Creating a Sustainabile Mobile Phone with Phonebloks’ Tomas Halberstad

February 27, 2015

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good. We’ve got Tomas Halberstad with us today. He’s the Editor-in-Chief of Phonebloks and he’s in Sweden. Welcome to green is Good, Tomas. TOMAS HALBERSTAD: Thank you very much. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Tomas, before we start talking about Phonebloks, can you share a little bit about your own history and personal life that led up to you joining the Phonebloks team? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: Absolutely. Well, I grew up here in Sweden. I’m 35 years old now so I’ve done a few things before getting involved in Phonebloks. Tried to be a rock star. That didn’t work out and then I got interested in philosophy and started studying philosophy here in Sweden. I did it for about six years and when my studies came to an end, I got interested in doing something for the environment and I was interested in sustainability and corporate social responsibility and that kind of stuff and I just saw the Phonebloks video online in October 2013 and the concept just blew me away so I just emailed the guys, there were two at the time, and told them what a great concept it was and shared a bit of my background with them in sustainability and corporate social responsibility studies and asked if there was anything I could do to help and then a few emails back and forth, I became Editor-in-Chief. The idea was for me to research and write on the company organization blog but since there are only four of us now, we all basically do everything so it has been not too much research and writing but more of everything else. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Are all of you in Sweden from Phonebloks? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: No, we have a guy, Wade, he’s in America. I believe he’s on the move to San Francisco and we have the two founding members. The founding member, Dave, who came up with the concept, and then we have Gavin. Both of them are in Holland. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. For our listeners out there who want to follow along, they can go to www.phonebloks.com. Tomas, share with our listeners what is Phonebloks. Please start from the beginning and explain to our whole listener audience what’s going on with Phonebloks. TOMAS HALBERSTAD: So Phonebloks is a concept for a modular mobile phone. It’s also an initiative to get this phone built by anyone. Phonebloks is not a mobile phone manufacturer. We are, as I said, an idea and the idea is to help the existing mobile phone industry to accelerate their development of modular mobile phones because we believe that modular electronics are key to reducing electronic waste. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And so you say it’s an idea. I’m on your website now. I know you have a video on it. How did this movement and this idea start though? Who came up with the idea? When did they come up with the idea and how has it evolved since its genesis? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: In early 2013 or maybe late 2012, Dave, our founder, was thinking about graduation projects for his studies at the Design Academy in Eindhoven in Holland and he’s very interested in technology but he’s also very interested in the environment so he thought he’s design something that could incorporate both environmentalism and technology so he started doing research on waste and quickly came up on electronic waste and how growing these waste streams are and how hazardous they are to the land that they’re put in and he saw that mobile phones were one of the quickest growing waste streams because we buy so many and we buy them so often so he thought well maybe I can do something with this so he came up with the concept of Phonebloks. It’s a modular phone where you can replace parts of the phone without replacing the whole phone so he decided to do a video. He likes images and he likes videos so he decided to do a video and he put it up on the web thinking it might get a couple of thousand views and a couple of thousand likes and 24 hours later, there were a million views and it all went bananas. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’ve seen the video. I’ve seen it on your website and I’ve seen it on YouTube. How many views has that video had right now? For our listeners out there, again, go to their great website, www.phonebloks.com and you too can watch this video. Today, Tomas, how many YouTube views have been at this video? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: I think we’re closing in on 25 million views on that video and we have produced a couple more videos since then. We like to recapitulate our progress by sharing videos with our community so they can see what has been done because we want the industry to develop this in a transparent way so we also want to be as transparent as possible, showing our community everything we do. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So the video started the fire. You followed it up with other videos. You have now a big social following, you know, Facebook and Twitter, hundreds of thousands of people following you socially? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: Yeah, we’re closing in on half-a-million social followers. JOHN SHEGERIAN: My gosh! And so what is the ultimate goal here? What is the vision of Phonebloks? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: The simple goal is to get a modular phone that reduces e-waste made. We want the phone to be developed open. We want it to be developed in an environmentally friendly way, in a sustainable way and we think that those goals are completely doable. Then, of course, there’s the dream of making a phone that’s not only for the entire world and worth keeping, but also recyclable or biodegradable but that’s stuff that lies ahead. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How is it going so far? I saw that you guys had a Thunderclap campaign. What is a Thunderclap campaign, by the way? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: It’s like a crowdfunding site but instead of donating money, you donate your social reach. So say you’ve got a hundred followers on Twitter, you go into Thunderclap, you see a campaign that you like. Then you just click the Twitter button and you automatically add your one hundred followers and if enough people do that, the project gets an incredible social reach so at a given point in time, the campaign stops and the message is sent out to everyone who’s been donating, so to speak, to the campaign. When we did this, we had a million people donate their social reach on Thunderclap and we had a social reach of something like 380 million people so this message just went worldwide within the hour. It was amazing. JOHN SHEGERIAN. That is. When did you do that campaign? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: I don’t have the exact date but I think it was somewhere in the end of October 2013. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Was that one of the most successful Thunderclap campaigns they’ve ever had? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: Yeah it was, especially in terms of clicks from the people who got the campaign. They’ve had pretty successful campaigns before, but where the message that goes out is just read. We had a very high percentage of people who actually clicked on the link and got to our website. It crashed, actually. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So now, how is it going to achieve the vision? What’s the steps now? Are you guys building a prototype and how do you take steps toward your vision and how much has been done and how much is left to do now? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: When we released the video, Motorola, who was then owned by Google, got very interested because they, in fact, had had a modular mobile phone in development for about a year so when they saw our idea for a phone they said, ‘Well, we have something similar here,’ so they met with us and asked if we could do anything for them and if they could do anything for us so we got them to agree to develop their phone out in the open and we got them to let us give insight into their project and also insight through our community. We partnered a little bit with Motorola but they got sold by Google to Lenovo but Google ended up keeping the modular mobile phone so we’re now partners with Google so they’re going to develop their mobile phone but we hope that Google is one of many partners to come and we hope that Project Aura, which is the name of their modular mobile phone, is one of many modular mobile phones to come and that we can influence, hopefully. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners that just joined us, we’ve got Tomas Halberstad on with us. He’s the Editor-in-Chief of Phonebloks and to look up their website, it’s www.phonebloks.com. Wait a second. So, Google and Motorola are your partners now? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: Yeah, they’re our partners. We have insights into their project. We give input through our community. One of the major things about Phonebloks is our community. We decided from pretty early on that we wanted to get as much input from people out there as possible so on our website, we put a big forum on and on that forum we have something like sixteen thousand, seventeen thousand members who are now discussing problems and possibilities of a modular mobile phone and I’m guessing Google, or then Motorola, saw this as a big focus group who could really give them some great pointers, while doing it transparently. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right. And have they helped you technologically? Has Google been able to help you technologically advance the Phoneblok phone or everybody keeps their own IP to themselves even though you’re partners? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: No. As I said in the beginning, Phonebloks is not a mobile phone manufacturer. We will never be. We will never build our own phone so they don’t have to share technology with us. We just give them input on how we’d like to get things done. They listen and then they present the next advance of their project and see if it’s something we like. I mean, they don’t have to do what we say or do what we tell them to do or anything like that but yeah. JOHN SHEGERIAN: With regards to our listeners out there – We’ve got listeners, not only across the United States but across the world because after it airs over the Clear Channel network on the iHeart platform, it also uploads on to the iTunes network so we have so many great listeners around the world. How can our listeners, if they’re excited about sustainability and your process at Phonebloks, how can they get involved and feel like they’re part of the process and part of the solution? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: Well, the main thing is our forum, which is located on discuss,phonebloks.com. That’s about the only way to get involved right now and on the forum, literally every subject on a modular mobile phone is discussed and everyone has input and every day, we go through the forum and we comment on the forum and we take ideas from it and we lift it up to our social channels and we put it forward to our following on, let’s say, Facebook and let them have a say on if this idea is good or if it’s not just to get ideas out there. If you want to get your idea out there and if you’re interested in this, you should sign up for our forum and if you’re good, you’re going to get heard. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Are you the moderator of the forum? Is that how it goes? Or are you the curator of it? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: The core team of Phonebloks is four people. All four people are moderators of this forum and then we have a couple of other guys helping out as well so every idea gets looked through, absolutely. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. If people want to donate, can they also donate to help the movement move forward? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: Everyone who works at Phonebloks does so voluntarily. We don’t get paid anything so we have a donation possibility on our website to keep the technical side of things going, especially our servers and maybe our software that we use. [inaudible, 53:50] JOHN SHEGERIAN: Everybody, Tomas, is doing this as a mission. No one’s even getting paid? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: Yeah, we just want to realize this idea. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. So tell me, where are you? We’re down to the last five minutes or so. Where are you in the process? If this launched in 2013, and now we know, in your generation, Tomas, the digital natives of the world who really grew up with technology and really embraced and know how to use it well, how far along are you in this development? Is it going to be another year, another two years for this vision to get realized? Where are you guys in the development of the Phoneblok phone? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: Google has stated that they’re going to realize their Project Aura in the first quarter of 2015 and I have no more info on it then that. I’m guessing that the United States is the first market for it. That’s just a guess. Then naturally, we have our ear to the ground as far as other modular phones coming along and there’s a company in China called ZTE, who has the Project Merbius on the way. We don’t know when that will be released. We have seen both Sony and Nokia working on modular phones so we think this is going to be pretty big and believe it’s going to take a couple of years. As I said, Motorola had developed their idea for a year before contacting us, before we went out with our idea and we kind of went the other way around by releasing our idea first instead of having a concept or researching material or anything like that. We had to get this idea out there. I believe that realistically, you will have a global market of modular mobile phone maybe in three years time. I’m doing a bit of guessing but I would say three years time. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Which one will be most like the phone that you show in the video? Is it going to be Google’s phone or the group in China that’s making a phone? Are the big electronics manufacturers in Korea taking the space, the Samsungs and the LGs of the world? What is the phone going to look like? If you were to guess today and you’ve seen things behind the scenes, is it going to look like the phones that we use today or is it going to be something totally different? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: I think it’s going to look like the cell phones that we use. I don’t think people want that much change. I think for it to work, it has to look like the cell phones we use now. It has to work like them or better. It has to have an equivalent battery life or better. It has to have an equivalent camera or better because I don’t think we will be able to trade down so I think it will look pretty much the same. As far as which phone that will look like the Phoneblok concept, I don’t really have an idea. I don’t think Google’s or the other ones look like the design that we put out but maybe our design wasn’t the primary thing. When they did Phonebloks, it was the idea. I’m pretty sure if you just sat down and designed up a dream phone, it would look different but the functionality is first hand here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: When you get feedback from all these different people, is it from people from around the world or is it primarily from people from Silicon Valley or the United States or are you getting feedback from the best and the brightest from all corners of the earth? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: Yeah, the last one. It’s incredible the impact that this idea has had on a global scale. We’re getting emails and comments from literally everywhere, from people and from places you wouldn’t even think would be interested in this. I’m blown away by this. That’s why I emailed Phonebloks and said it’s an amazing idea, how can I help. We’re listening to people all over the globe. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re down to the last minute, Tomas. Once this idea gets realized and that’s become part of our societies around the world, what’s the next thing for you and the team? What are you guys going to work on, another project like this or are you going to go into private business or what’s the next step for you guys? TOMAS HALBERSTAD: We get this question a lot and as far as Phonebloks is concerned, we’re very much focused just on the mobile phone right now. We are super aware of the availability of the project. We’re very aware of the modularity of a lot of products and a lot of design. I just saw a very interesting concept on a smart watch designed on modularity but for us, the only thing that matters for us right now is to get this phone done and when it’s done, I don’t think we will move on to anything different. Maybe we will expand Phonebloks to other industries towards reducing electronic waste. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, perfect, and you guys can come back and share that story with us. For our listeners out there, it’s www.phonebloks.com. Thank you Tomas Halberstad for all you’ve done for sustainability. You’re a technological visionary and truly living proof that green is good.