Social Innovation

What trying to build a fair smartphone teaches us about ethical technology

A man uses a smartphone on a street in Tokyo November 21, 2013. The Bank of Japan maintained its ultra-loose monetary policy on Thursday and reiterated the economy is recovering moderately, in a nod to signs of a pick-up in exports that is key to sustaining the momentum generated by premier Shinzo Abe's stimulus. REUTERS/Issei Kato (JAPAN - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT TELECOMS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - GM1E9BL110001

There is a dark side to our booming smartphone industry Image: REUTERS/Issei Kato

Bas van Abel
Founder and Member of the Board, Fairphone
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Have you ever asked yourself who made your phone? Or how it works? Today no single human knows where all the parts of a smartphone come from. Who made them? Under what conditions? The systems that are hidden behind the plain glass of the phone that you hold in your hand are enormous, and paying attention to them could just change the world.

The systems behind our smartphones and other technology hide a simple truth: people play an essential role in their production, but they are not at centre-stage. From miners that source the conflict minerals that end up in our phones to the addictive nature of the apps that we use - humans in some way always pay the price of design choices that are made for them elsewhere.

With Fairphone we are exploring solutions to the problem that 100% ethical technology is not yet possible, and that many people in the supply chains of your smartphone suffer. Fairphone has already created fairer supply chains for all conflict minerals, which end up in almost everyone's smartphone. These conflict minerals are often mined in conflict regions, and can be used to finance armed rebel groups. Fairphone works with certification partners like the trading scheme Itsci, which it has helped to set up, to certify conflict-free mines in those areas and to keep supporting the local economies that are highly dependent on income from mining.

We were also the first smartphone manufacturer to source Fairtrade gold, which is used in mobile phones as a capacitor. The gold is sourced from a Fairtrade mine in Peru, and Fairphone is working with several partners to work with a gold mine in Uganda as a next step. We’re tackling the problem of the electronic waste that pollutes many places all over the world with recycling programmes, circular economy projects and the first modular smartphone, which you can open and repair yourself. Step by step we are improving the supply chain, but I also know that this is not enough - and that many people, even in Fairphone’s supply chain, are not treated fairly yet.

Collaboration, not problem

It is easy to get stuck and overwhelmed, if you only focus on the problems. But at the same time as producing challenges, this gigantic system of international supply chains behind smartphone manufacturing also creates an enormous amount of collaboration. People who do not know each other, and will never meet, will work together to produce a smartphone.

If you think about a smartphone as the starting point for exploration rather than as the end of a supply chain you start to see, step by step, that the way we design technology matters and that it has real effects on the lives of people. In this way, you can look at a smartphone as symbol for collaboration - nobody can make it on their own. Unfortunately there isn’t one single place that you can go to to alter this system, or to make it more ethical, due to its enormous complexity. If a smartphone were a banana, we could go to the plantation and pay the farmers a better wage, like Fairtrade does. But a smartphone unfortunately is not so simple - and to make the process of its production fairer requires a lot of exploration.

Have you read?

Fairphone is using the smartphone as an entry point to understand how the gigantic systems of production behind it function, and to get a glimpse of how the world works. What we have learned is that you can change bigger systems with small steps - and that bringing change down to smaller projects will enable you to find people on every level who want to drive this change with you. Eventually this will have an exponential effect in a system in which everything is interconnected. If you see the opportunities in the challenges that we face you can create a massive amount of change over time.

Ethical technology then becomes as much a function of the small projects that drive this change as the attitude towards them. We have gotten far too used to the idea that we have little influence on the systems around us and on the effects of technology: the erosion of privacy that comes with using the internet, the addictive nature of apps, or the destruction that international electronics supply chains cause. All of these are consequences of the design of technology - and all design, just like all systems, can be influenced and altered.

If we all develop a more critical attitude towards technology itself and the way that it is influencing the world, we can all contribute small steps towards fairer and more ethical technology.

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Related topics:
Social InnovationFourth Industrial Revolution
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