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Future-proofing our tech: is it sustainable?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that technology is future-proof. After all, it is what has led us to develop systems, products and ways of living for millenia, standing the test of time. Yet when we think of technology in the context of today - in particular electronics, which have been having their moment since the first electronic component was introduced in the 1940s - there’s a question mark over how we can move forward sustainably.

Take the world’s current e-waste problem. We've seen decades of technological advances in electronics, with brand new models of TVs, microwaves and mobile phones eclipsing their older and less-advanced counterparts. This has created a problem with e-waste that’s been growing in the background as consumers discard their older models and upgrade to new ones (53.6 million metric tonnes in 2019 to be precise).

Let’s look at smartphones as an example. The 2000’s saw the birth of the mobile phone industry, with smartphones coming onto the scene in the 2010s. A step-up from traditional mobile phones that allowed you to contact people wirelessly, smartphones offered a way to communicate, take and send photos and even work - all with the tap of a screen. It’s no surprise that 3.5 billion people own one today.

Yet we’ve now got a problem - a build up of old smartphones that are unused (the UK average is 4 per person). That’s bad news for a product that can’t naturally decompose and which uses dozens of minerals, metals and compounds that need to be extracted from the earth, including 16 that are at risk of becoming scarce.

So what’s next for smartphones? Well, if there’s one thing we know about sustainability, it’s one of the biggest global issues and one that’s leaving no stone unturned. For want of a better expression, it’s the way of the future in order to save the planet. So where does tech, and in particular smartphones, fit into that?

If we define 'future proof', it’s the ability of something to continue to be of value into the distant future so that it doesn’t become obsolete. And for smartphones, this would mean a more sustainable approach to how they are made, sold and used, along with a fall in the demand for brand new models - a significant change for an industry that has traditionally encouraged ‘newer, sleeker and better'.

Interestingly, many of these changes are already underway. Last year, Vodafone partnered with Fairphone to make a sustainable phone that was designed to have minimal environmental impact, with easily-replaceable components and a much longer lifecycle, therefore eliminating the need for regular upgrades and, theoretically, smartphone wastage.

The purchase model of smartphones is changing, too. London-based tech startup Raylo’s subscription-based service means their customers can enjoy the latest smartphones for less as they’re not shelling out to own the phone. When customers upgrade to a newer phone, the used one will be refurbished so it lands in another pair of hands. Now that’s one way to tackle e-waste - a big tick for sustainable future-proofing.

Technological advances aside, we’re seeing a swift change in demand, too. In 2019, mobile provider Samsung reported a 60% drop in sales year on year and earlier in 2020 CNET predicted a 29% drop in brand new smartphone sales. Factors like economic uncertainty off the back of the COVID-19 pandemic and a falling desire to own a ‘brand new’ device seem to be taking hold.

So can future-proofing tech really be sustainable? Well, in the case of smartphones, we certainly think so. A drive for reusing materials, refurbishing used goods and changing consumer patterns will all play a part and we know this will spread to many more areas of technology in the coming years. The future is less about ‘newer, shinier, faster’; it’s about ‘cleverer, smarter and more sustainable’. And we’re all for it.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes

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