Modular smartphones have the potential both to reflect technical progress through upgrades and to meet changing consumer needs. This enables a longer service life, which reduces the number of devices and their environmental impact. In order to develop the positive potential of modular design and minimize undesirable consequences, "MoDeSt" develops technical, social and economic pre-conditions and solutions for modular concepts.
According to Bitkom, at least 57 million people in Germany use a smartphone in 2019. The current average service life is only two years. Smartphones contain a variety of valuable metals, but also conflict resources. Most of the environmental impact is caused by the production of smartphones.
Modular smartphones require specific user skills, such as knowledge about repair options. This enables users to absorb technical innovations through upgrades, which pave the way to longer use-times. In order to exploit the positive potential of modular design and minimise negative effects such as increased consumption, the "MoDeSt" project is investigating the technical, social and economic prerequisites for modular concepts and developing solutions for circular and socio-ecologically sound modular technologies.
The innovative project involves a broad, transdisciplinary consortium. The integration of research and practice as well as technical and social science competences form the basis for a holistic approach to the research task.
The project is split into five work packages that are closely interlinked. First, conventional and modular smartphones as well as concepts are investigated and evaluated in the technical analysis with regard to various aspects of a circular economy. In the next step, life cycle assessments will be carried out which, by means of scenario building, depict different usage, repair and disposal practices and evaluate them with regard to material and resource efficiency. Thus, user expectations and practices are investigated qualitatively and quantitatively. Existing business models for modular products are analysed and new approaches are developed.
The modular approach will be further developed on the basis of these joint findings on environmental, usage and business model-related issues. Concrete technical revisions as well as the development of general eco-design criteria for modular smartphones are aimed at.
A review of the smartphone market since 2000 was conducted. This showed the enormous variety of models and manufacturers on the market, reaching its peak in 2014 with a total of 839 new models. Despite this multitude of different devices, a clear trend is visible regarding technical features. Besides the continuously increasing amount of memory and storage, higher display resolution and battery capacity seen in most devices, the market has developed towards significantly larger displays. This was the result of a better utilization of the front (screen-to-body-ratio), as well as larger, but flatter devices. Removable batteries, while being the norm a few years back, have become a niche product.
Smartphones are increasingly taking over features from other objects (e.g., alarm clocks and sound systems). Smartphones are thus modular in their role, but rather static from a technical point of view. Even sufficiency-oriented users are constantly discovering new features, then proceeding to integrate them into their everyday practices. Expectations regarding performance and features are generally high. Even ecologically-oriented users replace their devices if performance is not optimal anymore. Value-based communication, therefore, is not enough. Modular product service systems (PSS) should focus on the functional expectations and use patterns of different user groups.
Generally, different modular smartphone architectures are possible. These must be aligned with use patterns and business models. Similarly, PSS must also be designed in a modular manner to offer complementary services to prolong the active use time of the devices. Modularity has various advantages for all actors in the value chain. But ecological advantages are not a sure-fire success, but must become an overall strategy. Modular designs and PSS must also be supported by policymakers by taxing resource consumption to create conditions for a greater modularization of devices in supply chains and value creation models.
Involved partners and results
The transdisciplinary consortium comprises three scientific partners, Fraunhofer IZM, TU Berlin and the CSM of Leuphana University, as well as two industrial partners, SHIFT GmbH and AfB gGmbH.
The results of the project will be used to increase the distribution of modular devices on the market. They can serve manufacturers of smartphones as important development indicators. The results of the business model design can be used by manufacturers, sales partners and circular service providers to implement economic potentials of modularisation strategies and thus provide impulses for a longer service life. The results can be adapted to other product groups within the circular economy. The methods applied can provide important impulses for participatory market research in the technology/ICT sector and promote the development of integrative circular economy strategies. Within the framework of scientific publications, the results are made available for the further development of the discourse on the transition to an integrative circular economy.
Project sheets of the funding measure (German) (August 2019)
The project sheets provide a brief overview of the individual projects and their goals.
Contributions to the ReziProK Kick-off event in December 2019
Poster - in German (December 2019)
Presentation - in German (December 2019)
Picture credits: SHIFT 2019; Maksym Yemelyanov-stock.adobe.com; TU Berlin 2020