Making obsolescence obsolete: a mobile concept

While society and the economy have benefited from the swift growth of smartphone technology, it has also led to an unsustainable disposable model with billions of used smartphones discarded every year, reports Leigh Stringer

In Europe alone, upgrades or damage make 100 million phones obsolete every year. This significant burden on a range of finite resources is proving a monumental challenge for governments and businesses around the world.

However, the environmental impact of this stream of handsets, in terms of manufacturing materials, energy and disposal costs, means designers are developing the next generation of smartphone with sustainability credentials far higher up the agenda.

One visionary making waves in the industry is Dave Hakkens, the designer of Phonebloks, a modular mobile phone concept that would enable users to replace or upgrade components rather than simply discard the entire phone, reducing the rising electronic waste issues associated with the smartphone explosion.

The Dutch designer came up with the idea seven months ago after the lens motor of his camera broke. When he tried to get a replacement lens from the manufacturer he was told to replace the entire camera. Understanding the growing issue of electronic waste, the industry’s ‘throw-away’ attitude was a ‘light-bulb’ moment for Hakkens. Hence, the Phonebloks concept was born.

Although impressively supported by almost 980,000 people on his website, Hakkens says the industry has been more reluctant to accept the idea. “You have a couple of big companies that have all the power that probably don’t like the concept but the manufacturers who build the components are open to the idea of a more open market.

“For example a company that makes the screens or a company that makes the cameras are very reliant on companies such as Apple to get their components into the latest Apple product,” he adds.

According to Hakkens, the concept will not only reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing mobile phones it will help the economy and spread the wealth across the supply chain.

“These manufacturers want to see a more open market where they can sell their products freely to consumers so that not all the profits go to one big multinational. It’s an economical way of spreading the wealth across the supply chain and allowing more companies to become profitable,” he adds.

A similar mobile phone idea, called WandUlar, led by sustainability think-tank Forum for the Future (FFTF), looks at the “emotional durability” of technology. According to the FFTF, people who feel “emotionally connected with products tend to keep them longer”.

The principles behind FFTF’s ‘device for life’ concept include the user experience; the physical appearance; the hardware; the software; and the business model. “We know that the business model of personal mobile devices is both unsatisfactory and unsustainable. Business models shouldn’t be based on filling the world with more stuff. We’ve explored how personal electronics businesses could move from a product to a service-based business model,” says the FFTF.

But is this concept too good to be true? Many in the telecommunications industry think so, including the very man who invented the mobile phone, Martin Cooper. Cooper recently told CNN that the concept was “well-meaning” but “the main reason that the Phoneblok will not hit the market is it will cost more, be bigger and heavier, and be less reliable”.

“By the time it could be brought to market, the problem that engendered it will be gone,” he said.

With the value of listed companies in the telecoms sector hitting around 5% of the global stock market, the industry has quietly expressed distaste for taking on a completely new device concept that it believes could potentially change an economically successful business model.

Agreeing with Cooper, O2’s head of environmental sustainability, Gareth Rice says it’s a “very nice idea” but he questions whether consumers would embrace the design.

“With the ambition of consumers to have the latest, sleekest, smallest, thinnest phones on the planet, it’s a question of how to deliver a Phoneblok concept in that environment,” he adds.

Rice says he remains to be convinced that the so-called ‘lego phone’ will be widely accepted but does think the concept of extending the life of a phone is an extremely worthy one.

“In 2008, when we first started on our mission to aspire to be a UK sustainability leader, we talked about marketing and identifying a ‘green’ or sustainable phone and we had seen other companies do that in the past.

Without naming names, manufacturers who have produced green phones and operators who have promoted them have come up against barriers to market.

The problem is that when the phone comes out it looks like a green phone, it smells like a green phone and it is a green phone, but they do not look the way most people who are buying phones want a phone to look,” he explains.

Rice says O2’s philosophy has always been not to try and make a ‘green phone’ but to try and make “all the phones greener”.

This is the basic principle behind O2’s eco rating initiative which is driving sustainability across its supply chain to improve the environmental and social impact of its phones. “If we do that it works across the whole of our portfolio and not just niche products for a niche market. We can show all our customers that the phones are getting better,” adds Rice.

However, one major mobile phone firm, Motorola, is pushing the modular phone concept with its own Project Ara. Led by Motorola’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, Project Ara is developing a free, open hardware platform for creating “highly modular smartphones”.

“We want to do for hardware what the Android platform has done for software: create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines,” the company states on its website.

Through Ara, Motorola is aiming to drive a more “thoughtful, expressive, and open relationship” between users, developers, and their phones.

However, Motorola is not fully open to collaboration at present as the company declined to speak to SB about the project.

Although holding its cards close to its chest, Motorola must be given credit for accepting the need to change the current mobile phone device model, particularly when “all telecoms companies have an influence on the environment and a responsibility to manage that,” according to Forum for the Future.

Since Cooper’s first handheld mobile phone was demonstrated by Motorola in 1973, the snowballed effect of his invention has reached unsustainable levels. Earlier this year, a UN study found that out of the world’s estimated seven billion people, six billion now have access to mobile phones.

These staggering figures are the result of a society hell-bent on consumption and although behaviour change is a key factor here, the collaboration between sustainability conscious designers and the telecommunications industry as a whole is critical to engendering a harmonious relationship with technology and in particular the smartphone.

Leigh Stringer is edie energy and sustainability editor

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