Sometime around September 2014, V and I were discussing Singapore’s approach to addressing environmental sustainability. As a nation, we have been over-consuming and producing too much waste. While Singapore manages its waste fine for now, our waste output will become overwhelming in 2035, when Pulau Semakau is completely filled. It was imperative that we play our part to address environmental sustainability as a society. As leaders in the Sustainable Living Lab, a social innovation outfit, V and I felt that it was time for our organisation to initiate moves to address the issue – from the ground up.

After some deliberation, we concluded that people should just repair their stuff. It’s not that far-fetched a concept. It was how people of the past sustained themselves: repair prolongs product life and reduces the amount we put into the waste stream. At the same time, repair teaches individuals the value of a product and encourages conscious decisions to purchase more repairable or long-lasting products.

We got inspired. This could work!

The discussion continued. To make it ‘normal’ or mainstream for society to repair instead of dispose, we needed a critical mass of folks willing and able to do so – a repair movement! We envisioned a huge group of people, a community, repairing together and teaching others how to repair.

So we started the Repair Kopitiam (the name is not as snazzy as we hoped, but it sticks!), a programme to combat the buy-and-throw away culture. We drew inspiration from Repair Cafe, which started in the Netherlands, and added a local flavour. The structure was simple; as a community, we would learn repair skills together and on the last Sunday of each month, we would set up a space in public, get residents to come down with their broken stuff and guide them through repairs. This was going to be exciting! Learning together and taking real action to address a matter so important.

Alas, it took us only three Repair Coach training sessions for us to realise how unsustainable our efforts were. As the host organisation, we had taken it upon ourselves to teach others how to repair. That seemed appropriate. After all, the participants attended the training hoping to learn a new skill; so someone had to teach them. We had planned to master a repair skill during the week and, by the training session on Sunday, be able to teach the trainees something.

Soon enough, by the end of the third training session, we were stuck. We did not know enough to teach others nor did we have the time to master all the skills. And that made us very uncomfortable. As an organisation leading the maker movement, not knowing enough technical skills and thereby not being able to teach others was paralysing. How could it be ok for us to not know enough?

We had to quickly toss our egos aside, though, and get to the real questions (time was running short on our end, too). What did we want at the end of the day? For people to have the knowledge and skills to do repairs. Did that mean that others can teach repair? Why not! Were there people amongst us who may be able to share the knowledge? Of course! Some of our volunteers probably knew more than us!

As it turned out, we already had a volunteer who used to teach repair as a university course in his home country. Another was an avid fixer with experience repairing automotives. (We really should have looked up more about Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) before jumping into this.)

Through that experience, we reframed the way we perceived community building in Repair Kopitiam. It was no longer “Come, we will teach!”, it was “Come, let’s share and learn from one another.” That made a huge difference not just in how we operated, but also in our interactions as a community.

So began our journey to being a learning community: beginning with the mindset that not everyone knows everything, and that’s ok, because we move together to fill each other’s knowledge gaps.

Learning to learn

Our next challenge as a community was even greater: would we ever master enough repair skills, given the wealth of ever-increasing knowledge out there? There are many products in the market with complicated circuitry, and something new is always bound to pop up. (A bread maker was apparently foreign to most of us.) How then, would we be able to guide residents through repair sessions during Repair Kopitiam?

“Let’s just Google it,” a repair coach said one day, while trying to repair a uniquely designed fan (with extra controls). It dawned on us then that we didn’t just have to learn – we had to learn just in time, and had to set aside space to search for answers. As we developed our curriculum, we realised we had to let our volunteers learn how to learn. It was unfamiliar but a necessary learning model – there was just too much knowledge to cram into our heads otherwise. Learning on the go, learning just enough – these were the only solutions.

Eventually, our repair skills curriculum included repair fundamentals and basic electrical circuitry, heat appliances repair (for items like kettles, toasters and irons), motorised appliances (fans, washing machine and yes, that alien bread maker) as well as mechanical repair. 20% of the time in each training was dedicated to the most basic of knowledge and resources to tap on; 70% to finding out answers through hands-on practice and group sharing; and the final 10% to a quiz to ensure that everyone was on par.

This model of learning how to learn is now a significant part of the Sustainable Living Lab’s community learning programmes. We have applied it to learning for seniors in a programme called Repair Kakis, where members a senior activity centre learn repair skills and repair for their community. The seniors had to rethink their traditional instructor-student learning model but hey, they got to learn how to access to the internet!

We have even extended to programmes beyond repair, just to see if the model works – and it does! We tried it with our Tech for Good programme, where participants learn about Internet of Thing (IoT) and build devices that solve problems in rice farms. We also applied it in the Infocomm and Media Development Authority (IMDA)’s Tech Pals sessions at Pixel Labs, where learners discover and build solutions for children with special needs using the BBC Micro:bit.

Truly, a learning community

One fairly idle afternoon, over a year since we formed Repair Kopitiam, a thought struck me that I shared with V. “You know what? I have no idea what these people in our WhatsApp chats are talking about. Whatever they’re learning and sharing is beyond the scope we originally imagined. And they’re not stopping. Is this what we call a ‘learning community’?”

Forming a community WhatsApp group is nothing new. It was a space for us, organisers, to make announcements, recap our learning during our sessions and to keep the group updated. It was also no surprise when the exchanges between the members included queries about technical skills. What surprised us most, though, was how they passionately dedicated themselves to acquiring more knowledge and sharing it with others. It was a group effort, too; one would bring up a topic on which others would contribute their knowledge. At some point, the knowledge bubble grew beyond our expectations.

If that was the culture that was emerging, we were assured that this community would drive and sustain itself in the long-run without the original leads. This, to us, was a true learning community – humble and open-minded. Its exact mechanics and model can vary, but what has worked for us thus far, particularly when learning technical knowledge, was to give space for learning how to learn and to learn from each other.

The journey is still ongoing and the impact of such a process is still emergent, but we’ve already been astonished by a few things:

  1. Strong community bond: Working towards a shared goal is a group effort, so everyone has a part. When everyone contributes, everyone feels valued and values others. Through the knowledge exchanges in our learning communities, we noticed how the positive dynamics transpired and reinforced over time. A community that learns is a community with strong bonds.
  2. Proactiveness: This could be a result of the way we structured our learning community. Learning how to learn gives learners a sense of agency to their own learning. To obtain knowledge, one has to cultivate the habit of being proactive.
  3. Gratitude and giving:This is probably the underlying reason why the first two points emerged to begin with. The culture of a learning community effects graciousness, gratitude and a giving attitude of its members. Those who received help and knowledge in previous inquiries contribute back to the group in subsequent exchanges. This virtuous cycle ultimately reflects what a learning community is like.

We are still – and probably always will be – experimenting with the idea and practice of a learning community, as we apply it to the social space. Would you like to join us on this journey together?

Farah H. Sanwari grew as a social innovation leader through her six years in the Sustainable Living Lab, an innovation consultancy that develops solutions for organizations and communities that want to grow sustainably. She believes that everyone has a gift and collectively, we can create the change we want to see. Her desire for a sustainable world has also driven her to co-found FiTree, a Muslim environmental organisation that reminds fellow Muslims to get their act together as stewards of the earth (khalifah fil ardh). These days, she gets a bit anxious about climate change. It’s a ‘climate crisis’ and yet society is still on a ‘climate coma’.

Image from Repair Kopitiam Facebook page