09 January 2019

S5M-15094 Rotary Club of Currie Balerno (Recycling Computers)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-15094, in the name of Gordon MacDonald, on Rotary Club of Currie Balerno recycling personal computers. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament thanks the Rotary Club of Currie Balerno, which has recycled and provided used computers for schools in Africa for over six years with its partners, the Turing Trust; recognises that over 4,000 PCs have been wiped, refurbished, installed with educational materials and shipped to schools in Ghana, Malawi and other African countries; considers that there are not only social benefits from reusing old PCs but also environmental benefits from the offsetting of 2,058 tonnes of CO2 emissions so far, which is the equivalent of planting 5,145 trees; acknowledges that many of the project volunteers learned IT refurbishment skills and that four trainees have used their training and work experience as an opportunity to end long-term unemployment and get full-time jobs; understands that the club’s most recent project, under the Scottish Government’s small grants programme, is to provide computers for classrooms in Malawi over a three-year period and that, to date, it has helped 41,067 students to gain vital digital literacy skills; encourages potential donors to provide old computers, and notes the calls on the Scottish Government to give greater consideration to smaller charities such as these to develop their projects and expertise.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of interests as a member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology and of the Association for Computing Machinery.

It is a great delight to see the members of the Rotary Club of Currie Balerno in the public gallery. My father became the president of the Rotary Club of Cupar in 1956, which was just a few years ago, and one of my very early speeches on computing was given to that Rotary club in 1974. Rotary clubs are a very important part of our social infrastructure and do good work right across Scotland, as well as work with international reach. It is a delight to hear of a relatively small club doing something that, without question, is benefiting people in Africa who need our support.

Old computers are something that I rather like, given that I am the oldest person in the chamber—I am looking around carefully—and think that there is some value in things that have aged. We can reuse them and rediscover their merits. Although computers are obsoleted by updates in the software environment and changing fashion, they can in fact continue to operate for many years delivering useful service. The reuse of old computers benefits the environment, but it is of wider benefit altogether. It is worth saying that two pals and I built the first home computer in Scotland in 1975, which is still running up in Caithness with one of that combine.

There is something in what Gordon MacDonald said about scaling up, but there is an intrinsic value in many ways, particularly in innovation, in having comparatively small teams. Innovation happens when communication between the members of a group is tight and close; if there is a big group, that becomes much more difficult. Where the opportunity has been created in Africa for access to technology, we have seen genuine innovation that shows the way for people far beyond Africa. In particular, Africa is the place where electronic money has been developed using mobile phones. To avoid having to go to banks, people can exchange money between phones. That technology has been developed locally and it shows the rest of the world that there is genuine ability to innovate there if only we can give people the equipment with which to do it.

The Raspberry Pi is a wonderful tiny computer that can sit in the palm of one’s hand. The American moon landing programme was the genesis of the integrated chip. There was only 0.4W available for the 2 kilobyte computer that navigated the moon lander down, and that required the integrated chip. Today, the integrated chip is such that I now have 4 gigabytes of memory in the device on my wrist, whereas the first computer that I programmed in the 1960s had 1 kilobyte of memory.

The world moves on, but that should not mean that the computers of the past are without value. I very much welcome the Rotary Club of Currie Balerno showing the way in how we can reuse computers. I hope in particular that we will see the recycling of laptops, which seem to have a shorter fashion life cycle. One of the important benefits of a laptop going out to areas where continuous access to electricity is limited is that they work when they are not connected to the mains. I hope that, if laptops have not been part of the focus, they will become part of the future focus.

I hope that the debate helps to ensure that what is going on in the Rotary Club of Currie Balerno and in Africa with used computers becomes more widely known and that the model is picked up and copied. I hope that there are no patents and no copyrights on the design of the SolarBerry, because it sounds like a rattling good idea that I would certainly like to see replicated elsewhere. The next time I meet Rotarians in the north-east of Scotland, I will certainly be drawing their attention to the example that the small Rotary Club of Currie Balerno has given us. I congratulate its members and congratulate Gordon MacDonald on bringing the debate to the Parliament today.


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