Product, Service & Design Innovation
Phonebloks Using Open Innovation to Develop the Best Phone in the World

While I won’t say which company makes my smart phone, I will say that my phone breaks… a lot. I’ve had problems with the headphone jack, the vibrate setting, and currently, the touch screen will occasionally start to malfunction by pressing buttons at will, only ceasing when I restart my phone. Problems like these, which are frustrating at best and costly at worst, are one reason Phonebloks plans to step in to save the day.

Building a sturdy and sustainably made phone isn’t a new idea, but David Hakkens, who founded Phonebloks in 2013, is looking at phone production in a different way. While trying to repair his camera, he realized there was only one small part that was actually broken. However, this small part was impossible to find and he instead had to replace the entire camera. As he began to look at the inherent waste involved in replacing a device because of a single broken component, he decided to translate this idea into a more common piece of technology.

The fundamental innovation behind Phonebloks divides the structure of the phone into separate modules, or Bloks, that — along with a base and a screen — form all of the components of today’s modern smartphones and are designed for easy disassembly. The combinations and capabilities of the Bloks are endless, but the main benefit is that if there is a problem with, for example, the memory Blok, you can detach it and get it repaired or replaced without having to scrap the entire phone.

In a recent interview, Phonebloks’ editor-in-chief Tomas Halberstad said he was excited about the sustainability advantages in creating a durable and easily repairable phone. “E-waste streams are among the fastest growing waste streams in the world right now,” he highlighted. “Mobile phones are a large part of these waste streams and that part gets larger every year.” According to the EPA, in 2009 Americans disposed of 129 million mobile devices. Of these, a shockingly low 8 percent were collected for recycling. As these numbers increase, so does the need for an e-waste intervention.

Not only does the Phonebloks team hope to revolutionize the mobile phone industry with phones truly made to last for years, it wants to create them on an open platform, through a collaborative effort between as many phone companies as want to take part. Thanks to a wildly successful Thunderclap campaign last fall, the idea of “a phone worth keeping” gained over 960,000 supporters in less than two months, demonstrating the demand that Phonebloks hoped would show the tech giants that there is indeed demand.

It worked: Motorola, maker of the first cellular telephone in the ‘80s, has partnered with Phonebloks to help create the first modular phone — with your help.

Motorola says that, through Project Ara, it hopes to “create a vibrant third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barriers to entry, increase the pace of innovation, and substantially compress development timelines.” While this might sound ambitious, things are moving forward swiftly. After a series of hack-a-thons, Motorola is providing the base of the phone, while Phonebloks will supply the Bloks. Motorola hopes that the DIY nature of the phones will create a more powerful and customizable experience.

Phonebloks is happy to capitalize on the demand for a modular-based phone system: With the outpouring of public support and the fact that Motorola isn’t the only company working on this idea, expect to see these customizable, built-to-last phones in the not-too-distant future.

Along with Phonebloks’ plan to create the first phone that wasn’t designed for obsolescence, its open innovation development model is setting a new bar for forward-thinking startups. Stop by the website and join in on the discussion — maybe you can help design the best phone the world has ever seen.

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