including ‘device and connectivity’, all of which are required to be addressed to tackle digital poverty. These then sit in a wider context of structural and circumstantial determinants that are factors that will in turn help or hinder attempts to address the five determinants.
This framework therefore gives a coherent basis for understanding how access to IT devices sits in a wider context, and helps to shape what success looks like, as well as to indicate potential points of failure around access to devices, and how these could be mitigated. Crucially, it makes clear that the provision of devices is, in itself, insufficient to address digital poverty.
Learning from elsewhere
Schemes to provide access to IT devices have been developed across the UK and internationally, including through the refurbishment of used devices. One of the key things to note is that many of these schemes have evolved around localised conditions, opportunities, networks and individuals, which are not directly replicable. There is no single, standardised approach, but there are clearly consistent patterns of practice from which we can learn.
Schemes have evolved for a variety of objectives, which can crudely be understood in three categories:
1. Schemes that are primarily driven by social and digital inclusion objectives
2. Schemes that are primarily driven by environmental objectives
3. Schemes that are primarily driven by economic objectives
Clearly individual schemes will often deliver a blend of these three types of objective, but understanding their primary aim helps to make sense of how schemes have developed, who they target and how they measure success. I will first highlight examples of schemes that exemplify these categories, before exploring some other examples and some of their aspects.
Social and digital inclusion
Cambridge Online (https://cambridgeonline.org.uk) are a charity based in Cambridgeshire, that delivers a range of services to ‘help people from the Cambridgeshire area to get online’, including skills training and provision of hardware and software. They have a particularly focus on ‘disabled, disadvantaged and older people’. As part of their work they accept donations of laptops and tablets, as long as they are working and have a power supply. These are then cleaned, data wiped, tested and redistributed to local individuals and organisations. Their refurbishment work therefore sits squarely within a wider mission of supporting digital and social inclusion. They are dependent on grants, sponsorship and donations.
Edinburgh Remakery (https://www.edinburghremakery.org.uk/buy/ refurbished-computers/) is an ‘environmental social enterprise committed to diverting waste from landfill, building a stronger community, and promoting a culture of repair and reuse’. They take donations of used IT equipment from members of the public and businesses, repair and refurbish them and distribute them either as gifts to ‘help those in need’ or by selling them at ‘affordable prices’. Although clearly this contributes to social inclusion, the primacy of achieving environmental outcomes means that they can remain ‘on mission’ whilst generating traded income.
Digital Inclusion (https://direcycle.org/about/) is a ‘not-for-profit’ based in Eastern Michigan, which has a mission ‘to lead, educate and train low and moderate income youth and young adults in multiple areas of information technology, and by doing so, create community access to affordable technology, technology support and possible information technology career pathways for those individuals.’ This includes refurbishing and distributing IT devices, with the long-term objective of providing pathways into work in the IT sector for young people from low-income backgrounds. Clearly this longterm aim is intended to enhance social inclusion, through a specifically economic pathway of participation in the labour market, with the refurbishment and distribution of IT devices as a mechanism. As with Edinburgh Remakery, this does allow for traded income to be generated by the sale of devices at relatively low cost.
Several other schemes have helpfully published insights into they ways that they have developed their schemes and key lessons learnt. These invaluable resources include The Reboot Project’s Playbook and the Remade Network’s 6 ‘Model for a Citywide Repair Economy’ , which both provide comprehensive 7 accounts of the various aspects of refurbishments projects, what to consider and their recommended approaches. One of the key issues highlighted by the Reboot Project is that there are choices to be made about whether technical aspects of a scheme are undertaken in the scheme (by employees or volunteers) or whether these are undertaken by a commercial IT provider. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches which are discussed below.
Other helpful guidance comes from the London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI), which is a public sector partnership that is ‘helping London’s public sector organisations upcycle their retired devices to benefit digitally excluded Londoners’. One minor point on language from LOTI’s work, is that the term ‘upcycling’ has less resonance with various audiences than alternatives, so I am using the term ‘refurbishing’ throughout this document, although ‘upcycling’ is a term used by some stakeholders.
Another invaluable resource (albeit a few years old) is an online video showing the operational side of a large Californian scheme called ‘Computers for Classrooms’, which illustrates the complexity involved and sheer space required to receive, refurbish and distribute devices at scale. It also evidences how a sustainable funding model can be built through developing an array of income sources, including selling low-cost devices to individuals (starting at $50) and schools, as well as ‘urban mining’ or extracting components from donated but unviable equipment. It is possibly the most successful example I have come across of blending the range of outcomes discussed above.
I draw on aspects of all these resources in the section of this report that recommends a model for Norwich, so rather than replicate content, will go on to highlight some lessons learnt from other schemes.
The Restart Project lists schemes across the UK that receive donations of IT equipment, many of which are embedded in wider community repair models. The Hackney Fixers are a good example of this. There is an explicit commitment to reducing waste, through holding community ‘repair parties’ that allow local residents to learn new skills and learn how to maintain and repair electrical and electronic devices. Their core team of ‘fixers’ refurbish laptops for community use, but the community model means that numbers of devices are low.
Many examples of community ‘pop-up’ events exist which are aligned to the international ‘Repair Cafe’ movement . Again the intended impact is the development of long-term culture change towards one of repair rather than waste, and increased community capacity, capability and social capital to support this. This wide ambition is captured in this quote from ‘Repair Cafe Hudson Valley:’
‘Repair is about our community and our planet, it is more than just an opportunity to fix broken things, it is also an opportunity to fix broken systems and relationships’.
Success for these schemes should be judged in those terms, but if the ambition is to maximise provision of IT devices for digital inclusion, then these models are unlikely to offer an ‘at-scale’ solution. However, there are aspects of a ‘repair cafe’ approach that would help to ensure that devices, once refurbished and distributed, are viable on an ongoing basis.
One scheme that has successfully refurbished devices at a significant scale is the ‘Community Calling’ project, which was established by the environmental charity Hubbub in response to COVID-19. This has focused on sourcing donations of smartphones, which are then data wiped, reset and provided to members of the community who require them, via existing community groups.
One aspect of this project that seems to underpin success are strong partnerships. They have a commercial tech partner who is able to handle the scale of devices that they are working with (they have a target of 10,000 devices), they are supported by O2, who provide sponsorship and 12 month’s free data for beneficiaries of the project, and community partners who distribute the refurbished devices to the ultimate beneficiaries. This means that the project itself can focus on staying on mission and delivering the functions (such as sourcing devices, managing partnerships and measuring impact) that will ensure impact and sustainability. Another positive element of the project is that the devices are provided with free data as well as access to digital skills training.
This means that the beneficiaries not only have devices but can use them and get online to achieve what they want to. The focus on a single form of device (smartphones) is potentially a positive element as it retains focus and reduces complexity, but there are clearly also limitations to smartphones for a wide array of uses, which therefore limits the opportunities for optimal digital inclusion.
Some schemes (such as Glasgow Clyde College’s) have become part of the Microsoft Authorised Refurbisher Programme , which brings benefits including low cost licences for Windows and Office software, as well as providing equipment donors and recipients a level of confidence in the robustness of the refurbishment process. However, as discussed in a later section, there may be advantages to using other operating systems than Windows.
or many of the schemes, a critical consideration is the effectiveness of the data wiping process. This is critical because there are both legal and reputational risks without a robust process. Several schemes have identified that both individual and organisational donors of equipment are highly circumspect about donating equipment if they are not assured that the data on their devices will be irretrievably wiped. There are various approaches to this which vary in mechanics (such as the ‘the write-zero method’ or using free open-source software ) but are united in their outcome - hard disks are.
Completely erased of all pre-existing data. Several schemes will provide certification to equipment donors that this has been done, which helps to secure trust in the scheme. As mentioned above, this data wiping can be undertaken through a commercial IT partner, but there are no major technical, regulatory or financial barriers to this being undertaken by staff or volunteers in a given scheme, with the right software, knowledge and time.
Many schemes that provide IT equipment do so on a loan basis. One key advantage of this is that more beneficiaries can be reached as the equipment can be cleaned, reset and re-distributed to subsequent beneficiaries, which extends the reach of the scheme. However, there are limitations to the impact of these, as the beneficiaries who receive devices on this basis may not be able to then replace the loaned device at the end of the loan period for financial or other reasons. Even if they can, they will still face the issue of adapting to a new machine and having to set it up according to their preferences. One possible solution is employed by a scheme based in Somerset which one interviewee mentioned (about which I have been unable to find further information), namely that at the end of the loan period, the loanee is given the option to purchase the device at a reduced cost. If this is signalled at the outset of the loan, then the loanee could plan around this option. This was seen as a positive approach as people were ‘invested in their device and had figured out how to use it.’
There are dozens if not hundreds of schemes around the UK of all scales, ambition and impact, and there is mostly a willingness to share experience and recommendations for other schemes. So one recommendation from this research is that anyone running a future scheme locally dedicates time to making connections with and joining existing networks around digital inclusion.
The findings from the interviews with local stakeholders are grouped thematically in this section. The themes reflect both the questions asked and the issues that emerged during the course of conversations. I have not attributed quotes directly to individuals, but have tried to indicate their provenance where it is relevant.
Most respondents reported that access to devices is a significant need, with one participant stating ‘generally speaking it’s a huge barrier to digital inclusion, alongside data…data and equipment, that’s really it’. One VCSE provider’s digital inclusion project reported that most of the referrals they receive are for equipment and data, as opposed to digital skills or training. This may be a reflection of how needs are assessed by individuals and referring organisations, with other issues such as skills and confidence aspect being under-identified, but it still indicates that access to digital equipment remains a significant need locally, despite the existence of the schemes mentioned below.
None of the interviewees provided quantitative data on levels of need specifically around access to devices. Your Own Place Advisory Board’s recent Digital Inclusion report reports that 14.5 per cent of respondents disagreed that they could connect to the internet and feel confident using it. This is of a similar level to national data on households without access to the internet, with ONS reporting that in the East of England in 2018, 9.4 per cent of the population did not use the internet . However, this could be for a number of reasons, including (but not exclusively) not having an appropriate device. Within this national data, cost of equipment accounted only for 8 per cent of those not accessing the internet, with the same proportion reporting cost of broadband as the main cause. This was dwarfed by the 64% who said they did not need or want the internet. If this pattern were replicated locally, then access to free devices would make a contribution to tackling digital exclusion, but wider interventions would still be required.
In terms of specific groups for whom access to devices is more of an issue, the most prevalent group identified by respondents was those on low income, irrespective of other characteristics. This implies that cost of devices that are available through the mainstream market, whether new or secondhand, is a significant barrier. Any refurbishing scheme intended to increase inclusion would therefore need to provide zero or very low cost access to devices if it is not to simply replicate this barrier.
However, it was noted by a couple of respondents that cost is not the main barrier for some people they support. One VCSE provider stated that for some people, knowing what sort of device would allow them to do what they want to do was a barrier, and that some sort of informed choice/personal shopper support would help. They also reported that there was sometimes a sense of embarrassment from young people that they did not know what sort of device would be appropriate for them as they didn’t understand technical differences between machines and yet feel that ‘as young people, they should know this stuff’. Another respondent identified that older people may have funds but ‘don’t get the value of tech and the digital world, so why would they spend money on that kind of a thing?’
Particular groups who have specific access needs in relation to IT technology were mentioned by several participants. These include people with a visual impairment, people who have limited English and Deaf people, particularly BSL speakers. The specific needs of these groups need to be reflected in any scheme to ensure it is inclusive, and this would start in the early stages of designing and building a scheme. Solutions do exist, including assistive technology lending libraries, free screen reading software or ‘providing interpreters or subtitles’. Again it is clear there is existing knowledge and support that can be drawn on, including from those with lived experience and organisations who support them. Distribution of devices in partnership with cohort-specific organisations who are able to supply the wider accessibility expertise and support would also help support this inclusivity, though it should not be assumed that this capacity would exist without funding. There are also financial schemes (including the Norfolk Assistance Scheme and Access to Work scheme) that could provide financial assistance to purchase additional equipment such as assistive technology.
Another group with a specific need are those in supported or shared accommodation and hostels, as a lack of safe space to store equipment can be an issue, although this was only raised by one respondent. However, several respondents did mention that having appropriate space for equipment was important more generally, and that this exacerbated in the case of desktop computers because they are likely to require dedicated space, which can be limited. This point was reinforced by one respondent who works with groups including asylum seekers and refugees, some of whom live in crowded, noisy accommodation, and for whom having a laptop that can be moved into a quieter room when (for example) accessing remote advice services can be essential. This also implies that the privacy of the individual using a device is enhanced by having a laptop, tablet or other mobile device, which is understandably important for a range of reasons, including data security and accessing confidential services.
Reflecting the above discussion of frameworks, several respondents commented that the provision of devices, whether new or refurbished, loaned or gifted, is only effective in achieving digital inclusion objectives if the beneficiaries have skills and data/broadband such that they can use their devices effectively. This emerged as a key aspect of the need that any scheme needs to reflect - it must at least be able to assess whether there are wider needs. The Digital Poverty Framework provides a good checklist so that the impact of device provision is not undermined by gaps in terms of connectivity, access, capability, motivation or support, or wider socioeconomic determinants, all of which were mentioned by respondents. For example two respondents highlighted a risk that devices from other schemes have been sold by recipients who were in financial distress. Similarly the issue of trust and confidence is one that emerged from several interviewees, with one saying that they try to strike a balance between ‘helping people understand genuine risks without scaring them off (getting online) altogether!’ Again, no scheme needs to meet all these needs, and in fact the attempt to do so would ensure failure owing to lack of strategic focus, but a successful scheme should be informed by an understanding of them, and embedded in a system that reflects them.
One theme that emerged from several interviewees was a marked preference for laptops over other forms of devices. Desktops were described as ‘not what people really want these days’, and smartphones were seen by several respondents as being too limited in functionality to support full digital inclusion. Two VCSE interviewees also pointed out that their service users (young people and refugees/asylum seekers respectively) mostly already own smartphones, so for them access to data and more functional devices were a priority.
There are and have been several schemes that have provided IT equipment to individuals, households and organisations to tackle digital exclusion locally over a number of years. Several of these emerged as a direct response to the lockdowns of 2020-21 resulting from COVID-19, particularly to ensure that children could continue to participate in education whilst schools were largely operating through remote learning. The largest of these schemes seems to have been that co-ordinated by Norfolk County Council. In addition to the national scheme initiated by The Department for Education (DfE) which has provided around 1800 new laptops to schools in Norfolk, the county council has been refurbishing its own laptops that are being replaced, and providing these for schools to distribute to children for home-learning, as well as a one month loan for parents to access school-related services such as applying for free school meals. This is being undertaken by the council’s own IT department, and the total number of devices distributed is 5-6000, with a further 2,000 devices expected to be distributed by May 2022. This includes a number of devices that have been distributed through voluntary sector partners whose service users are at risk of digital exclusion. There is a reasonable level of awareness about this scheme with several interviewees having heard of it, and it is generally viewed as positive and having quickly addressed a significant need. However, a couple of participants observed that as this was largely limited to school children, it did not meet all of the need locally. There were also reservations expressed (in common with other loan-based schemes tied to specific learning opportunities) that loaning a device risks including beneficiaries during the term of the loan, only to then reinstate exclusion at the end of the loan period. This could have a range of impacts, including reducing beneficiaries’ sense of agency which, in turn, reinforces exclusion across multiple domains, including digital. The fact of being a loan was also considered potentially off-putting for potential beneficiaries, especially where there is a loan agreement with possible financial penalties for damage or loss, as the financial risk to low income households is too high. As discussed in the previous section, opportunities to convert a loan to a purchase at the end of a loan period was suggested as a potential mitigation, whilst not simply gifting devices.
As well as national schemes (such as from Virgin Media’s distribution of Chromebooks and data) other local schemes that interviewees mentioned, included:
- Norwich City Council’s digital stuff hub in collaboration with Voluntary Norfolk, which lends some devices including Mifi data devices
- Laptop gifting schemes during lockdown from organisations, including Citizens Advice, the Children’s Society and Norwich Business Improvement District
- Device loan schemes from Norfolk Community Foundation and Better Together Norfolk
- Provision and purchase of IT equipment through the Norfolk Assistance Scheme and educational hardship funds particularly for training, education and employability
- Norfolk Libraries partnership with the NHS Trust’s Digital Transformation team to support inclusive access to healthcare
- Loan schemes for participants in particular projects, such as Your Own Place’s DigiTILS courses
- Some private IT providers providing refurbished devices (particularly desktops) that have no second-hand market value or are gifted as corporate social responsibility
It should be noted that Norfolk County Council’s Digital Inclusion Strategy (refreshed November 2021) includes a commitment to ongoing provision of devices (1,000 per year across the county) and equipment, including assistive technology. This will be a significant contribution to tackling ‘the digital divide’ and any Norwich scheme should seek to complement rather than duplicate or compete with this.
Sources of equipment
Several interviewees were aware of potential sources of devices to be refurbished. Most of these were from organisational sources, and one public sector respondent suggested that in their experience, organisational donations were preferable. This was because donations received from members of the public were not of consistent quality, and had a higher proportion of devices ‘that weren’t really fit to be repurposed’. There were also greater issues around data cleaning as the devices may not have been reset by the donors.
Several of the local schemes mentioned above have received and distributed refurbished devices from either the UEA or Norfolk County Council, both of whom have significant ongoing, upgrade programmes. Both of these would appear to offer a potential future supply of devices, however interviewees reported that both are undertaking the refurbishment ‘in-house’ at the moment. This presumably limits their relevance to any new refurbishment scheme in Norwich, but there are other significant public and private sector organisations who also have upgrade programmes that would potentially represent a steady supply of devices for refurbishment.
Business in the Community have already identified several large businesses who are interested in donating machines, potentially alongside IT professional volunteers to support a schemes. Norwich BID and Norfolk Community Foundation also mentioned that they are aware of potential corporate contacts who would be interested in supporting a scheme. One key next step towards establishing a new scheme will be to hold a workshop with potential donors to understand their needs, what they can supply and to co-design a process for donating devices.
One public sector interviewee did mention that resource pressures in their organisation meant that devices were having to be used in the organisation for a longer duration than previously, which limits their potential for a refurbishment scheme as they will be older and more heavily used than may be viable for refurbishment. However, there is clearly a supply of devices that could be accessed for refurbishment, though these may not exactly match demand, with laptops being reported by most interviewees as the most desired type of device.
In outlining the ambition to establish a scheme, most participants were positive that it would be a good opportunity to enhance existing provision and meet local need. There seems to be a widespread willingness to collaborate and to contribute to the success of a scheme, from all sectors, and as one interviewee said, members of the public are ‘willing to do their bit’ because they understand how significant an issue digital exclusion is.
There is a strong opportunity to work with local businesses in many different aspects of the scheme. As well as being potential donors of devices, and a source of volunteers, one local private sector IT provider said that they would be willing to help with suggestions for sources of equipment, sharing technical knowledge, or providing some services ‘not as a moneymaking opportunity’, and believed that many competitors would say the same. However a couple of interviewees mentioned that any scheme should not conflict with existing commercial providers. Interestingly, some of the other schemes from other parts of the world that are social enterprises believe that their success is in part down to the fact that they are able to compete with, and in some cases, out-compete existing commercial market incumbents.
There would be undoubted advantages of working with a commercial IT provider in terms of utilising existing assets such as technical knowledge, space, networks and equipment, and the potential to share the risk around data cleaning. However, ‘out-sourcing’ all technical aspects also potentially precludes those same assets being built within a project, which ultimately may hamper the ability to build a long term, sustainable model, for example through increasing costs and limiting income from trading and training. This is discussed further in the section below on a suggested model for Norwich.
There is certainly an opportunity to embed formal training aspects into any scheme. The two specific opportunities identified by stakeholders are that Future Projects are able to provide AQA accreditation for their training provision, and Norwich City College suggested that a 16-week Skills Bootcamp model may fit well with a refurbishment project. The other opportunity that Future Projects identified is that they are part of a successful bid to the Community Renewal Fund (CRF), in partnership with the city council, Voluntary Norfolk and Shoebox which also entails repairing and refurbishing IT devices for local community groups. Given the overlap in skills and ambition, there would clearly be benefits to any future scheme working closely alongside that CRF project.
Specific other opportunities arising from the stakeholder engagement include clear overlaps with the BID’s upcycle your waste project , as well as with the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce led ‘Business Climate Leaders’ project .
One final theme to arise from a number of interviewees (particularly VCSE agencies) was that of the potential implications of giving away used devices. Although this was seen as a positive thing in terms of reduced waste, there is also a perceived risk of stigmatising or inadvertently reinforcing existing hierarchies. This is a risk with any project that has ‘charitable’ aims, but it can be mitigated; two of the key mitigations would be to ensure that there is an equity of voice and influence between all stakeholders within the project, including those who are gifted devices, and a commitment to high quality provision; as one interviewee said ‘secondhand does not have to mean second best’
A model for Norwich
The examples from elsewhere and the insights of local stakeholders constitute an evidence base from which to turn to the core question of the report: What is the best model for refurbishment of digital equipment in the city, from business to individuals and organisations.
To establish what would constitute ‘the best model’ I will first consider the criteria that is implied by the evidence gathered, before continuing to suggest how those criteria could be met in Norwich. Those criteria can be described in these broad areas:
- Effective. Any scheme needs to have an impact on reducing digital poverty. In so doing it can also achieve wider environmental and social objectives through decisions made about how the scheme operates. This requires a clear strategic framework to articulate and measure success.
- Secure. Data security is a paramount consideration in any scheme for a host of reputational, tactical and legal reasons.
- Inclusive. Given the prevalence of digital poverty amongst groups of people who share specific characteristics (for example disability and refugee status), any scheme needs to be designed and delivered in an inclusive way.
- Financially Sustainable. The best model is one that will be able to sustain itself for the long-term through a range of income sources, as the need for digital access seems unlikely to reduce in the foreseeable future
- High quality. This means that the devices that are provided through the scheme need to be ‘fit for purpose’ but also that they can continue to be viable for a reasonable period of time after being received by beneficiaries.
- Collaborative. Given the range of elements that need to accompany access to devices (connectivity, skills etc), no single scheme will be able to achieve all of these in isolation at scale, so being embedded in the local and national networks around digital inclusion will be key to success.
Objective and strategy The objective is to reduce digital poverty in Norwich through refurbishing IT devices in a socially and environmentally positive way.
The key outcomes would be:
- Reduced digital poverty
- Reduced waste
- Improved skills and employability
- Increased social capital
Given the above criteria, I believe the best long-term strategy to achieve this would be to develop a social enterprise that refurbishes IT devices at scale, and ultimately sustains itself through earning income from trading and training.
The trading aspect would consist of selling some devices (and potentially repair services) to some individual and organisational customers at low cost, whilst gifting devices to the those who meet certain criteria. As discussed above, a loan to purchase conversion could also be included, which also brings the opportunity to support beneficiaries around accessing hardship or other funds, or developing small savings amounts over the period of the loan.
However, building a social enterprise along these lines is not something that is likely to be achieved immediately, so I recommend building towards that model. The following paragraphs explains what I think are the best tactics to start that process.
The first stage of building towards a sustainable model is a pilot scheme that tests the core aspects of receiving, readying and distributing devices. Although it cannot test all of the aspects of a possible social enterprise, a pilot could test and learn about the viability, risks and issues around the core aspects of the refurbishment process, whilst laying the foundations for the longer-term ambition.
A simplified process for the pilot project is shown in figure 2, followed by some observations on each of these stages. Much of the detail of each stage can be better understood from the Reboot Playbook mentioned above, but some discussion of what could work locally for these stages follows.
- Sourcing devices. Given the views of stakeholders explored above, for the purpose of the pilot scheme, there should be a focus on laptops as the device of choice, and initially at least, the scheme should only seek organisational donors of equipment, owing to the complexity of managing individual donations. Any longer term scheme could widen its scope in terms of types of device and sources of donation.
- Diagnosing and repair. Although a commercial IT partner delivering the technical aspects would allow relatively rapid mobilisation at scale, ultimately this would not build knowledge and capability within a scheme. Building knowledge and capacity within the scheme would be assets that would allow for a trading and training income model to be developed in the long-term.
- Readying devices. There are options on possible operating systems, but for the purposes of the pilot scheme, I would recommend sticking to a single option, namely Chrome OS, as it requires less technical knowledge to install and to maintain, and has no licence fee.
- Distributing devices. For the pilot scheme, distribution could be undertaken in part collaboratively through Norwich’s existing digital inclusion provision, but it is a critical point in the process; if the distribution of devices is not undertaken correctly, then the impact of the previous stages of the project will be undermined. The pilot could also test the viability of selling devices at low cost and gifting to others against certain criteria, to understand the complexities and risks around this.
The pilot scheme therefore would consist of three elements:
- Project management. The pilot scheme will need to establish and manage the key operational processes for the scheme. These include managing relationships with organisational equipment donors, vetting and receiving device donations, sourcing, vetting and placing trainees and volunteers, financial management, embedding the scheme within the wider digital inclusion ecosystem, and monitoring and evaluating the scheme. For the purposes of the pilot scheme, it makes sense to embed this function in an existing organisation for speed and economies of scale. However, there should be transparency and agreement around the desire to explore the potential for developing a social enterprise on the back of the pilot scheme. The host organisation should therefore be a VCSE sector organisation, who have experience in digital inclusion and/or running similar projects.
- Technical team. The technical team in the pilot scheme will need at least one person (either employed or contracted) who has the appropriate technical knowledge and capability to deliver core technical functions from day one, but also the ability to mentor and train others in them. Their capacity should be supplemented by trainee technicians, who ideally are part of some formal training or employability scheme (such as Skills Bootcamps ), so that over the lifetime of the pilot, those trainees gain 23 entry-level job readiness in the IT sector. There would also be corporate volunteering opportunities to provide additional capacity and expertise to the technical team.
- Ongoing support. At the point of distribution of a device, there should be an assessment of need for the recipient to establish any wider issues, because, as discussed above, receiving a device is often only one part of a nexus of needs that underpin digital poverty. Where additional needs are identified, recipients should be signposted and/or supported to access appropriate provision. This means that the pilot scheme will have to work collaboratively with existing local provision. There is a reasonable level of support for digital skills in existence, which beneficiaries of the scheme could be directed towards, but there may be a need to supplement this with further community repair and maintenance pop-up events, to ensure that devices remain viable and used. There is a website for a nascent Norwich Repair Cafe , but this does not appear to be up and running yet, but again, there may be opportunities to collaborate once it is delivering.
Corporate or community volunteers could provide additional capacity and expertise for all elements of the scheme, Where appropriate and desired, significant volunteering time (e.g. 50 hours or more) could be recognised through receipt of a free computer. There would be resource required within the project management to manage volunteers and to ensure that their experience was a positive one.
The question of data access is one that needs to be addressed. The easiest solution for the pilot phase would be to become a partner in the Goodthings Foundation’s National Databank programme. However, there are no guarantees that this is possible, so alternatives may have to be sought. These could include seeking a corporate partner (ideally a telecoms/ broadband provider) who will gift e.g 6 months of free data to scheme beneficiaries, or to build on the emergency databank model that has been piloted by the Good Economy Commission.
One final requirement will be appropriate space for the pilot scheme. There will need to be secure and safe (in terms of physical safety) place that is also adequate in size to host the storage and workshop elements of the project. There are considerations around (for example) the particulate matter that can be released with some techniques and elements of taking devices apart and destroying hard disks, so this should be considered. I have not been able to establish if any appropriate space exists, but this may be something to discuss with potential corporate partners, or may be an opportunity for a ‘meanwhile’ use of space for a currently empty property owned by one of the project partners.
Monitoring and evaluation
In researching the question of evaluation, I was struck by this quote from Brazilian academic André Lemos: “Can we really measure social inclusion by the number of computers per capita, by the number of internet users and other like statistics? Again, including means here adapting, moulding and forming individuals able to use software and operating systems that can be out of date in only a few months…
Perhaps the true social inclusion is through educating on the new media, not just the techniques, but through the development of a critical thought and disquiet in relation to that which they sell us as the newest, best thing, that will just rot in front of us…
This is clearly quite a radical perspective on measurement, which implies significant philosophical, political and cultural objectives beyond the simple idea that being digitally included is ‘a good thing’ in and of itself. However, the objectives laid out above can still be used to evaluate the success of the pilot scheme, with some key metrics derived from those outcomes. The more nebulous question of culture change towards a circular economy that challenges our relationship to commodities and consumption, may be best dealt with through more discursive methods that evolve during the project, and are linked to the wider ambition of the Norwich Good Economy Commission.
More prosaically, the following table includes simple measures that can be used to measure the outputs (i.e. the amount of something that has taken place) and the outcomes (i.e. the difference the activities have made) of the pilot. Several of these are already established metrics or have been used by existing schemes. One useful resource is the UK government guide to measuring digital inclusion which includes suggested outcomes and indicators, from which a raft of measures could be derived. As the pilot is developed, the viability of collecting these in a light-touch way should be assessed. As ever with monitoring and evaluation, it is worth remembering that ‘something is better than nothing’ and that any funders or sponsors may well have their own set of metrics. There needs to be a measure of pragmatism about how monitoring and evaluation is undertaken, so that lessons are learnt, improvements made and impact understood, without overburdening the project. That being said, here are some suggested measures:
Reduced digital poverty
Numbers of beneficiaries (could be broken down further) Numbers of devices provided
Proportion of beneficiaries who have been able to get online with their device Number of hours online (per device / beneficiary) Self-reported digital confidence
Number (or tonnage) of equipment refurbished Number of devices repaired in community
Amount of CO2 saved Amount of water saved
Improved skills and employability
Number of trainees
Number of qualifications gained
Self-reported trainee confidence Proportion of trainees gaining employment
Increased social capital
Number of community events Number of people attending community events
Number of new connections made at community events Self-reported feeling of scheme participants of ‘being part of community’
|Reduced digital poverty||Numbers of beneficiaries (could be broken down further) Numbers of devices provided||Proportion of beneficiaries who have been able to get online with their device Number of hours online (per device / beneficiary) Self-reported digital confidence|
|Improved skills and employability||
Number of trainees Number of qualifications gained
|Self-reported trainee confidence Proportion of trainees gaining employment|
|Increased social capital||Number of community events Number of people attending community events||Number of new connections made at community events Self-reported feeling of scheme participants of ‘being part of community’|
With an eye on future development of a trading model, I also suggest measuring reliability of devices post-distribution, as well as customer satisfaction. Quality of product will ultimately determine the possibility of selling devices in the future, which I believe is key to the viability of a future social enterprise. As Pat Furr, founder of Computers for Classrooms said, “if they think it’s a shoddy piece of used equipment, you’d be out of business in a hurry”.
Given the pilot scheme and the potential longer term ambition, the next steps should be:
1. The Good Economy Commission to consider this report and share it with key digital inclusion stakeholders
2. The Good Economy Commission to identify a host organisation for a pilot scheme
3. The pilot project lead to read some of the resources mentioned in this report and work through the Reboot Playbook to plan operational details
4. The pilot project lead to hold co-design workshops with potential donors and beneficiaries around specific elements of the scheme, (including beneficiaries who have specific requirements e.g. people with visual or hearing impairments, non-English speakers, older people
I would like to thank everyone who contributed to this report, especially those who gave their time to be interviewed, including representatives of:
- Adept IT Solutions
- Bridge Plus Future Projects
- Hubbub Menscraft CIC
- Norfolk Community Foundation
- Norfolk County Council
- Norfolk Libraries Service
- Norwich Business Improvement District
- Norwich City College
- Norwich City Council
- The Shoebox Community Hub
- University of East Anglia
- Voluntary Norfolk
- Your Own Place CIC
Although I have drawn on a range of documents and websites referenced throughout this report, the following documents are the key ones that I would recommend to anyone looking to run a pilot scheme based on the recommended model.
Reboot by Nominet. The Reboot Playbook.
Remade Network. A model for a citywide repair economy
Your Own Place Advisory Board. Digital Inclusion Research Project Report
RNIB. Sight loss and technology briefing. How blind and partially sighted people can bridge the digital divide