Activist makers: the breakthrough of Fairphone

Marleen Stikker

By Marleen Stikker & Sacha van Tongeren

The final image of the documentary ‘Blood in the Mobile’ was painful. The documentary maker looked in horror at his phone. He had discovered that the production of mobile phones creates many victims and that no player in the complex chain is willing, or able, to change this. But what to do with this knowledge? Should he take responsibility and refrain from using his phone and all the features that the device offers him? Or should he keep using it, in the knowledge that he had blood on his hands as a consumer.

The documentary had a huge impact and was a source of inspiration for Fairphone. In the three years that Waag studied the production of phones, there was one guiding question: can we find a way out of this impasse? Can we find an alternate route so that we are no longer dependent on a market that sees the values ​​of shareholders as more important than ethical values? Can we make a phone that puts social values first?

The idea that we can make everything ourselves is at the basis of Waag. Twenty years agowe made the Internet accessible to everyone with the 'Digitale Stad'. With the Fablab Amsterdam we laid the foundation for the 3D printing revolution. And with the book Open Design Now we have brought the open source and open hardware philosophy and the world of objects together. The DIY Bio lab in the Waag is the next step towards getting ownership over technology, because this is the only way in which we can take more responsibility for our environment and the world that we create.

It is no coincidence that, when ActionAid and Schrijf-Schrijf asked Waag to work on a campaign concerning conflict minerals, former creative director of Waag Bas van Abel proposed to focus on a fair mobile phone. By seeing the issue as a design challenge, it suddenly became tangible. And by taking the standpoint of headstrong makers instead of dependent consumers, an uncontrolled energy was released that to date propels the FairPhone process.

From research to start up

The core team at Waag, which consisted next to Bas van Abel of Sacha van Tongeren and graduate Miquel Ballester, started the research at the mines in DR Congo. With the support of stichting DOEN FairPhone could, along with the various stakeholders, the production chain was gradually uncovered: from the miners in DR Congo to the producers of half-fabricates and from designers to consumers. The central question has always been how existing systems - the production chain of mobile phones - can be changed by an open design philosophy.

In the summer of 2012 an important choice had to be made. We had discovered how to make a Fairphone, but we had also once again encountered that existing parties will make no attempt to produce one. The core team was exempted by Waag to join the social incubator program of Bethnal Green Ventures, in which they created a business plan for a start up. This was also the time for Waag Products, our own incubator, to appear on the scene. If concepts and prototypes of Waag are promising, Waag Products helps them to launch, for instance with funding or strategic support. In December the FairPhone BV was founded. Bas van Abel and Miquel Ballester switched to the start up and are now making their dream come true.

What's next?

FairPhone reached its first milestone: in just four weeks time more than 7.000 people ordered the fairer smartphone online. This means that the production can start. Waag continues to support FairPhone in the research, as we recently did with our Design Bootcamp. And because fair tech is also applicable on other gadgets and tools, we can share the lessons we learn from the cooperation with FairPhone in other projects and with other organizations.

Next to Fairphone, the portfolio of Waag Products coexists of 7scenes, a mobile learning and gaming platform and Culture Grid, a broadband provider for theaters and concert halls. We are investigating the possibility of making a lower leg prosthesis that cost up to $50, our stress meter BodyGuard is ready for the market and we are talking with several parties about Linked Open Data platforms. These are just a few things that are brewing in our lab and hopefully they can find their way to the general public soon!

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