‘Phonebloks’ could last a lifetime

a/Science & Technology by

What’s one of the main differences between the iPhone 5S and the iPhone 5? Colour. Still, consumers are purchasing an entirely new phone.

The rapid pace of technological change is outstripping the real need for frequent updates in technology, and this constant consumer cycle of switching out phones is now posing negative environmental consequences. Electronic waste (E-waste), which arises from all the devices and appliances that are thrown away, is a significant pollutant not only due to its sheer quantity, but also due to the amount of heavy and toxic metals that leech into the soil when this waste is dumped into landfills. Speaking at the CleanUp 2013 conference in Melbourne Australia, professor Ming Wong, director of the Croucher Institute for Environmental Sciences at Hong Kong Baptist University, described the growing problem of E-waste as a time bomb. “[It] is the world’s fastest growing waste stream, rising by three to five per cent every year,” Wong said.

In response to this growing problem, Dave Hakkens, a recent graduate of the Dutch Design Academy Eindhoven, has developed an initiative that aims to provide a sustainable phone model while at the same time providing consumers the frequent upgrades they have grown to cherish.

Hakkens proposed a new kind of smartphone this September—a smartphone that’s worth keeping. Phonebloks, a modular smartphone, removes the concept of having a single phone body with soldered components. Instead, it has separate modules for each of the components of the smartphone, one each for the camera, processor, RAM, display and so on.

The idea behind this modular design is that if a component becomes out-dated or is damaged, one can simply replace that part and not have to change the entire phone. The phone consists of a peg board, which acts as its base. The reverse side of the peg board has pins where all the modules fit in and come together. The front side is the site for the front facing camera and the screen.

“I put the idea online and thought maybe a thousand people would like it, at best,” Hakkens exlained in a video on the PhoneBloks website. “When I published it, over half a million people supported the project. There’s a market for this.”

Currently running a campaign on Thunderclap, a crowd-speaking platform, the idea has received 99 per cent of the expected support of 850,000 people. It has gained traction among the masses as an agent for change towards a more sustainable electronic product life cycle with minimal impact on the environment.

At the moment, Phonebloks is still in the concept stage, to the point that Hakkens is not even looking to raise any money for the project using crowd-funding platforms like IndieGoGo or KickStarter. He explains in the video that the project is too large for a single company to manage. He suggests the concept might require a consortium of companies to invest in the project.

Another selling point of Phonebloks is its flexibility. According to its website, the model could be used to customize the smartphone to adapt to people with different needs. For example, senior citizens could get larger speakers to amplify sound; travelers could get a better camera than the standard offering.

Still, the Phonebloks model poses several problems. With the introduction of modules that plug into a peg board, there is a risk of a much bulkier model than the current crop of smartphones. Current smartphones are an engineering marvel in terms of the large number of components packed into a slim and tiny space, which is largely possible because they are all soldered onto a motherboard. Besides this, there is also the unseen problem of wear and tear that the plug pins on a modular phone base, as is true with any design that has repeated plugging in and out.

An ever more pertinent problem is getting large corporations like Apple and Samsung on board with this idea. They have huge quarterly profits because they can frequently release newer, more powerful smartphones that compel consumers to discard their old devices. The idea of having a phone that would ideally last a lifetime would eat away at this ever-growing pile of consumer dollars. In the future, it will be necessary for Phonebloks to address the issue of larger corporations backing up their project in order to move forward in this electronic sustainability movement.

  • Joe Blogger

    Why even bother. Phonebloks is so patently absurd on so many different levels that it’s never going to see the light of day. There are far more practical and pertinent ways to address e-wAste that you’ve completely failed to mention.