Building a sustainable smart phone out of blocks | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 10.01.2014
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Building a sustainable smart phone out of blocks

Dave Hakkens has a vision: an eco-friendly smart phone that can be assembled out of different blocks. He wants to change the electronics industry by making it sustainable.

When Dave Hakkens' camera stopped working because of a defective part, he couldn't get it repaired. It wasn't possible to replace the part, even though the rest of the device still worked just fine.

This so maddened Hakkens that he decided to revolutionize the electronics world. For his final-year project at the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands he came up with a project aimed at changing how consumers interact with electronics.

Repairing products instead of buying new ones - that's Hakkens' vision. However, the design concept he developed isn't for cameras: It's for smart phones. His phone can be assembled out of several modules, like pieces of Lego - a block for the screen, a block for the battery, another block for the camera. And depending on repair needs, and what the consumer wants, the blocks can simply be expanded or exchanged. Hakkens named his concept Phonebloks.

Daniel Basa, a computer scientist at Bielefeld University in Germany, says it's already possible to manufacture a cellphone like this: "But it doesn't make sense technically," he maintains.

Basa says that flexible modules require longer electronic connections, which would make the phone slower. Also, if every module requires its own casing, the phone would be thicker, heavier and larger.

It would also be more expensive. Manufacturers get the individual parts cheaper because they buy in bulk. With Phonebloks, the manufacturers require far fewer parts, and that would increase the price.

More than 18 million clicks on YouTube

Despite this, Dave Hakkens' idea seems to have captured the zeitgeist. The YouTube video in which he explained how the phone works garnered more than more a million clicks within just 24 hours.

Hakkens had planned to publish the video after a holiday in Greece at the end of last summer, but it was leaked while he was still on the beach. With hours, he had received hundreds of emails and calls, all of which he answered in his swimming trunks. "I wasn't expecting that," he says.

It's now more than three months since it was published, and the video has been viewed more than 18.5 million times - a massive success.

Dave Hakkens, the founder of Phonebloks

25-year old Dave Hakkens wants to revolutionize the electronics industry

But Hakkens wanted to reach even more people, and appealed for people to support his idea by sharing it on social networks. He doesn't plan to manufacture Phonebloks himself. "It's a vision," he explained. "It's about showing companies that lots of people want a phone like this. They have to create one!"

By the end of October, more than 900,000 people around the world had shared Hakkens' idea. The numbers succeeded in impressing phone companies - including Motorola. Thirty years ago, the US-based firm created one of the very first cellphones. In 2012, Motorola was bought by Google.

Now Motorola and Hakkens have teamed up to work on a commercially-viable cellphone - together with the Phonebloks online community. Ideas are exchanged and developed on an online platform, which is also used to communicate the current status of the project. Motorola wants to use the eco-friendly idea in order to re-establish itself as a major smart phone manufacturer.

Socially responsible and eco-friendly smartphones: a new trend?

Phonebloks isn't the only idea that's going against the grain of a consumer society in which people are armed to the teeth with gadgets. Recently, the first FairPhones were delivered. During their production, working conditions were monitored and only certified raw materials were used. Phonebloks and FairPhone are two of the best-known examples of the alternative electronics scene that's evolved in recent years. The designers and their supporters are young, tech-savvy people who want to influence the market with their social and environmental convictions.


The manufacturers of FairPhone ensure that no "conflict metals" are used in its production

But Jürgen Resch, the head of the non-profit organization German Environmental Aid (DUH), doesn't believe such initiatives will actually change the market. He also blames manufacturers for producing smartphones with a short shelf life. Resch believes industry conditions have to be changed to make it possible for phones to be used for a longer period of time.

"We are calling on lawmakers to make it mandatory for the smartphone industry to create phones that are easy to repair," he says.

Products from Apple are especially hard to mend. It's very complicated to open up the iPhone. "It's annoying," says Dave Hakkens, who is himself an iPhone user at the moment.

But he's certain that he'll be the first to use the new Motorola phone as soon as it comes on the market. Then, if the phone's camera lens should break, he can simply replace it himself.