In 2017, 403.5 million smartphones were sold worldwide. We usually choose one on the basis of technical characteristics, such as camera or operating system quality; we then hope it lasts long enough to justify our investment. A major obstacle threatens the existence of our pocket computer: planned obsolescence. How can longer-lasting connected objects be produced? With the European Nanoelectronics Consortium for Sustainability (ENCOS) research consortium, Jean-Pierre Raskin, a professor at UCL’s Electrical Engineering Centre, is tackling the problem in concrete ways, and with the help of consumers.
Prof. Raskin, an ICTEAM researcher, is the creator of a silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technology used in 100% of the world’s smartphones and tablets. His discovery has enabled smartphone electronic component manufacturers to lower their production costs and reduce connected device energy consumption. His work was awarded the Blondel Medal in 2015, the SOI Consortium Award in 2016, and the SEMI Award in 2017. These awards facilitate his team’s access to international funding and projects as well as its recognition outside the microelectronics sector. Prof. Raskin now wants to put his expertise to work on behalf of society, by considering a more sustainable approach to connected objects, one in which performance is no longer the top priority.
Desire to take action
What triggered the creation of ENCOS? The philosophy behind Ingénieux, a project-course that Prof. Raskin has taught for five years to UCL Science and Technology Sector students, in collaboration with the NGO Louvain Coopération. Presented with problems in the field, young students collaborate with partners to propose solutions that aren’t just technical but comprehensive. By advocating a holistic approach for his students, Prof. Raskin became aware of his own desire to take action. ‘We encourage students and business partners to think more broadly...but my research process, which is focused on specific expertise, seemed very narrow. I thought, “What can I do with my skills?”’
ENCOS’s goal is to offer solutions that resonate with businesses, authorities and consumers. One of the consortium’s strengths is bringing together researchers from a variety of disciplines: engineers, of course, but also sociologists, philosophers and economists. They engage in comprehensive discussion, because the connected objects market exerts geopolitical, economic, technological, environmental, ethical and human impacts. The consortium’s other strength is spurring dialogue in society, especially with consumers, the goal being to inform them and raise their awareness of sustainability issues while giving them the floor. Prof. Raskin even goes further: ‘The idea is that scientific input is a starting point...and that things escape us! We can imagine citizens forming a movement. Consumer pressure on businesses is key to change.’
Ways forward: transparency, recovery and ecodesign
ENCOS’s war plan includes reducing energy costs of connected object manufacturing, reducing the use of toxic and dangerous ores by developing technologies more friendly to the environment and the health of workers, and ecodesign to extend the object life. ‘There will be more and more connected objects’, Prof. Raskin says. ‘Subsequent to pressures on climate and oil, we’ll enter an era when ores will be under pressure. Ores are essential to manufacturing electronics, but as with any exponential curve, a shortage is inevitable. In other words, it’s time to change mentalities...and processes.’
ENCOS’s concrete ideas include labelling that indicates the origin of the device’s electronic components and its expected life span to achieve greater transparency, and optimising life cycles by designing objects whose faulty parts (as opposed to the entire object) can be replaced. Finland’s PuzzlePhone is a good example of the latter. Also, adopting new business models that give more responsibility to companies, which would not be limited to marketing a product. With the idea that nothing is wasted and everything is transformed! The electronics of our highly complex and powerful smartphones could indeed be reused for another purpose, limiting waste. Would this put an end to planned obsolescence? Prof. Raskin is convinced. ‘Soon, being unable to replace phone components will be a thing of the past. Small ecodesign actors will launch the movement and big companies will follow.’ The movement will also involve training future engineers at UCL and raising awareness of this collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to a more sustainable digital society.
Connected objects facts and figures
- In 2022, the earth will have 50 billion connected objects.
- They represent 20% of world energy consumption.
- Their electronics are produced using the rarest elements.
- Most connected objects are not designed to last: planned obsolescence.
Awareness-raising exhibition and conference
On 24-25 April 2018, on UCL’s Louvain-la-Neuve campus, ENCOS will host a free sustainable Internet of Things (IoT) workshop, Cap vers une société numérique durable, presented in three parts. Prof. Raskin will be one of the presenters.
24/04 à 18h, vernissage de l’exposition du photographe Stefano Stranges « Les victimes de notre richesse ». In Africa, the photographer captured the reality of minors of coltan, an ore used to make smartphones.
‘I'm really looking forward to meeting the photographer and talking to him about how he felt’, Prof. Raskin says. ‘The artist, like any citizen, tries to understand the world in which we live and the image can be very powerful. It highlights the conditions for extracting minerals, which concern several tens of thousands of people. In Africa, more than 50% of the raw material is extracted by hand. It’s a very important subject.’
24 April at 8:00 pm, conference open to all: ‘Cap vers une société numérique durable’.
‘We are asking for a rather original entry fee: an out-of-order electronic object. Among the topics we’ll discuss with our guests: business model, supply, design, recycling, and of course who buys and discards all these connected objects.’
24-25 April, sustainable IoT workshop organised by ENCOS for scientific and technical audiences.