The mobile phone as change agent

Design activism at the heart of the production process

FairPhone is an initiative with quite the agenda. It aims to produce the world’s first fair mobile phone: a mobile device that is being designed and produced while doing minimal harm to human beings or the environment. While on its journey, FairPhone is being confronted with all of the intricate complexities that the mobile phone production process and supply chain entail—many of which are anything but transparent and fair. FairPhone has made it its mission to once and for all open up the mobile phone industry’s “ecosystem,” from the extraction of raw materials to production, sales, and beyond.

Washing copper

Photo by FairPhone found on Flickr

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“Companies tend to say that they have no way to backtrack more than three steps in their production chain,” FairPhone founder Bas Van Abel says. “Therefore, it is a matter of disentangling the way in which the production process is built up. The phone itself is in fact the oracle that gives us access to understanding the system. That’s why, at FairPhone, we take the actual mobile phone as our starting point. That’s where we start contemplating about and designing our actions. Our original starting point for the design of a fair phone was an exercise in open design. Soon, we became aware of the fact that the system that makes mobile phone production possible is of a political nature. Which means that our design approach towards changing the system is in fact a form of design activism, aimed at opening up the system. Only if and when we take into account all aspects of the system—in a veritable holistic approach—we will be able to make progress.”

Van Abel says he is fascinated by the complexity of the production system for mobile phones. “Alienation used to be an inherent characteristic of the way in which we designed our products, based on the ideal of efficiency in both production and distribution. That system was focused on the production of goods of a certain quality for a competitive price. In the information age, the virtues of the old system are decreasing in value quickly. Today, production is increasingly about generating and sharing knowledge and data together. As a designer, this puts you in charge of the system: designing is no longer about accepting alienation and complexity as a given, but about bringing different worlds together.”

All-round fairness
When it comes to the production of the actual fair phone, the ultimate goal revolves around “fairness.” Everything about the phone should qualify as fair: from the extraction of raw materials to the redevelopment of African mining sites and the safeguarding of labour conditions for manufacturers. This is required in order to be able to create a truly fair phone.

That’s why FairPhone focuses on many things at once: it seeks alternative ways of acquiring the necessary raw materials by encouraging fair mining systems, it focuses on improving production and labour conditions, it emphasises “smart design” that is intended to last, it advocates for transparency in business deals, and promotes reuse and recycling.

Needless to say, this is easier said than done. Which is why FairPhone seeks collaboration with a variety of partners that are working on a diversity of issues. For example, FairPhone is part of the Conflict-Free Tin Initiative (CFTI) and the Solutions for Hope Project. Both initiatives aim to source conflict-free minerals in Congo. CFTI introduces a tightly controlled conflict-free supply chain outside the control of armed groups. Solutions for Hope is a similar project that was initiated by Motorola Solutions Inc. and the AVX Corporation, triggered by their own need for conflict-free materials, being large-scale users and processors of tantalum. Work is also being done to encourage fair gold from Peru. FairPhone is the first electronics manufacturer that is trying to incorporate fair trade gold in its products by setting up initiatives with FairTrade International (FLO) and the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM). Besides resolving mining-related issues, FairPhone also encourages better labour conditions in China by encouraging democratically elected worker unions and improved access to information. This is FairPhone’s attempt to inspire existing industries by starting a movement for change.

A new ecosystem: “It’s all about relationships”
“As time progressed,” Van Abel explains, “FairPhone’s goals became much bigger as we became aware that we need to stop tinkering with the issues in the production chain independently. We need to take a holistic approach and design an entirely new way of doing business in order to make it happen. At the same time, growth and profit are part of the deal, too, if we want to have a real impact.”

Developing a market proposition and a business case was a necessary next step towards attracting investors and bringing the phone onto the market. FairPhone currently collaborates with organisations and companies that originate in the old system. Companies such as Vodafone and KPN are employing brand managers and corporate social responsibility advisers that want their organisations to embrace new social and sustainable values. This means that there is potential within these types of organisations to change and fuel meaningful developments.

“As the mobile phone industry represents a circular economy in itself, FairPhone is actually marketing an altogether new ecosystem that we do not yet fully understand. It is a journey that we can all be a part of. The good news is that more and more people are excited to contribute: over 5,000 people have requested our fair phone already.”

After running as a successful campaign at Waag Society for over two years, FairPhone was established as an independent social enterprise in January 2013. Pre-sales of its first model smart phone will commence mid-2013.

The FairPhone design and design process are sustainist all-round. FairPhone’s overall aim: a real fair phone that takes into account social and sustainability attributes should be (made) possible. By no longer accepting the alienation and complexity that traditionally surround mobile phone production, the designer takes responsibility for changing the system.

• FairPhone embraces the political nature of the design process. Its holistic approach includes the “design of the context” by challenging the conventional consumer electronics industry. It wants to restore the balance of what is appropriate by respecting human rights and promoting acceptable standards for workers that include a caring attitude towards our planet and the local environment.

• The brand design reconnects users with nature, by creating awareness of the impact that the related demand for resources is having on people and the planet.

• Due to the collaborative and networked nature of the design process, uncertainties abound. FairPhone accepts that it cannot control the design process and attempts to use the flow that is being generated to its best advantage.

Share to be fair is a motto that fits FairPhone well. Its effort is to overcome deficiencies in the system by sharing knowledge, skills, and information from mining to production to mobile phone use.

FairPhone (re)connects users with the product itself. Distinguishing itself from traditional mobile phone design, a fair phone can be opened by its users. So they can truly “own” it.
Everyone is invited to participate in creative challenges on the FairPhone website, from designing your favourite phone to promoting the final product. FairPhone connects workers—miners, engineers, designers and producers—to business partners and consumers.

FairPhone’s sensitivity to human scale is expressed by advocating for the rights of mine workers in Congo and Peru and production workers in China.