Essay

From the ground up

A YOUNG WOMAN, just turned twenty, stands at a workbench connecting the wires of a stereo. Her hair is pulled back out of the way of her face, which bears a look fo the utmost concentration, and her hands work slowly, carefully. The warehouse – Known as substation 33 – is bustling around her: people sift through used electronice, looking for batteries, LCD screens and CPUs. Machines hum lightly in the background; co-workers chat comfortably.

The young woman, Keaira, is one of forty Logan community members who converge each day on this warehouse in Kingston, Queensland. Some work in teams to create world-first technologies for government contracts; others work independently, repurposing waste into sellable electronics. Every project uses e-waste that would otherwise go into landfill. In this unconventional office space, surrounded by brightly lit 3D printers, electric bikes and speakers, there is an obvious sense of fulfilment as everyone goes about their tasks.

Keaira recently started at Substation 33 as part of the Work for the Dole program, and looks forward to going to work each day.

‘I like learning about different stuff, being around really nice people. It’s something different that you wouldn’t normally do with Work for the Dole, and it’s good for the environment,’ Keaira says, eyes still focused on the task at hand. In the couple of months she has been coming to Substation 33, Keaira has learnt to spot-weld, perform amp tests and use the 3D printers that are built here. She never dreamed she’d acquire such skills, let alone use them to do something that she feels is meaningful, that makes every day at work feel like an achievement.

There is a culture of enthusiasm and support at Substation 33 that most people in nine-to-five jobs would be lucky to find. Feedback and assistance are always forthcoming, and whiteboards scattered around the warehouse have encouraging messages scrawled on them. One nearby reads, ‘Smile ☺ every day above ground is a good one.’

 

IT’S DIFFICULT TO describe just how much is going on under one tin roof at Substation 33. Each member of the team, which consists predominantly of volunteers, has a project they are working on and a story about how they found themselves at this out-of-the-way social enterprise.

The man behind the innovation is Tony Sharp. Five years ago, Tony had plans to ‘kick back’; now he works eighty-six hours a week in order to keep up with the demand from council and local schools, and youth looking for work experience. On meeting Tony, it was immediately clear why spirits were so high here and why everyone felt at home. Tall and sporting thick black glasses and a welcoming smile, Tony has wise eyes and a welcoming demeanour – the kind of boss who works passionately alongside his employees and volunteers, while at the same time ensuring the wellbeing of everyone under his roof. His understanding of modern technology is admirable, and he knows exactly how to make reality out of many of his ideas.

After running his own landscaping business for twenty years, Tony retired so that he could focus more on youth work, and find ways to pursue his passion for helping young people gain work experience. He joined YFS, a not-for-profit that supports the Logan community and now has three social enterprises under its wing. From his work with YFS, Tony’s idea for Substation 33 was born and he became YFS’s social entrepreneur and enterprise manager.

Substation 33 opened its roller door in January 2013. Since then, it has diverted more than a hundred thousand kilograms of e-waste away from landfill through finding safe and viable ways to repurpose unwanted electronics. Furthermore, the enterprise provides support and opportunities to those who struggle getting into the workforce, such as young people who have run into trouble with the law and people with mental illness and disability.

‘They are gaining three skills at Substation 33,’ Tony explains, holding up his fingers. ‘Learning to turn up to work, wear appropriate clothing and not swear until 9 am.’ Like Keaira, he says, a tenth of the volunteers who come through Work for the Dole stay on once the program has finished, because they get something out of the work they do here. Considering the challenges some of them face in their daily lives that may have inhibited them from finding work in the past, this is a remarkable result.

The team at Substation 33 also consists of paid employees, high school and Griffith University student volunteers, and independently operating entrepreneurs – and this diversity has been a catalyst for innovation and ideas. Brad is a paid employee at Substation 33 who does work around solar-powered signs; he also runs a small business, Amplify, out of the warehouse. Brad purchases old ammunition boxes online and uses recycled electronics to transform them into portable, multi-input speakers. The background music in the workshop comes from a version that he equipped with a solar panel, to keep it powered.

The latest and largest innovative project for Substation 33 is constructing early warning signs for flooded roads. The long, solar-powered signs – made, of course, from recycled e-waste – have gathered a lot of attention from Logan City Council, which has placed an order for hundreds of them. The signs are placed ahead of roads that are prone to flood, and flash an alert to motorists if flooding is taking place. They are also able to send signals to emergency services if a motorist drives into floodwaters, so that assistance can be quickly sent to retrieve motorists that find themselves in danger. Residents from Bahrs Scrub, Mundoolun and Logan Village would have seen the signs in action during the floods cause by ex-cyclone Debbie in April 2017.

Local councillors Laurie Koranski and Jon Raven visited the warehouse earlier this year to see the facility and meet the team responsible for producing the signs.

‘This is a great example of how outside-the-box thinking from Substation 33 can help deliver council’s vision for a smart and dynamic city of the future. The safety of our community is paramount,’ Councillor Koranski says. ‘I can hardly wait to see what our next collaborative project will look like.’

 

OUTSIDE-THE-BOX THINKING IS what defines Substation 33. It takes multiple community concerns — employment, education, waste — and develops ways to directly and effectively address them. ‘We’re working to get rid of e-waste, provide work experience opportunities and create world-first road signs — and we’re changing the concept of what innovation is and how it works,’ Tony says. His social enterprise has been developed by the Logan community to address local concerns, and the benefits are now being noticed at higher levels.

This bottom-up, capacity-building approach to community development is an established example of the kind of initiatives being targeted by the Try, Test and Learn Fund — the federal government’s first response to the Australian Priority Investment Approach to Welfare. Another, wider-reaching example that has close ties with YFS also exists in Logan City: Logan Together. (Tony Sharp and Logan Together director Matthew Cox are both members of the Logan: City of Choice Leadership Team.) This holistic approach to community development and social investment is using the wealth of available population data to target health and education programs to where they are most needed.

Logan Together aims to close the gap between local and state averages in healthy development outcomes for Logan children in order to improve their life chances and the wellbeing of their community. It is ambitious in intention and broad in scope — and, as research and experiment in similar efforts here and internationally have shown, it is effective. As Matthew Cox says in an article for Griffith University’s Policy Innovation Hub, what’s needed in Logan is ‘an integrated set of human potential programs that systematically support the growth of our children. These need to take shape in the context of the particular community they are relevant to  — a particular place that is also invested in.’

 

SUBSTATION 33 IS a case study for developing localised human potential, through both its engagement with disadvantaged and marginalised community members and its commitment to education. One of the most impressive ways in which e-waste is recycled in the warehouse is in constructing 3D printers — and once complete the printers (and user kits) are given to Logan schools. Eventually, Tony says, they want to give one to every school in Logan.

The schools that have already got their hands on the revolutionary technology have seen its transformative potential. School curriculum is now being built around the 3D printers that is encouraging children to become more involved in science, technology, engineering and maths — the STEM subjects, capstones of the Australian Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda. The printers are exciting and modern teaching tools, with seemingly endless possibilities — for what they can create and for how students can be engaged, particularly those with learning difficulties.

Tony is proud of how the technology developed at Substation 33 has fostered a more inclusive learning environment in Logan schools. ‘A building at Park Ridge State High School has 3D printers, and learning support kids are working with OP-1 kids.’ Because 3D printers are so hands-on, he says, children with special needs are able to learn through creating 3D objects with the printers — a more accessible and engaging process than standard classroom learning.

Park Ridge State High School teacher Joseph Wise says that there is a ‘buzz’ around the 3D printers. He sees the printers as having value not only for high-achieving students or those interested in technology, but also for general use in many subjects such as history, for which models of historical objects could be printed in class.

The school’s 3D printers are currently being used in a Year 10 engineering subject. ‘The kids are making model cars and learning CAD [computer-aided design] through 3D printing,’ Mr Wise explains. ‘Next semester we’ll be using the printers to make autonomous vehicles controlled by Arduinos [microcontroller units].’

The 3D printers came to Park Ridge State High unassembled, in kits supplied by Substation 33 that included links to hours of instructional YouTube videos.

‘Kids enjoy making 3D printers.’ Mr Wise says. It’s quite mesmerising to watch a 3D printer or CNC-type machine work away and build a piece autonomously. It is a drawcard for many students.’

 

UPON LEAVING SUBSTATION 33, Tony introduces me to a slightly reserved gentleman, who had been hard at work for the entire morning. Cae began at Substation 33 in August 2015, through the Work for the Dole program, after being unemployed for over a year. The opportunity to work with Tony on exciting, hands-on projects at Substation 33 encouraged Cae to continue volunteering after his program finished, until he was hired as an employee a few months ago when they were contracted to continue building early warning flooded road signs.

‘It’s the best job so far,’ he explains. ‘Good place to be, good bunch of people.’ After talking to Cae, it is apparent that working at Substation 33 has given him new confidence. ‘I’m happy here,’ he says.

While Tony Sharp may be the driving force, in his view it is the Logan community members who volunteer their time and knowledge — teaching basic skills like soldering and re-wiring, and assisting on projects — who are responsible for the skills that people like Keaira, and school children with special needs, get to develop at Substation 33. Passionate community members like Cae, along with science and technology students and retired handymen, who saw the potential this enterprise had and wanted to contribute.

‘It’s founded on altruism,’ Tony says. ‘And every day, there are five or so people at the warehouse before me, waiting to start work.’ Improving community outcomes and building capacity for Logan’s most vulnerable residents, from the ground up.

 

Thanks to Nance Haxton, Griffith University’s journalist-in-residence, and Jerath Head, assistant editor at Griffith Review, for their advice in writing this piece.

If you would like to know more about Substation 33 or donate your used electronics, visit www.substation33.com.au.

 

 

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