Designing the Fairphone 2 – “the world’s most ethical smartphone”

After launching its first model in 2013, Fairphone has worked with Seymourpowell to create a new phone that aims to be long-lasting, sustainable and use conflict-free materials.

Disassembling the Fairphone
Disassembling the Fairphone

Dutch company Fairphone has unveiled its Fairphone 2 model – a smartphone that aims to be long-lasting, sustainable, easy to repair and which uses conflict-free materials and aims to give transparency to the supply process.

The original Fairphone was released in 2013 and used tin from conflict-free mines in the South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo and tantalum from separate conflict-free mines in the DRC’s Katanga province.

It was designed to be adaptable for each user, with dual SIM, removable batteries and the option to use any operating system.

“It disturbs me that no-one in the world truly understands how a mobile phone is made”

When the phone was launched, Fairphone chief executive Bas van Abel said, ‘As a designer, it disturbs me that no-one in the world truly understands how a mobile phone is made, and when you don’t understand how something is made you can’t change it.’

Fairphone was launched through crowdfunding and went on to sell 60,000 units.

The company has now unveiled the Fairphone 2 model, which uses new designs, features modular elements and aims to be easily repairable by the owner. Fairphone’s chief technology officer Olivier Hebert says the new model “allows us to take our ambitions for fairness even further, paving the way to start gaining greater oversight of our supply chain.”

Hebert adds: “It also allowed us to focus on making a phone that lasts longer and gives users a stronger sense of ownership.”

The new Fairphone 2 was designed with Seymourpowell, who advised on the original Fairphone development.

Seymourpowell’s head of sustainability Chris Sherwin says: “It’s a recognisable and highly desirable product category; everyone owns and understands phones and Fairphone customers tend to be early adopters and innovators, which makes it exciting too. This means ethics and sustainability become normal and understandable, not just for future customers but also for our designers.”

The phone can survive a drop from 1.85m

The new Fairphone model has been designed to have a longer lifespan than other phones.

The assembled Fairphone
The assembled Fairphone

Hebert says: “The first item we wanted to address is immediately visible”. He says most modern smartphones are “inherently fragile”, which is why many users add a cover.

With the Fairphone 2 design, the replaceable outer shell also acts as a protective case. Hebert says this allowed the designers to replace the battery door, which becomes redundant, and add features such as a rubber rim that wraps around the glass.

He says: “This was possible while maintaining an overall consistent industrial design that wouldn’t cause the phone to feel like a ruggedised device.”

The team also specified a “drop requirement” – that the phone should be able to withstand being dropped from 1.85m (the average height of a Dutch man) on to a concrete surface. Hebert says this is a more rigorous test than most modern smartphones face.

Although Hebert says the thickness constraint was “relaxed” for the design team, the phone still comes in at 11mm wide, while Hebert says the height and weight are similar to other smartphones currently on the market.

Owners “encourage to open up their phones”

Moving to the phone’s inner workings, Hebert says the team wanted to “reinvent the phone’s architecture to make it easier to assemble and service.” The ultimate aim is that people who buy the phone will be able to repair and replace certain elements themselves.

Hebert says this aim was a key aspect of the brief for Seymourpowell’s designers. He says: “Seymourpowell’s responsibilities went well beyond the product’s appearance. Because we wanted users to understand their phones better, the designers also needed to consider the full user experience when opening up the product and maintaining it.”

Exploded view of the modular architecture
Exploded view of the modular architecture

Hebert adds: “Specifically, Seymourpowell factored the user experience into the product design, so as to follow the Fairphone’s ambitions to give users a feeling of ownership and encouragement to open up their phones.”

The modular approach to the Fairphone 2 is similar to the approach used in Google’s planned modular phone, developed by Gadi Amit and New Deal Design.

The display can be replaced “in less than a minute”

For the Fairphone 2 there are a number of replaceable elements, including the external case, the battery pack and the camera and speaker units.

Hebert says that the aim has been on making repairs as easy as possible for the user. He says that if the display case is cracked it can be replaced in less than a minute, without the need for any tools.

Unscrewing the units (receiver, camera, speaker)
Unscrewing the units (receiver, camera, speaker)

To further ease repairs, each replaceable unit is connected to the phone’s chassis with a set of colour-coded screws.

An expansion port is built in to the back of the receiver which Hebert says allows for future upgrades with features such as NFC payments.

“Designed from the inside out”

The Fairphone 2 uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 platform and Hebert says the phone was “designed from the inside out”, meaning that engineering and mechanical design were developed a the same time as the product design. The team worked with technology consultancy Hu-Do to manage this design process.

Exploded view
Exploded view

Like the first model, Fairphone 2 aims to use responsibly-mined minerals and the Fairphone team says it has a focus on the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it aims to buy from local and small-scale initiatives.

Fairphone 2 is set to go on pre-order in the summer and is priced at 525 euros (£375).


All images courtesy of Fairphone.

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