An unfinished task; creating sustainability in the telecommunication industry

by Tim Reuser and Nikki Vieler


In 2013 Dave Hakkens graduated from the Design Academy, Eindhoven. One of his graduation projects was a project called phonebloks. Phonebloks is a project that could provide greater sustainability to the communications industry by having a modular mobile phone. Is this a sustainable mobile phone?

Phonebloks is a project that knows two parts, an academic and a public part. The academic part was his graduation project that was shown in the 2013 graduation show of the Design Academy. At the graduation show there was a show model of the designed phone.

The public part is the movement created on social media which led to the revealing of the Google Ara project. Google was actually working on a modular phone and made this public. Google invited Dave Hakkens to participate in Google Ara.

project ara

People, Planet and Profit

Now we must look at the analysis and the visualisation of the People, Planet, and Profit factors behind phonebloks. As a way to discern whether this phone is an actual sustainable solution rather than a form of greenwashing, we must analyse it in three parts.


People are always at the centre of a design, therefor it is important to begin with them. We split the people analysis into two parts; Pros and Cons of phonebloks


  • Owner phone pays less for a phone.
  • The owner can customise the phone


  • Companies may get less money due to less money spent on phones.
  • Unemployment in the production/mining industry.

PPP people

This leads to the following visualisation of the analysis. We used gears to signify the way society works, with the forces/turning signifying the effects. In our opinion the effects for the single user are less valid then the effects of a loss of income for a large company and what that can have on someone’s livelihood.


Every product has its business model, therefore it is important to understand what kind effects this product can have on the economy. We analysed phonebloks and came up with these factors. Then we visualised these factors to give a better idea of what these factors are like.


  • Cheaper phone in the long run as less money is paid should you need an upgrade
  • Less wasted materials/ more efficient use of materials. Making materials cheaper
  • Less money spent on repairs.


  • Phone makers may not make as much revenue as before

Visualisation of the profit analysis

PPP profit


We must realise that one of the reasons why big companies haven’t really taken on to the idea of a modular phone is the probable decrease of revenue. This is something companies are always afraid of and stops them from working on projects like phonebloks. However, it is unlikely that this will last forever, as hopefully consumers will demand projects and products like phonebloks.


We have an analysis of the possible effects of the phonebloks on our environment. We split the phonebloks environmental aspects into pros and cons.


  • Less need for environment unfriendly mining as less waste/need of materials.
  • Less poisoning of lakes due to extraction of materials.
  • Less e-waste on the planet


  • Greater need for energy due to interior construction of phone.

Visualisation of the Planet analysis

PPP planet


Phonebloks is very likely to have a positive effect on the environment, but this depends on the design to be energy efficient, which is hardly what it’s going to be in the first case. If that is overcome it will most likely be good for the environment.

Final analysis through People Planet and Profit method.

PPP total
We come up with a final diagram for the People, Planet and Profit to illustrate a total view of the Phonebloks analysis. We created an engineering construction diagram, taking the planet as base and people and profit as two aspects of the construction. The pros and cons are the forces that may or may not pull the construction to pieces.


Interviews concerning phonebloks (Rogier Koppejan and Karel Vieler)

Both interviews gave us interesting insights, however neither could discern whether this phone is an sustainable phone. They believed in it being sustainable, but without strong argument. That goes to show that it is not certain whether it is good for the environment or not. The interviews are attached to the essay.

Dichotomy Phonebloks and Fairphone

To increase our understanding of both the Fairphone and Phonebloks, we decided to dichotomise the two.


  • Phonebloks saves a user/you from throwing a phone away by replacing parts.
  • Phonebloks saves unnecessarily wasted materials
  • Phonebloks saves you money



  • Fairphone protects workers who are involved in the production of your phone.
  • Fairphone has a replaceable battery
  • Fairphone has an e-waste programAn unfinished task



Phonebloks and Fairphone are two wholly different concepts concerning phone design. Both have their advantages, but Fairphone is more sustainable in the bigger picture (People, Planet, Profit).

Conclusion about Phonebloks

Phonebloks is an interesting concept that could improve the quality of the telecommunication industry. However, this is not without its own issues. We don’t know if phonebloks is just mere greenwashing (that is unlikely), but it could be. We do believe, that a sort of synergy of Phone blocks and Fairphone would be the best way to create a more sustainable smartphone. It is up to individuals and the industry to do this. Let’s hope that they can.


Van der Zwaag. A. LOOKS GOOD FEELS GOOD IS GOOD. Eindhoven: Lecturis, 2014.

Dutch Design yearbook 2014. Rotterdam: NAI010, 2014

Schwarz, M. and D. Krabbendam. Sustainist Design guide. Amsterdam: Bispublishers,2013.

Phonebloks Group:

Attached interviews.

Interview with Rogier Koppejan, graduate in artificial intelligence at the University of Amsterdam. Now working as a software developer.

  • What do you think about the Phonebloks concept?

It’s a price worthy and very good idea. This concept does of course already exist

‐ the PC for instance- but it has never been applied to a mobile phone.


  • Do you think that Phonebloks might be a good way to decrease electronic waste?

Perhaps, but hardware outdates very quickly and often there is little to no use in just upgrading your processor when the memory is still from an older model. This will probably result in constant renewing of all the individual components. This will eventually result in a lot of waste. However it still might save a good percentage of waste in the end.

  • Can you, as a software developer see some advantages or disadvantages of such a phone?

I am very positive about this project. Because such a phone requires an open platform and this will be very beneficial for software development. Think about Arduino for instance. Also the development of (special) hardware will be easier.

  • Do you think that Phonebloks can compete with the big names like Samsung and Apple?

Perhaps not, but I think Phonebloks focuses on a different market than the major manufacturers. This alternative market can be the more conscious customer, but perhaps even more the budget market, for instance in the developing world.

  • Do you think they can compete with the Fairphone?

That may depend on the price. The Fairphone market is primarily the West. People with enough money and who are environmentally conscious. If they want to compete with the Fairphone they should make a similar product which is cheaper.

  • What is your opinion on their approach of sustainability?

Like I said in the second question: The problem won’t be solved, but hopefully it will be reduced.

  • Would this concept appeal to a large group of people?

Perhaps in the western world. But certainly when the phone can be produced cheaply, it will make this phone very interesting for the developing countries.

Interview Karel Vieler, Student Biology, Utrecht University

What do you think of the phonebloks phone?

I think it is very cool, it allows people to custom design their phone and is sustainable at the same time.
Would you buy the phonebloks phone?(if you could buy it)

If it is affordable I would definitely consider it, even though I am a big fan of iOS
What kind of potential do you think that the phonebloks phone has?

Rather large potential, however it must not be too exclusive
Would you recommend others to buy the phonebloks phone?

I would have to try it first to be totally convinced

Would you choose this phone over other phones?



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