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Q&A: Dave Hakkens, designer of Phonebloks, on reinventing smartphone design

Q&A: Dave Hakkens, designer of Phonebloks, on reinventing smartphone design

Posting in Technology

Dutch designer Dave Hakkens has a radical idea: build a modular, customizable smartphone.

Between Samsung, Apple, and other smartphone manufacturers, more than 700 million phones were shipped out to consumers in 2012. Once shiny and new, it takes a matter of months before these phones are dated. Within two years, most of the phones will be in a landfill.

Recent graduate of The Dutch Design Academy Eindhoven Dave Hakkens is trying to revolutionize the way we make and use electronics. He’s starting with our phones.

Phonebloks is a Lego-like approach to smartphone design. Customizable parts mean the entire phone need not be replaced. Whether one part breaks or the consumer wants a Canon camera lens rather than a Nikon, Phonebloks promises a sustainable model.

“I put the idea online and thought maybe a thousand people would like it, at best,” Hakkens said. “When I published it, over half a million people supported the project. There’s a market for this.”

For now it's just a promise. Hakkens is in the middle of a social media campaign on Thunderclap trying to garner consumer and corporate interest. He's not asking for money, he's asking for demand.

Tell me about how the Phonebloks concept came to you.

It started when my camera broke. I took it apart to repair it and all the components were good except the motor -- the LCD, the display, the battery, the flash, the gears, everything worked. I went online to order the spare part but I couldn’t find it. I had to throw the camera away, along with all the good components.

If you have a bike and you get a flat tire, you don’t throw the bike away, you repair the tire. With technology and electronics we don’t do this. We buy it, something breaks, and we throw everything away. I wanted to see if I could change this.

At this point, on a scale from one to ten, how close do you think you are from making the Phoneblok?

I set this up as a vision. I never had the intention of saying, “Next year we’ll launch Phonebloks.” Because of the level of interest, I now have faith this is possible to set up.

I’ve seen a proliferation of articles where tech writers are jumping in saying, “Here are all the reasons why Phonebloks won’t work.” And yet, the positive response has been overwhelming. What are the top hurdles you’re facing in terms of functionality and design?

The way we’ve built technology the last 30 years is not the way Phonebloks is built. The major challenges now are to have all the components work together, to get the bloks solidly in the phone so they won’t pop out, and to market this in a way that companies earn enough money, but customers don’t have to buy new bloks every two years.

Could you speak about your decision to ask for publicity instead of money?

If I raised the money, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. To set this up we need a lot of people involved. First I had to show there is a huge market for this. Then companies will see they can make money and can start working together. The next step is to crowdsource -- to set up a platform to actually start building.

Are there particular companies or major players you are hoping will jump on board?

Google has all the in-house knowledge concerning how to build this. But when I put the concept online, I realized so many people want to work on this and they all have knowledge. So we also have a lot of knowledge from the community supporting us. To get the big multinationals to discuss with us would be great, we could learn a lot.

How would the profit share work?

It works like an app store. Companies build and sell bloks. The Blok Store shares part of the margin with the companies building components.  This also means that little companies can start developing. We don’t need a multinational company to make all the components.

For instance, if you want a camera on your phone you can choose a Canon, a Nikon with a lot of megapixels, or you can choose to support a small startup. You can read reviews on what’s the best camera. It’s a really open model for building your own phone.

It seems there’s a trend toward customizable products. This started in the digital world and now it’s entering the sphere of material objects in an unprecedented way. Do you think this is an inevitable shift -- where people will have a substantial stake in how a product is made and how it works for them specifically?

I think it’s always good when you know what you’re using and how it works. It’s not so much that I want to have products personalized, but moreso to save a lot of wasted materials. If you never use a Bluetooth, why should you have one? Bluetooths are thrown away because no one uses them. It’s a good way to reduce the amount of stuff we produce. If people don’t need it, don’t build it.

Is phone waste a significant amount of waste we see? How much could we save if Phonebloks were to become popular?

I honestly don’t have exact numbers. But e-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world. Because electronics are built in the old-fashioned way; you buy something, it breaks, you throw it away. So this is about all electronics. I would love to see everything built in a modular way. For instance, if you need Wifi somewhere else, you can use that Wifi component in another product.

There are critical engineers who say, “This is impossible.” But I believe people who support this really understand what my intention is. It’s a change in how we design the technology. It’s not something you can just make in one year. It’s a revolution in the way technology is made.

On a personal level, it sounds like you had no idea Phonebloks would be remotely this successful. How does that feel? Did you think you would suddenly be pouring your work into this vision?

I thought, “I’ve graduated school, I’ll start my own design studio. I’ll launch Phonebloks to show my vision and then keep on going.” But now, I have so many interested people and companies I can’t just let this go. I didn’t expect this, but now I think my life is going to be Phonebloks for the next couple of years.

I studied industrial design but I was never into designing products. I wanted to find problems and see if I could find solutions. Sometimes the solution is a product, but sometimes it’s a concept.

What really bothers me most is the waste of material. That’s a big motivation. I could design a chair that looks nice, but it doesn’t give the satisfaction of solving a real problem.

In the beginning I was designing things like a robot vacuum cleaner. But then I realized, I don’t really need a robot vacuum cleaner. So I started getting more critical about design.

My other graduation project was about reducing plastic waste. Right now, less than 10% of our plastic waste is recycled. It turned out that the machinery producing plastic products produces a new product every three seconds. So the issue is, recycled plastic isn’t used because it might slow down the production. That was basically the entire problem. So I designed a set of machinery so that people could start small-scale local factories using plastic waste to produce new products.

I also made an oil press that works using wind energy -- a project called Wind Oil. You can throw in locally sourced nuts and seeds and get good, cold pressed oil -- which is usually the most expensive oil in the supermarket.

Are any of your products available for purchase?

No, I want to make a clear blueprint of Wind Oil so I can share it online and people can build it. But that’s still in the pipeline.

You try to share your ideas so that other people can make them. How do you make money?

Well currently, I don’t. I could sell the oil press machine and ship it to America, but that feels like such a waste in transportation. It seems so much better to share the blueprint digitally and have people make it locally.

We live in a nice world where even with open source projects you can earn money. With Phonebloks I don’t earn money. I don’t know how to yet, but I’ll find a way.

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Sonya James

Contributing Writer

Sonya James is a multimedia producer based in New York. With creativity and innovation in mind, she speaks to diverse voices on topics from racism in the art world to the patriotic nature of southern food. She holds a Masters Degree in Community Development. Disclosure