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Bas van Abel

Rotterdam Design Prize nominee Bas van Abel has always been focussed on open source design with a social core.  His latest project, Fairphone, is the logical crescendo to all he believes and strives for.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 28-11-2013

Bas van Abel is a difficult man to track down.  “He doesn’t have a phone,” a colleague tells me.  Ironic given the early success of his latest project - Fairphone.

“I lose them,” he later explains.  “I forget to charge them  …. phones just aren’t made for me.”

The most interesting thing about Fairphone is that it has little to do with product design and is instead all about designing systems that provide an alternative.

“Of course there does end up being a decent amount of design,” Van Abel says.  “We needed to work on the Interface and the operating system, and once you get to the origins of a phone and start rethinking from there, you do end up with a new phone.”

But the main goal of Fairphone is not to become a big producer of phones, but to inspire and motivate the industry as a whole.  Big makers like Apple and Samsung need to see that the public is keen to buy electronics that have been produced with different and more transparent values.”

The idea for all this started when Van Abel was working at Waag Society and started looking into conflict minerals, i.e. minerals mined in an area with armed conflict and providing a ready source of money to those armed groups to keep the conflict going. Similar to the so-called 'blood diamonds'. The Congo is one example where minig for minerals takes place in an environment full of conflict. 

“We wanted to raise awareness,” he says,  “but my fascination is to make stuff so producing phones was the obvious thing to do next.”

What Van Abel wanted was an android phone with components not made from conflict minerals, in sweatshops or in an environmentally unsustainable way.  “We needed a whole new business model,” he explains.

So they crowd sourced the needed minimum of 5000 sales.  Within 5 weeks they had sold 10,000 which in the last few months has expanded to 25, 000 units.

“It is not about money, but at 350 euros a piece we already we have 7.5 million euros in the bank, which I think says a lot about the desire for change,” says Van Abel.  “That is a lot of interest in something that hasn’t even been produced yet.  The word was that no market exists for ethically produced electronics, but I disagreed from the start.”

The majority of orders have come in from Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Austria as well as France, Portugal and Spain.  The phones should be delivered next month.

And it is not like Van Abel went to China and found an ethical factory.  “They do not really exist anywhere,” he says.  “We need to be inside the system to be able to change it and it won’t happen overnight.  Fairphone is simply a step in the right direction. 2,50 euros from each phone made in our factory, for example, is being put into a fund to help train and offer fair benefits to employees.”

More can be found on Fairphone's nomination for the Rotterdam Design Prize page here.

Main: Fairphone
Left side:
1. Copper
2. An 'urban mine' - Lowlands Festival, the Netherlands
3. Mining in Kolwezi, Democratic Republic of the Congo

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