One blok at a time: Steps towards sustainable development

by Miguel Benavides, Rowie Chua, Katherine Khoo, Alexandra Martin, Juana Montelibano, Laura Que, Maegan Santos

The resources available on Earth for our use are finite. On the other hand, the human need is not. This is where the problem arises. We need resources in order to satisfy the needs of the people. But then if these needs are infinitely many, then the resources that are for our generation will not be enough to answer to this demand. This will then lead us into using more than our share of resources, depriving future generations of their own ratio.  But fear not, for the answer to this problem can be found through sustainable development.

Sustainable development is an approach to development that takes the finite resources of the Earth into consideration. It is all about a delicate balance, a balance between the human need for a better lifestyle and feeling of well being, and the preservation of the resources around not only for our use, but also for the use of generations of the future (Srinivas.) The need for this kind of development arose due to the increasing population of the world. As the matter of fact, United Nations has predicted that the human population by 2100 would already be around 10 billion. This would then mean an increase in the needs of the people.  That is why we cannot afford to use up more than our designated portion, because if we ourselves are having problems rationing the remaining resources, how do you think they will be able to do it? The solution is to create a system that is “sustainable”, meaning one that can keep on going indefinitely into the future (Skye.)

For if we do not begin to implement these kinds of development, then we would be faced with undesirable situations that we would have been better off not encountering. For example, every living man has the most basic of needs such as food, water and shelter in order to live. But to create these basic needs, we need to use up resources most specifically finite fossil fuels. That is why if we do not find a sustainable option rather than just using fossil fuels, then the prices for these needs would increase to a point that only the insanely rich can afford it. Another example is that of concerning climate change, one of the most important environmental issues we are experiencing. Through a sustainable development for the production of materials, the fossil fuel used would definitely lessen, and in turn, would lessen the greenhouse gases released from them that cause the Climate Change (Skye.)

Ultimately, there is no dispute in the political aspect when we talk about sustainable development. Sustainable development is more environmental friendly, has more capability to dynamic in the same time, economical, has long-term potential and is the only manner leading forward for a progressing world economy. Mankind already uses a big percentage of the planet’s non-renewable resources to live their daily lives. As more people join them, more and more resources are being used and the quicker these resources are reduced. Over ample time, sustainable development will no longer be a preference for people who want to feel that they’ve helped the world with their choices. It will be the only choice for cities and regional development. It’s easily a matter of time until we won’t have choices anymore. The question is if people have the will to make the shift toward sustainability on their own free will or if they will have to be forces to make a swift conversion when all of the other choices are exhausted.

Phonebloks

bloks

Most of the phones, nowadays, are easily disposable. In a span of two years, the phones we use could just wear out because of a broken part, not enough memory, old battery and the like so we tend to just throw them away. That being said, the amount of e-wastes we produce is astoundingly increasing because of phone disposals but there’s a solution to that problem. What if we can just replace the broken component? Or change the battery if it’s already used up? Is it possible? Can a phone be customizable?

Here comes Phonebloks to the rescue. Conceptualized by Dave Hakkens, Phonebloks is basically modular mobile phone that is made of bloks. These electrical modules are attachable to a base similar to how Lego blocks work, the base connects everything and two pins lock these parts together. If the screen breaks, you can easily replace it, in the same way that you can replace its battery for an upgraded one. Is the storage memory, insufficient? You can opt to pick how big or small your storage capacity can be. In short, the phone is customizable and it is “designed to last”.

If there’s a need to replace the parts already, there’s a Blokstore, also similar to an app store, where you can buy new bloks or even sell your old bloks. These bloks are not just manufactured by a single entity but are by different, big or small, companies. You can choose to have a pre-assembled one or if not, you can assemble these parts on your own from your favorite brands. This is designed to suit your needs and wants individually and even corporately.

How are they sustainable?

Sustainable development is that approach wherein it aims to optimize the use of Earth’s limited resources. One of the many strategies in sustainable design is creating modular products, that is, if one part breaks it can easily be repaired without disposing the entire unit (Williams). Knowing that mobile phones increase and eventually phase out rapidly, this modular approach will aid in lessening electronic wastes.

detachedThis is the idea Dave Hakkens incorporated with the Phonebloks. This perennially designed product is made of detachable bloks that enables one to keep all the other functioning parts or bloks should there come a time that at least one blok becomes defective. Phonebloks definitely optimizes the use of our resources. It aims to lessen the need of having more non-repairable products made. It even allows us to choose what parts we want our own phone to have. Imagine having to satisfy human’s multiple demands by just using up few resources and enabling the future generations to benefit from this.

But is it feasible?

For any tech business project to be feasible, it must fulfill at the very least two criteria: technological feasibility and commercial feasibility. The first answers the question, “Can it be made?” or, more precisely, “Is the science and technology available?” The seconds asks, “Will it sell?”

The short answer to the first question is “Yes.” The technology does exist and we have, in theory, the methods to create such a modular phone. Technological barriers have often been more of a question of time rather than of possibility. Today’s advances in science and technology seem to show that there may be no limit to what we can create and design, and so, we can posit that, if there is enough interest to make such a phone, smartphone companies would feel pressured to create and innovate such a device.

But that’s the problem. Sure, the idea can capture our imagination, but would companies be willing to make it? There’s more to business than market pressures and trends. And so, we have the problem of logistics. Existing companies benefit from something called a supply chain. Here, the manufacturing process is streamlined and this enables the company to mass-produce their products while optimally reducing manufacturing costs. The whole concept of Phonebloks would be a nightmare to implement on a supply chain. Think about it: There are at least ten major components of the modern smartphone – the screen, storage, battery, WiFi, Bluetooth, CPU processor, radio antenna, camera, audio jack, and the gyroscope. The reason companies such as Samsung and Apple can keep prices relatively reasonable is that their phones are designed so compactly and efficiently, that to do otherwise would incur greater manufacturing costs. In effect, each part would have its own supply chain, and would then have to be put together in the end. The price then of the final product would be immense.

parts

The one thing that would be common to all Phonebloks would be the base. Everything else can either be stock or purchased and installed by third-party companies. People want customizability. If a business venture were to capitalize on this idea, it would have to create arrays of separate parts. This would mean multiplying each supply chain by whatever number of options would be available, just to start the company. If from the outset, such a company would create only one set of stock parts, there would be the added challenge of convincing buyers to get this phone over existing, cheaper, more streamlined phones.

You could suppose that, given enough consumer demand, such a company would partner with other companies to produce third-party components, but again, that would take much convincing and capital. The odds are undeniably against the company.

blok store

But we’re assuming this company would be a new startup. What if the existing giants start it? What if Apple or Samsung saw enough value in this venture? The problem is, they have existing products, and for them to create such a concept phone and not expect returns would be unimaginable. People would not pay for a premium to buy a bulky concept phone over existing streamlined phones. For those giants to create a more expensive and logistically improbable phone would in effect, lose them money.

The idea is noble. All companies should aim for sustainable development. But if doing so would mean ultimately losing money and ruining the business, it can’t be done. Phonebloks will remain a pipedream.

Sustainability Talks: Apple vs. Phonebloks

Upon the widespread release of the Phonebloks concept video came the outpour of netizens expressing their opinion on how we should “forget the iPhone 5S” and have these phones instead. It was quite a statement – especially since the release of the video happened right after Apple’s latest announcement of products. What’s more interesting however is the notion people have of sustainability regarding tech companies and products in general. While you may think that this concept phone is far more sustainable than your average iPhone, think again. Apple is one of the most sustainable companies in the tech industry right now.

sustainable design

There is a difference in how Apple and the Phonebloks concept approach the idea of sustainability. Apple prides themselves in operating and producing with a significantly low carbon footprint. Ever since 2009, they have constantly been trying to find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve recycling efforts, increase energy efficiency, reduce waste in production, and adopt as many renewable energy policies as they can. Their marketing efforts exploit these facts too. By telling consumers that the newest iPhone is so light because the more light-weight and compact the materials are, the more finished products can be sent out and shipped in one go, thus saving great amounts of energy, time, and resources. Apple even goes as far as switching their energy sources from fossil fuels to 75-100% renewable not only in production sites, but in corporate offices as well.

The Phonebloks concept on the other hand focuses on what Apple does not: what happens at the end of a product’s life? This is the starting point of the Phonebloks concept. When only one part is usually broken or damaged, we waste a great deal of other materials in the process. The idea of having to change only the part that is broken or damaged is what appeals to a lot of people. By replacing only a fraction of your phone, you are also paying only a fraction of the cost, consuming only a fraction of the energy usually used, and creating only a fraction of the waste. Sounds good, right?

But what about production? How ‘sustainable’ is Phonebloks’ sustainability approach? And what about sustainability in terms of people and relations? Both Apple and the Phonebloks concept have yet to develop their sustainability approaches towards a more people-friendly aspect – one that does not exploit cheap labor and low regard for human dignity (such as in sweatshop factories in China), and one that encourages free trade and supports local initiatives for livelihood and welfare. Either way, both Apple and the Phonebloks concept have their own right in being ‘sustainable’, and at the same time, both also have areas that need much improvement.

Conclusion

After the problem of convincing companies to go into the Phonebloks concept, there is the issue of how appealing these Phonebloks will be to the consumers. Although the Phonebloks concept video garnered 5 million views in its first three days, one must consider that this support might not translate into the market. Among the many criticisms its received, one of them is its lack of aesthetic appeal. Many critics have gone so far as to call the Phonebloks phone “ugly”. As cellphone trends opt for sleeker, streamlined designs, the Phonebloks phone stands out like a sore thumb, given that its design (the three layers of screen, base, and bloks) will inevitably mean that it will be significantly bulkier. Since cellphones are considered as status symbols and fashion statements, “ugliness” might deter potential buyers. Although others have argued that hiring more designers and manufacturers to create cases will beautify the phone and fix said problem, wouldn’t it add to more bulk and added costs for both consumer and producer? The Phonebloks phone is already receiving criticism concerning its estimated price: as explained above (referring to its feasibility) this phone will most likely be quite pricey, or at least significantly so compared to other mainstream phones.

Also, a smartphone’s hardware is built such that each component is as near to the others as possible because each added millimeter distance slows down the whole device, which is why manufacturers tend to maximize the number of components per chip. Smartphones, such as the iPhone 5s, tends to put together the CPU, graphics, and ram together to hurdle over this problem. However, the “bloks” concept would put too much space between each component, significantly slowing it down. Not only that, it would mean that the phone would take up much more energy than it could have, resulting in a device that would need a bigger battery to last just as long as the mainstream phones. This of course translates to either a bulkier phone or a bigger battery blok which would lessen the amount of space for other bloks. Also, the Phonebloks phone will need expensive sockets that will allow the CPU, graphics, and ram to communicate at high speeds if it wants to get past its speed problem. With a phone this slow, bulky, aesthetically unappealing, and pricey, will consumers really choose this over a streamlined iPhone 5s?

But, what if the consumer really just wants to lessen the world’s e-wastes and lessen the future costs of buying new phones, wouldn’t the Phonebloks phone be a good alternative? Well, no. Although this phone showcases itself as being able to last for years because broken parts can be easily replaced and so on, this isn’t necessarily true given that the number one reason that smartphones actually break is because of mishandling on the part of the consumer. For example, consumers tend to drop their phones, smashing the screen onto the hard pavement. Now imagine the damage done to just one phone and multiply that to the number of bloks a Phonebloks phone has. By allowing the user to take apart each blok, tinkering with it, and putting it back again, the Phonebloks phone increases the potential breakage that mishandling can cause that isn’t present at all in ordinary smartphones. We wouldn’t be throwing out our Phonebloks phone because it was behind in technological advances, rather we would be throwing them out because they keep breaking on us! Given that this phone is much bulkier, we wouldn’t be lessening our e-wastes at all. We would be contributing much more.

The Phonebloks phone may have been an attempt to lessen both e-wastes and consumer expenditure on phones, however it fails on both aspects ultimately. Not only is it added consumer expenditure, it’s also producer hell. Companies don’t want to forego their current market shares so that they could contribute to this phone. Although it was a noble attempt at making the world a better place, the Phonebloks ultimately falls short of nearly all its objectives. So what does it really contribute? Well, it shows us that although designs like these are imperfect and maybe useless, it does show us that there is a potential for technologies engineered for sustainable development although perfecting it will take time and quite a lot of money. Also, this should motivate companies into competing with each other not just in market shares but also in technological developments and designs geared for the maximization of what finite resources we have left in this world.

References:

Bradford, K. T. “Upgrade, Repair, and Modify Your Smartphone Bit by Bit with Phonebloks.” Digital Trends. Designtechnica Corporation, 12 Sept. 2013. Web. 15 Sept. 2013. <http://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/phonebloks-video/&gt;.

Brownlee, John. “Why Lego Design Principles Don’t Work On Smartphones.” Co.Design. Mansueto Ventures LLC, 13 Sept. 2013. Web. 15 Sept. 2013. <http://www.fastcodesign.com/3017409/why-lego-design-principles-dont-work-on-smartphones&gt;.

United Nations. 1987.“Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development.” General Assembly Resolution 42/187, 11 December 1987.

Skye, Jared. N.p..”Why Is Sustainable Development Important?”. Web. 14 Sep 2013. <http://greenliving.lovetoknow.com/Why_Is_Sustainable_Development_Important>.

Srinivas, H.. N.p. Web. 14 Sep 2013. <http://www.gdrc.org/sustdev/definitions.html>.

Fenlon, Wesley. “How Phonebloks Could Work (and Why It Probably Won’t).” Tested. BermanBraun, 13 Sept. 2013. Web. 15 Sept. 2013. <http://www.tested.com/tech/smartphones/457508-why-phonebloks-could-work-and-why-it-probably-wont/&gt;.

“What is Sustainable Development?”. N.p.. Web. 14 Sep 2013. <http://www.worldbank.org/depweb/english/sd.html>.

Williams, Jeremy. “Phonebloks – A Phone Worth Keeping.” Web. 15 Sep 2013. <http://makewealthhistory.org/2013/09/12/phonebloks-a-phone-worth-keeping/>.

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