Phonebloks and the deeper messaging of sustainability

Something just blew up on my Tumblr dashboard. This:

Phonebloks.

The video was posted onto YouTube on Sep 10, 2013 and it is currently the evening of Sep 11, 2013 with 2.6 million views. I first noticed it after it circulated many times on my Tumblr dashboard (90,000 notes currently). It is so popular that as I am writing this Phonebloks.com is down and its campaign page is also intermittently not showing up (more on this at the end).

It’s a project created by new design school graduate Dave Hakkens who is based in the Netherlands. On his website, we find that he is a fan of The Story of Stuff.

Which is awesome, because that’s exactly what this reminded me of.

In a recent Sustainable Product Development course, one of the first things we did was watch The Story of Stuff and write down our ideas for what it says about product development.

Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote:

Having watched that, it seems difficult to answer a question on product development when our addiction to products is the overarching problem. To me, “Story of Stuff” worries me with the problems in our habits and the systems that facilitate our habits. However, product development does play a role in the system, and more of us need the knowledge and desire to change it.

 

Where I believe product development can truly be reshaped for the era of sustainability awareness is timeless functionality versus fashion. I mean that in all consumer product, not just apparel. Ditch the focus on consumer tastes and trendiness, instead go for the most simple, long-lasting way to do something. Instead of selling with emotional appeal or new features, sell on a core function perfected, a product that does exactly what is needed of it better than all other products. As Elon Musk said, you can’t just do green, you have to make a far better product than what’s out there already.

 

Where functionality can be upgraded through consumer-serviceable parts, let’s do that. Let’s pay for the ideas, not an entirely new product that is completely built from scratch and distributed but is only marginally better than the old. Simplify! Make products that can be put together with optional parts that increase functionality as desired by the individual consumer. If all products are more interchangeable and reusable, we would lose this system of single-use products that constantly need replacement. We need easy disassembly of products so that parts can be recycled at end-of-life. We want as much circular, as little finite as possible. There is definitely a market for this already; the importance is to develop with this emphasis and sell with this emphasis.

(I actually used this Microsoft patent illustration to demonstrate the concept in my class, but Phonebloks does a much better job.)

Microsoft Windows Phone interchangeable parts modules

 

I am serious about my sustainability views, and I know that selling another new product, HOWEVER SUSTAINABLE, isn’t the way to solve the world’s problems.

Still, I focus on product in my work, and product is indeed part of the system. Without products designed for sustainability, consumers have to basically rely on discipline to be sustainable in a consumerist world. It’s always an interesting and controversial way to tackle the problem, but it can work. It’s the chicken or egg problem, do we get consumers to change behavior and force businesses to adjust, or do businesses build a more responsible product that nudges consumers to change behavior? Both are hard, but neither is impossible.

There are, of course, massive implications for the world, for lifestyles, for our consumer habits, and most of all for businesses. Think: an Apple that gives your phone a planned obsolescence life of 3 years and does everything possible to build desire for its newest iPhones every year earns its money on this consumption system and will not happily adjust to a revolutionarily sustainable system. However, never forget that everything about the system that we live in today didn’t just happen; people created it.

Victor Lebow, an economist, wrote in the mid 20th-century:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption… we need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.

Ask your grandparents, what did they value? It was not to shop or to buy the newest, shiniest thing. Consumerism has been growing; we are now consuming twice as much as we did 50 years ago. Yet, believe it or not, our national happiness has gone down at the same time that our consumption has gone up.

The old way was created when environmental science was on the fringe and sustainability hardly had the definition we now give it. We are in an era of better understanding of the world and change to an outmoded system is not only possible but needed.

So how does this project play a role? What’s interesting about this project is that it is not a ready-to-go project just looking for funding. The product shown in the video is actually quite conceptual, not designed in the most realistic form factor at all (based even on my surface knowledge of phone hardware). In fact, it isn’t a crowdfunding video – it calls its goal “crowdspeaking.” What it asks is for you to “donate your social reach,” to raise awareness of the project by automating a social media post to Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr on October 29, 2013. There is a platform that does this and it’s called Thunderclap.it; I’ve not heard of it before but I can see how it’s useful. I believe and hope that the creator will harness the fleeting enthusiasm and create a sustained effort.

The final and urgent point I want to express is that in this mass focus of public internet attention what we want to convey is not ooooh this is a cool new shiny thing take my money me want, it’s the deeper reasoning of why we need products to be designed like this now and in the future.

If you’ve gotten to this point and still haven’t decided to watch or rewatch the Story of Stuff, here you go:

Everything leads to everything else.