It’s Still Time to Celebrate Maintenance: 4 Themes from the 2019 Festival of Maintenance

Last weekend was the second annual Festival of Maintenance. I volunteered with the first Festival of Maintenance last year and wrote about it here.

At this year’s Festival, four themes stuck out to me as recurring over the diverse talks. Rather than a comprehensive summary (full talks can be found here), these are my key takeaways from the day.

Theme #1: The importance of making behind-the-scenes maintenance visible

Maintenance work is often made invisible. We put up temporary walls in train stations, airports and museums to cordon off the offending area while a sign apologizes for the inconvenience. Maintenance is by definition a work-in-progress. It is unfinished, unready: it is not supposed to be seen.

Lack of visibility leads to lack of awareness and lack of appreciation. This causes maintenance work to be undervalued and underinvested-in. Increased visibility, therefore, is the first step towards awareness, appreciation and investment.

Tom van Deijnen aka Tom of Holland presented this theme most explicitly with his Visible Mending Programme. Tom does textile repair and runs workshops through which he hopes to inspire others to mend clothes. In his work he often makes patches and mends stand out visually, part of his invitation to ‘wear a darn as a badge of honour.'

Donna Young, curator of the herbarium at the World Museum in Liverpool, is a specialist in ‘keeping dead things dead.’ She took us behind the scenes of preserved collections of the museum, explaining how when their wing of the museum was being renovated they had to freeze the entire collection bit by bit to prevent infestations.

Exposing the hidden work of maintenance is very much in line with Katrine Marçal’s ‘Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?’ (The answer is his mother.) I recently came across this wonderful piece about how Henry David Thoreau, for all his talk of radical independence, relied on his friends and family doing his laundry or having him over for dinner.

A few talks demonstrated how beyond the actual maintenance itself there may be even further hidden labours of research and analysis.

A driver passing a pothole day after day may understandably moan “Just fix it!” Potholes are an old and familiar problem, but not one that has been solved. There are so many contributing factors from materials to weather to how the road was built or repaired that no one knows exactly how they should best be treated. Mujib Rahman works on precisely this problem, not out on motorways but in his lab with a team of graduate students doing tests and modelling to figure out exactly how potholes can best be repaired.

Edward Saul, a civil engineer, turned our attention to the nearby Churchill Way flyover, a post-tensioned bridge (if I’ve got that right…) in the process of being demolished. Saul explained to the audience of mostly non-engineer civilians how invasive procedures were required just to check on the state of the bridge. Developments in technology now mean that similar bridges can be built with access for maintenance checks as well as observing by drone or connecting the bridges with smart sensors.

Theme #2: Maintainers require resources and support – and there’s no shame in admitting it

I often see artists and other creatives on social media expose and protest against seemingly frequent requests that they work for free. Like creative work, maintenance is often done as a passion project and for free. We should celebrate those who do so but it would be a mistake to ignore that maintenance does require significant investment of time and resources. The fact maintainers often do their labour pro bono should be seen as a symptom of a lack of investment rather than a solution.

Ben Ward spoke frankly about the real need for networks of support and sustenance. Ben started an initiative called Flood Network to monitor water levels with DIY-style sensors across the UK. They’ve got a working system but a limited number of customers and investment mean the project is mostly a hobby for Ben. There are equipment costs (buying sensors) and labour costs (installing and maintaining those sensors). The fact that information is stored on the cloud doesn’t mean it’s cheap either – Ben showed how his cloud storage costs exploded and how digital infrastructures must be maintained.

Ben Ward at the 2019 Festival of Maintenance

Both Professor Rahman and Tom Forth of the Open Data Institute Leeds opened their talks with non-perfunctory thanks to their sponsors and collaborators. Tom called attention to the fact people are free to take open data and make money based on it. Ventures that make money are ventures that can sustain themselves and even expand into new endeavours.

Theme #3: Digital maintenance can be unique but it can also be surprisingly similar to physical maintenance

Jeni Tennison, CEO of the Open Data Institute, spoke about the benefits of opening up a digital archive to collaborative maintenance (which they’ve written a report on). When the number of contributors can be exponentially greater, when the base of contributors is distributed, has diverse skills and experiences, the result is drastically increased speed and accuracy.

Jeni gave as an example the effort to keep an online record of all UK legislation up to date. A dedicated team working in a closed off way resulted in a database that was out of date and getting worse every year. Opening the maintenance of the archive to include lawyers, students and private sector contributors not only brought the database up to date but allowed additional categories to be catalogued.

Obviously in this case the fact that the archive was digital meant it could be worked on at scale and that rules could be written to govern how contributions took place and were monitored.

Mia Ridge, digital curator of Western Heritage Collections at the British Library and a specialist in crowdsourcing, knows about the benefits of scale that digital brings. But she also brought up many challenges familiar from the offline world. We cannot in reality keep everything, so we must choose what to keep or not. Websites and files do break over time. The creators or maintainers of digital systems leave the organisation, taking their tacit knowledge and care with them. In this light, the maintenance of digital objects starts to look very similar to that of physical objects.

Indy Rojar mentioned, not going in-depth, that the digital revolution should bring organisational overhead to near zero. A counterpoint, perhaps, was brought up by Chris Adams. Digital infrastructure in fact consumes a massive amount of energy. Google’s carbon footprint, which comes mostly from keeping servers up and running, is equal to that of Liberia. And as Ben Ward pointed out in his talk, storing data is far from cheap and these costs can prove an insurmountable challenge for a self-funded initiative.

Theme #4: A ‘maintenance mindset’ requires us to confront some of the biggest structural challenges of the 21st century

Shannon Mattern titled her talk ‘Decoupling and the Maintenance Mindset’. I was struck by the phrase ‘maintenance mindset’ – what is it? Is it a philosophy? A way of life? Perhaps the closest parallel would be the concept of stewardship: the obligation to care for our things, our machines, ourselves, each other and the earth in a way that is sustainable in the long-term, with a focus on keeping diverse forms of life and objects around.

Mattern focused on the synergies between the maintenance mindset and the decoupling or degrowth movement. Other speakers, when asked during Q&A, were hesitant to jump on the tag of degrowth – they mostly wanted to stress how growth can be done sensibly and sustainably. I suspect there would have been little disagreement, however, with Shannon’s summary of the movement as not “against growth, per se; it calls, instead, for a critique of growth as an end in itself."

The Panel

Indy Rojar of Dark Matter Labs challenged the audience to engage with systemic structures or risk failing to make the changes required for a true maintenance mindset. He calls this the ‘boring revolution’ in bureaucracy, governance, financing and social norms. Indy refers to this as innovation in the ‘deep code’ that structures daily life. Taking the Highline in New York as one example Indy suggested we reconsider the concept of land value from something intrinsic to the land itself to something largely derived from proximity of access to public goods – schools, parks, means of transportation, economic opportunity, and so on.

The need for drastic change and new ways of thinking and acting in the face of climate change was acknowledged repeatedly over the course of the day. The ‘maintenance mindset’ clearly necessitates a more careful and conscious relationship to the world around us in order to ensure that both we and it can continue to exist in the long term.

Chris Adams’ talk on climate change was sobering but ultimately optimistic. “If we can build electric cars in the automotive sector,” he said, “we can build with green stacks in tech.” After all, Google is the largest corporate consumer of renewable energy in the world. His eyes lit up describing how one tech company moved into an abandoned factory in the alps and built their own massive server completely powered by the already existing waterwheel.

The necessary changes are not easy, but they are possible and the ‘maintenance mindset’ must play an important part in the futures we choose.

// Calen Cole