Brisbane tool library

Using a sharing model to redesign social structures

How Australia’s first public tool library is transforming the way Brisbanites come together, consume and live.

Good design is at the core of the circular economy. When you think of design, your way of life might not be the first thing that springs to mind. But everything around you is designed, from the chair you’re sitting on to the services you access and the social system you live in.   

This is why the adage ‘waste is a design flaw’ is commonly used to justify the need for a circular system. The circular economy seeks to redesign these products, services and systems in order to eliminate waste, keep resources in use and regenerate our environment. This might mean redesigning a product for easy disassembly or redesigning a society to minimise consumption. A library of things, or tool library, is an example of the latter.  

“We are really thinking about how we can redesign social structures so that we reduce, at the root of the problem, consumption,” explains Sabrina Chakori, founder of Australia’s first and only public library of things.   

Established in 2017, the Brisbane Tool Library operates out of the State Library of Queensland, lending out power tools, camping gear and sports equipment alongside traditional book rentals. The project not only responds to the community’s changing needs (as more and more people access books online), but also provides a template for the sustainable redesign of our society.   

“We have to rethink what we want to do with our public spaces and how we can gather community around different types of resources,” Sabrina says.  

WHO 

Sabrina certainly has the mind for the task. With a proclivity for systems thinking, she divides her time between running the Tool Library and completing a PhD in zero-packaging food systems and redesigning food systems in a new economy.   

“All my interests converge into redesigning a new economy where we can achieve social and ecological well-being before profit and growth,” she explains.  

For Sabrina, both the ecological and social aspects of a circular economy deserve equal weight.   

“We've had the data and literature since the 70s about the limits of our planet and we have already touched on some planetary boundaries,” she says. “So the ecological point of view is obviously the most important, but the circular economy should also come with social aspects that are often forgotten. I think that we need to measure the prosperity of a nation on how much free time people have and not how much productivity or consumption there is.”   

Through the Brisbane Tool Library, Sabrina is tackling the social and environmental impacts of over-consumption by offering an alternative to buying new that saves people money, reduces resource use and waste and builds community.  

VISION 

The Brisbane Tool Library was founded with the twin goals of bringing ecological sustainability to Brisbane and building a more resilient community. Community resilience can mean a range of things, but often refers to the local capacities, social support and resources available in a community. In short, it describes communities that are self-sufficient. Sabrina explains that in order to build resilient communities, you must respond to their specific needs.  

“If you have a tool library in an area with a lot of apartments, for example, those apartment dwellers might need something different than people in other suburbs,” she says. “I think that is a very important point, because I define ourselves as a community-driven circular economy, which is completely opposite to the top-down circular economy that we see promoted by big corporations nowadays. We co-created and co-designed every step of our development with the community.”  

Sabrina is right to emphasise this point — the redesign of a social system has to involve the people who make up that system. Put differently, circular solutions only work if they make people’s lives easier.   

After this collaborative consultation process, the following four objectives were set for the Brisbane Tool Library: 

  1. to build an environmentally sustainable society by reducing consumption 

  2. to create social stability by employing people from disadvantaged backgrounds 

  3. to provide access over ownership 

  4. to build a circular economy within economic degrowth principles.  

I really think that important key part of systemic change is in the communities and how communities reorganise the way of living in order to achieve greater environmental and social outcomes. 

HOW 

Introducing the concept of a library of things to Brisbane wasn’t all smooth sailing. For starters, Sabrina had to prove the sharing model to key stakeholders including the Queensland State Library and the University of Queensland. When she initially presented the idea to these institutions of going to landfill, collecting power tools, repairing them and renting them out to the community, she was met with scepticism.  

Then, there was the task of building up the community’s repair skills. To fill this knowledge gap, the tool library organised workshops on bike repairing, beeswax wrap making, power tools and recycled timber. 

“I think that those transferable skills are really important because they give confidence to people so that they can repair, maintain, innovate and shift away from that consumerist culture and become more independent,” Sabrina says.  

Other major challenges have been obtaining funding for the project and finding an affordable space in the city.  

“We are trying to expand now because we have a really high demand for our services but finding a suitable space that we can afford is the major bottleneck,” Sabrina explains.  

Despite this setback, being popular with the community isn’t the worst problem to have.  

“At the moment, from our space we are actually serving members from 45 different postcodes,” Sabrina says. “That shows a lot, because it shows that people are driving sometimes 30 minutes to pick something up and I don't think that is just because of the tools. Why someone is driving that far is probably because they want to be part of a movement, of a vision.” 

The popularity of the Brisbane Tool Library proves that sharing models make economic, environmental and social sense. A key learning for Sabrina has been that sustainable solutions can resonate right across the community so long as they fulfil a social need.  

She explains that a lot of Tool Library users have never heard of the circular economy “but when they come in, they just see that it makes sense — it makes sense not to buy, it makes sense to have more room at home. And that's where I think environmental sustainability failed over the years, because we've been good at advocating but provided a lack of real, practical solutions.” 

RESULTS + BENEFITS 

In a society ruled by over-consumption people become detached from the stuff they buy. Everything is replaceable at a low price-point and this creates a throwaway culture with obvious implications for the planet. Perhaps the biggest achievement of the Brisbane Tool Library is helping reverse this trend by building community around things.  

“We talk about 'the commons' as common resources that are shared, right,” Sabrina explains. “But we also define commons as not just assets that are shared, but all these rules and responsibilities that go with them. When you have responsibility around some assets, then you have a community.”  

This sense of shared responsibility as crucial to positive change.  

“I think that with the pressure of the system of working full time, or trying to survive, pay rent all this stuff, it's really hard to ask people to do their own bread, to make their own shampoo, to cycle everywhere. And that's probably why we fail to engage more people, because obviously, people don't have time to do everything,” Sabrina says. “That's where sharing projects of any kind beyond tools can give a response of connecting people so that I do the shampoo, you do the bread and we build some kind of resilience around that.” 

“I really think that important key part of systemic change is in the communities and how communities reorganise the way of living in order to achieve greater environmental and social outcomes,” she adds.  

Sabrina’s long-term hope is that tool libraries become a public service.  

“Australia now is ready to have more tool libraries, but we need to give them a systemic place in society.” 

Call To Action

“I think that, if someone gets until the end of this and reads everything, probably the most natural thing would be reach out to your community groups. And if those community groups don't exist, you can create one and engage with the community. Don't think that you can change the word completely alone because you do need other people — find your tribe and get to work.” 

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