Expressions of sustainable experience

Today there are relatively few ways in which customers can express their preference for a sustainable life when using a mobile device. As an industry, mobile has lagged behind a wide range of others, including automotive, housing, travel, food and fashion, in offering product experiences which enable customers to feel they are supporting sustainable principles.

I believe this desire exists among users and there is a commercial opportunity for brands which provide customers with that choice. I’m exploring whether it would make a suitable topic for a future MEX Pathway, where we would use the MEX process to actively assist the industry in developing new ideas for sustainable products.

I would love to hear from anyone working in this area who would like to share a view on topics for the Pathway.

In the mean time, here are some thoughts on where the industry is today on sustainability.

To-date, customers cannot choose their mobile operator on the basis of how many of its base stations are powered by solar, even though this can reduce carbon footprint. I wonder if this information should be made available in the same way as signal strength coverage maps?

Some manufacturers are reducing device packaging, helping to limit material use and lower transport impact. There is also the universal charger initiative, where most manufacturers have agreed to standardise on the micro USB charging port in an attempt to reduce the number of chargers produced and then discarded. It is a useful objective, but I see no sign of manufacturers providing customers who re-use their old charger with a discount if they buy a device without a new charger.

Last year there were ‘eco-branded’ handset launches from Samsung and Sony Ericsson, but neither product was pushed into the mainstream and both failed to engage with customers’ understanding of sustainability.

Network operator O2 also launched an eco ratings scheme to enable customers to understand which handset was most environmentally sound based on a number of criteria. The rating system was defined for O2 by an independent organisation (Forum for the Future) and uses a range of criteria, including material usage, packaging and a manufacturer’s role in its local community, to arrive at an overall score. This broad view makes is stand out as a benchmark example of how the mobile industry should approach this issue.

Part of the challenge is making sustainability a positive choice rather than a compromise. One of the most visible ways in which I have seen this manifest in product design is NTT DoCoMo’s Touch Wood handset.

The main casing of each device is made from sustainably sourced Cypress trees. The result is a tactile experience of great quality, where each handset is naturally unique because of the grain variations in the wood.

The product will ship in a limited run of 15,000 starting in March 2011. It will succeed because it combines a sustainable approach with a positive choice of superior design.

In other areas of product design, sustainable options are being developed out of geographical market necessities. For instance, significant parts of the world’s population live in areas with no reliable power supply. In these regions, solar-powered mobile devices are in high demand. The technology for solar recharging is being developed with those markets as the primary target, but may well find its way into more developed areas where purchasing decisions will be driven by a desire for sustainability rather than the absence of a power connection.

I spoke with Paul Naastepad, CEO of Intivation, at Mobile World Congress. Intivation provides the power management technology which ensures efficient conversion of power from the solar charger to the device battery. It has just launched a new integrated module, which combines solar cells and power management chip in a single component. The goal is to enable manufacturers to add solar power to a device by connecting two wires to this off-the-shelf module.

The conversation with Naastepad highlighted some of the barriers and opportunities with solar power:

  1. A solar module adds approximately USD 4 – 5 to the bill of materials. However, some of this cost can be offset by saving money on using a lower capacity battery.
  2. Most current generation solar panels are made using internal cells wired in series and hand-soldered. If one cell fails, the whole panel fails. There is also a higher rate of faults and manufacturing cost due to the hand finishing. They are approximately 15% power efficient. In real terms, 1 hour of charging gives 16 minutes of talk time. The next generation, used in Intivation’s new module, is machine made and operates cells in parallel. If part of the panel is blocked from sunlight or fails, the rest continues to work. It is 23% efficient, meaning a 1 hour charge results in 35 minutes of talk time.
  3. The previous generation of cells resulted in a particular look, with the cell lines clearly visible on the panel. The next generation does not have visible lines and can be produced in a range of colours, providing wider scope for design integration.
  4. Solar panels can be placed under a touchscreen – most of the major manufacturers are working on this – but currently this method is much more expensive and efficiency drops below 5%.
  5. Frequent trickle charging, where the battery is only refilled to a percentage of its capacity, may have a detrimental impact on the lifetime of the battery. Most batteries perform best when run all the way down and charged all the way back up.
  6. There is a user experience issue with the direct integration of solar panels into phones – how do they charge if the phone doesn’t have sight of the sky, e.g. when they’re in a pocket? Companies are working around this by producing clothing with dedicated external pouches for phones. Also, the solar panels can be separated from the handset, storing power in a battery pack which can later be used to recharge. This enables customers with existing phones to retro-fit their devices with solar power. Intivation is working with one manufacturer which will launch an accessory product of this nature for approx. USD 25 in developing markets. In contrast, a phone with integrated Intivation technology can be bought for USD 30.
  7. Solar panels have previously resulted in design compromises because of the depth of module required. The new Intivation module is just a couple of millimetres thick.
  8. Ultimately the power management technology required will be integrated into the baseband silicon, making it less expensive to build into phones.

After the conversation with Naastepad, I could imagine several use cases beyond the obvious need for off-grid recharging:

  1. Solar-powered cellular internet hubs. A single device connected to a mobile broadband network provides Wifi coverage for several local devices.
  2. Integration with sporting goods, e.g. a solar panel on the back of a rucksack, allowing a mobile device to remain charged during outdoor activities. Mobile devices are increasingly used for photography and GPS tracking when biking, hiking and skiing. These are notoriously power hungry activities, so the solar panel would allow the device to be used without fear of killing the battery and losing the ability to make emergency voice calls.
  3. Minimising the need for second chargers at work, where smartphone users find themselves investing in another bit of plastic to keep the device plugged into the wall at work, leaving the main charger at home.

Please get in touch with any thoughts on how we might develop this into a MEX Pathway. I’m keen to explore the full scope of sustainable experiences:

  1. Improving the environmental efficiency of device manufacturing and transport.
  2. Reducing the carbon footprint of mobile networks.
  3. Conveying sustainable principles through design.
  4. Services which enable users to life their lives more sustainably through mobile technology.


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