Highlights from Festival of Maintenance 2019

Maker Assembly is supporting the Festival of Maintenance. In this guest blog, festival organiser Laura James reports on the second edition of the festival.

Photo by Michael Dales

The 2nd Festival of Maintenance took place in Liverpool on the 28th September 2019. Like the 2018 event, this was an exploration and a celebration of maintenance, repair, stewardship and care. We had speakers talking about what is maintained, who maintains and how, and how the labour of maintenance is resourced.

This year’s festival was bigger – we had 80 people present, plus people watching remotely on the livestream – and felt more cohesive. We’d chosen to run it outside London, and Liverpool was a great option with lively, curious communities interested in maintaining, as well as a local hosting partner in DoES Liverpool.  The Festival was held in the Fashion Hub of the Tapestry, in a regenerating area of the city. Alongside the Saturday of talks, DoES held their first Repair Cafe on the Sunday.

2019 felt like something of a maturation, but at the same time, the Festival perhaps resists definition, and maybe that’s partly how we are differentiated from The Maintainers, the Maintainerati and other groups. It’s interesting to consider how the maintenance ‘agenda’ is shaped by the different backgrounds and disciplines that people bring to the Festival – and the challenges of drawing an audience that represents diversity across dimensions. We are aware of the lack of diversity in some of the fields that naturally gravitate towards maintenance ideas, and hope to remain broad and interesting and accessible to both maintainers and the ‘maintenance curious’ from all backgrounds. It is tempting to categorise and structure these conversations, but we are starting to think that our role is to start conversations and be provocative, and to allow and encourage all kinds of people to be involved.

We do know that it was good to get away from London, and to hold a very low ticket price and to share online, to enable as many people as possible to be part of the Festival. We’re not all academics; we’re not all into new technology; the best conversations are serendipitous and between people who could never have anticipated them.

Photo by Michael Dales

In writing up 2019, I thought I’d start by remembering 2018.

I was inspired to set up the Festival at a Maker Assembly event at the end of 2017. Looking back, the context of making and makerspaces was quite powerful – from the start we were thinking about many dimensions of making. The challenges of maintenance in innovation-focussed communities and cultures; the mixture of repair of physical items, maintenance and upkeep of shared infrastructure spaces and tools, the tending of community and care for each other in a volunteering setting, the role of the internet, software, data and shared knowledge and designs. All these aspects together shaped the creation of the Festival and one of our early questions: what can we learn from each other, the maintainers of digital goods, physical items, infrastructures and communities?

This matters because some of the most important activities in the coming decades will need to bring together the physical and digital and social.

The theme of the perceived tension between innovation culture and maintenance culture was highlighted by talks from Lee Vinsel and David Edgerton. A different angle on this idea came from both Alex Mecklenburg linking maintenance in stories  and in the work of marketing agencies, and Alanna Irving on leadership balancing vision and operations. (I could perhaps interpret Natalie Kane’s exploration of how we maintain our bodies to deliver the performance expected (not to mention maintaining digital items in a museum context!) as a left field approach to this topic, too.) Digital maintenance and stewardship were discussed by Daria Cybulska from Wikimedia UK and Chris Mills from the MDN writers’ team at Mozilla, maintaining documentation, open standards, and the open web; Jake Harries from Access Space in Sheffield talked about their work to support local people with computing, and how this has changed as technologies evolve. Maker and repair themes were covered by Janet Gunter from the Restart project, and Chris Hellawell from Edinburgh Tool Library, and maker community and infrastructure by Adrian McEwen on how DoES organise the labour of shared space maintenance, and Lauren Hutchinson on volunteer burnout. Community issues more broadly were explored by Oliver Holtaway in the context of a community owned football club. Public and shared infrastructure maintenance discussion included Simon Elmer on the relative costs of rebuilding and refurbishing social housing, and the anonymous Guerrilla Groundsman taking street gardening and repair into his own hands. We also considered maintenance through the ages – and the introduction of different technologies – with Hazel Forsyth’s talk on repair and reuse in 1500-1750, and Mike Green’s discussion of skills and tools for facilities management since the 1960s.

Looking back, then, this feels like we coherently aligned talks with the structure of our original inspiration! This wasn’t how we assembled the talks on the day though, and my categorisation here distracts from the crosscutting ideas and provocations which attendees were discussing in breaks (and in the pub afterwards). The overlaps – obvious and less so – were where the value lay.

Photo by Michael Dales


On to 2019.

We had stronger themes this year, due to better planning and more team members and discussion. In particular, both fragility and climate felt like important topics to include. (Due to last minute speaker changes, the themes of care and emerging technology were dissolved; we’ll probably return to them next time.)

The eventual feel of the day, to me at least, was of a couple of talks pushing our sights higher to philosophies, culture and institutions, and then the rest exploring maintenance in diverse products and sectors and contexts.

Indy Johar spoke of how foundational economies of energy, matter, information, human development have fundamentally different realities to them, and we need to think about them separately and differently (we don’t do this today). Climate change is a symptom of a structural issue – we shouldn’t try to fix the symptom, but instead strive for “a deep code innovation to transition to a new economy” – a maintenance economy, through a deep system change. Indy spoke of issues of land wealth and public goods; the idea of self-sovereign rivers and forests; our unhelpful conflation of corporations and humans. (Corporations are machines and operate as machines; humans operate through acts of ennoblement.) In terms of architectures of governance and control, Indy proposes regulatory innovation. Code has the capacity to do many things, and today regulatory control is designed around loosely coupled mechanisms – but we are careering towards tightly coupled systems, which would not be ennobling. We need warranties and receipts that work for parts of products, enabling a circular economy that works for real situations. A Boring Revolution.

Indy Johar – Photo by Michael Dales

Indy’s key question was: What are the institutional infrastructures for a maintenance economy?  Everything is optimised for consumption and use at an infrastructural level, and that’s wrong now in developed countries and regions.

Shannon Mattern spoke remotely, questioning the doctrine of growth, with ideas of degrowth or decoupling. She talked of techniques to avoid collapse, the value of care and social infrastructure, reimagining design and the nature of work. Considering the energy consumption (and other costs) of Google, Facebook, Amazon etc, she called for us to look beyond privatised individual solutions such as quitting Facebook. If we were to degrow a digital universe, distinct from today’s tech monopolies, what would it be like? Community structures for connectivity? Offers of reparations for those hurt by digital redlining? How can we create pedagogies that prioritise calm and care? From digital to the infrastructure of our cities, who deserves and performs maintenance and care?

Shannon Mattern speaking remotely – Photo by Michael Dales

Shannon’s call to action was: what can we do, now at a conference, to start to build the new world, before change is forced on us in a more damaging way? Shannon’s talk is now available in essay form here: http://www.lapsuslima.com/minimal-maintenance/ 

Then we had talks on preserving herbarium items, the self made burden of community IOT networks for flood monitoring and more, heritage organisations preserving digital materials of all kinds with story telling and institutional memory, the hidden costs of potholes and the systemic challenges to tackling them, visible clothes repair and the loss of textile skills, the systems that make bins and buses work, collaborative creation and maintaining open data about legislation, a lifecycle view of decarbonising digital systems, care work in social housing maintenance, and building and decommissioning bridges.

Photo by Michael Dales

I was particularly struck by the idea that the wartime slogan “make do and mend” had devalued repaired clothing, making items seem like compromise instead of a bond forged with clothing through the love of undertaking repair.


The audience was different to London – more diverse, particularly in age. There had been concerns that we wouldn’t have enough material for another high quality event, but clearly we did, and we had at least as many top speakers again who couldn’t make it for various reasons this year.

The whole thing was livestreamed and you can find it on Youtube.

So, what next? it seems like 2020 will happen. We’ll do a ‘retro’ to see what we can learn and improve. A huge thank you to all the volunteer team, and of course our sponsors (including Maker Assembly, supporting us for a second year).

We’re looking into how to keep the conversation going between events, in an accessible way – do get in touch at hello@festivalofmaintenance.org.uk if you have ideas or would like to help.