This year’s module is a phoneblok

Since the first call made on a 23cm-long 1.1kg Motorola in 1973, the accelerating rate of obsoletion means an average US cellphone is now kept for just 18 months. Despite leasing initiatives, cashback offers, drawers of “retired” kit, plus some reuse and recycling, global e-waste mountains are growing at a rate in excess of ten million mobiles a month.

For innovation and disruptive technology to make a successful start tackling mobile-related resource consumption and waste, it is wrong however to assume size matters.

As Phonebloks founder Dave Hakkens explains: “To tackle a big problem, you do not necessarily need a big solution. With the emerging technology empire soon to embrace the “internet of things”, even one solution – such as a mobile phone – to just one part of the bigger electronics problem still represents something of significance and starts the market shift to modular thinking.”

Phonebloks launched last year via viral video and “crowdspeaking” social media, campaigning to demonstrate the mass-market appeal of modular and attract commercial production partners. Billed as “a phone worth keeping”, Phonebloks challenges the notion that electronics are not designed to last.

A collaborative open-platform venture, the concept handset comprises detachable blocks – providing a processor and storage capabilities, camera and screen functions, for example – all connected through pins on a base. The modular nature allows easy upgrading of components.

This same designed-in interchangeability also facilitates customisation, described by Mr Hakkens as a demand priority identified in market research.

“Talking to a diverse mix of technology users around the world, with different priorities and situations, the first rule of phone design we learnt is that there has to be more to a mobile than just battery life and megapixels,” he says. “For some owners, being able to measure diabetes indicators or monitor a heartbeat features much higher up the agenda than camera capability. Any solution that aspires to become universal must cater for the particular – customisation is key.”

It is important for marketability that users can personalise purchases with custom features and so invest in a sense of ownership, choosing blocks they want and supporting brands they like.

Coming full circle, Phonebloks has now teamed up with Motorola, raising the prospect that modular might just answer the call for more sustainable mobile technology begun four decades ago.