Does Transience Accelerate Growth?

Right now, if you want a better-performing camera for your smartphone, you have to buy a whole new device. You can’t just swap out the camera. The same goes for other components such as storage, battery, and screen.

In 2013, this situation inspired Dutch designer Dave Hakkens to present his concept for a smartphone that would work completely differently. The clue’s in the name: Phonebloks are made of individual components or modules. Various “bloks” can be stuck onto a central board, much like Lego blocks. The “bloks”, which are discrete functional units, include a screen, processor, speakers, camera, or a memory card. So a user is not only able to configure the exact phone he or she wants, but also easily replace broken parts. If one module fizzles, it doesn’t mean the end of the entire device, which means saving money and reducing electronic waste. 


But Hakkens’s idea goes even further. Phonebloks is an open-platform, which allows external manufacturers to develop, produce, and distribute additional modules. Users can build their own custom smartphones from the variety of parts available.

Hakkens sees himself as a designer who develops concepts that inspire others. Phonebloks might still only be a conceptual study, but this hasn’t stopped Hakkens from founding an international online community in which potential users can share and continue to extend the Phonebloks idea.

© Dave Hakkens

Motorola/Google began to develop a modular smartphone, Project Ara, in 2013—around the same time as Hakkens’s first ideas. Project Ara takes its name from Ara Knaian, who led the project’s technical development with his Cambridge, MA–based engineering firm, NK Labs. The first functional prototype was released by the San Francisco company NewDealDesign. Like Hakkens, they see design as a pragmatic tool for solving problems. But unlike Hakkens, they’re not just working on ideas. As industrial designers, they’re also working on the concrete realization of products. The key element in their prototype is its endoskeleton, onto which users can slide modules held in place by magnets. According to Gadi Amit of NewDealDesign, “Project Ara allows the user to become the designer of his or her own product.” That’s why Project Ara is an open-platform project. For example, Lapka, a San Francisco design agency specializing in green technology, developed modules that measure air quality. But the smartphone has yet to come to fruition. Shortly before it was due to hit the market, Google killed the project.

© Dave Hakkens

Other manufacturers are of course working on modular smartphone concepts. Fairphone 2 allows customers to swap out some of its components, and a higher-powered camera, which can be used to upgrade the Fairphone 2, has just launched. LG and Motorola have also developed modular smartphones. But these products are less radical than the concepts developed by Phonebloks and Project Ara.

Why? Of course, technical problems continue to keep modular smartphones off the market. And our society might not be so interested in radical sustainability. After all, an economy focused on growth demands obsolescence—otherwise people wouldn’t have to keep buying new products.

© Dave Hakkens

But these ideas continue to evolve—and people will continue to develop more sustainable products using modular components. It might even happen more quickly than we predict:

In the spring of 2017, Facebook registered a patent on a modular smartphone. We can’t wait to see the first designs.

Friedrich von Borries, born in 1974, is an architect. He teaches Design Theory at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg and runs the Projektbüro Friedrich von Borries in Berlin. The relationship between design and social development lies at the heart of his work, which exists in the border zone between urban planning, architecture, design, and art. “As scholars, we try to understand the world. As designers, we try to change it.”