Save the Planet, With Cell Phones That Last Five Years

How we could use smart design to rethink cellphones, and make them last for years and years.

Solar gadget chargers are the rage these days, as we try and rethink our everyday energy use. But it’s really window dressing on the greater problem: Over a two year period, the energy used to make a phone is three times greater than the energy used to operate it.

nokia 5-year phone

The solution, naturally, is to use our electronics for longer. But how do you pull that off, when Apple releases a new phone every year?

Designer James Barber has an idea: A cell phone whose guts you could readily replace as new technology arises, and whose case is made out of materials that are 85% recyclable.

nokia 5-year phone

This idea of helping to solve out energy addiction by simply creating stuff that lasts a really long time has actually been percolating this year. Most famously, the inventor, environmentalist, and polymath Saul Griffiths recently gave a lecture on the “Rolex” theory of design–that is, designing things so valuable that you keep them for a lifetime, rather than constantly churning through new crap.

Of course, cell phones are a particular bear, given how much they change over time. And I’m skeptical that any brick phone could be alluring enough that anyone would really want to keep it for very long–and besides, the case itself represents just a fraction of the carbon footprint of a cell phone. (Motorola’s Renew, which is made from sustainable materials is a good start–if it wasn’t so ugly.) The big culprit–and the biggest environmental hazard–is the circuitry.


But then again, think about the iPhone, and you realize that Apple really has created a paradigm which could be transformed into the deepest shade of green.

How so? Look at the iPhone itself–the case isn’t what’s most alluring about it. What really stirs demand are the software and processing capabilities–all of which can be readily refreshed, via a smart modular design and software updates. The case would simply have to be designed to become more durable–and voila. You’d have a new model for cell phone consumption, which emphasizes reuse over churn.

Jonathan Ive, we know you can do it.

[Via Yanko, which has more pics]

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.