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To what extent do mobile phones reflect the principles of social design within the context of sustainability, childhood, and inclusivity?

Social design can be considered as design centred towards collective and social advancement as opposed to predominantly commercial or consumer-oriented objectives (Armstrong, et al., 2014). Historically, mobile phones have been designed with a primarily commercial imperative as opposed to a social approach. When they were first designed, no one predicted how rapidly they would come to play such a pivotal role in daily life but with 7.10 billion mobile phone users worldwide in 2020 it is clear to see their prevalence and centrality to our lives. Therefore, there is a necessity to redesign the mobile phone with a consideration of social design. In this essay, I will explore design flaws in the current mobile phone which contribute negatively to social issues such as racism, sustainability, and childhood. I will then present a series of adjustments with the aim of improving the design, specifically in relation to social issues and improving quality of life.


In this paper, I will define social design as ‘a practise that anticipates and generates new ways of doing, knowing and being- in relation to social, public policy and environmental issues and, in so doing, problematises these and produces new insights.’ (Kimbell, 2020) It is an attempt to change the systems and institutions that value particular people and outcomes over others and it is therefore liberating to vulnerable populations as it produces designs that bring about social advancement. Furthermore, other social movements such as Design Justice are also developing, with renewed design processes that centre on people who are normally marginalised by design to provide liberation from oppressive systems (Costanza-Chock, 2018).


Mobile phones have contributed to globalisation, providing a newfound interconnectedness among countries, allowing for the cross-cultural exchanges of ideas, food, music, media, and language. This has provided people with an increased open-mindedness for unfamiliar cultures, creating a mindset where people are able to treat others as equals (Globalization Partners, 2020). However, there is implicit racism in the design of the mobile phone due to the utilisation of biased facial recognition in newer models. Despite its rapidly emerging applications, research by Lauren Rhue provides evidence that facial recognition software interprets emotions differently based on the person’s race. The results suggested that Artificial Intelligence (AI) displays racial disparities in their emotion scores and are more likely to assign negative emotion to black men’s faces. Whilst there are some limitations to this investigation, such as the fact that the analysis is only on men, and so does not cover the gender differences in emotional scores, it conclusively proves that there is bias built into our designed objects and systems that are becoming increasingly pivotal in maintaining first-world daily lifestyles (Rhue, 2018). Furthermore, studies by Baulamwini and Gebru found that facial recognition software predicts gender significantly worse for darker-skin faces than lighter-skin faces (Buolamwini & Gebru, 2018). This reflects the concept that we encode and reproduce oppressive values through the objects, processes, and systems that we design- an important consideration in the development of the design justice social movement (Costanza-Chock, 2018).


The mobile phone can already be considered, to some extent, as an example of social design. It contributes positively to education and the economy and facilitates the instantaneous connection of people globally, promoting the concept of the world as a global village (Silver, et al., 2019). Lucy Kimbell, a professor of Contemporary Design Practises, argues all design can be considered to some extent as ‘social’, as it is ‘informed by (mis)understandings of the concerns of the people targeted by designers’ (Kimbell, 2020). However, this raises the question of who benefits from social design, and whether it is really the marginalised groups it aims to liberate. Usually, there is an emphasis placed on the profitability of products and services from structural forces, which influences how resources for design are distributed (Costanza-Chock, 2018), and in this case it has resulted in the implicit racism and lack of inclusivity realised in the facial recognition systems used in mobile phones. The AI has been developed using big data, which is highly susceptible to common human biases, giving it the potential to reinforce or even accelerate racial, political or gender inequality (Milaninia, 2021). If additional resources had been allocated to the collection of data that represents the global population, it would result in a technological advancement that enables ease of use in mobile phones, without the discrimination that is currently encoded in the design. However, since these resources were not made available, the current design of the mobile phone fails to liberate these marginalised groups.


Furthermore, there have been no advancements to the design of the phone in consideration of the increasing threat of global warming, prioritising the profitability over the potential damage it could have to society in the future. Research has highlighted the detrimental effect that mobile phones have on energy consumption and the environment due to the substantial size of the population that own mobile phones. The rapid growth in mobile phone manufacturing and ownership resulted in 77 million waste mobile phones generated by China in 2008, compared to 4 million in 2000, (Yu, et al., 2010). This considerable growth could also be due to the throwaway society that has been promoted to increase sales, leading to an expectation held by consumers to have the latest model of phone, with the newest technological advancements, without consideration of the functional lifespan of their current phone. This increases demand on the manufacture of new phones- a process that accounts for 57% of the life cycle energy of a mobile phone. Furthermore, research suggests that in China, only 1% of users hand over old phones to be formally recycled, a process which would provide a large economic and environmental benefit. Therefore, to reduce the total environmental impact of the phone, Yu et al. recommends increasing the lifespan of the product, improving the energy efficiency during use, improving recycling facilities and the potential introduction of more incentives for users to hand in their unused phones.


With increased uptake in the ownership of mobile phones, and our increasing reliance on them in our daily lives, the ownership demographic has evolved, with access to smartphones becoming popular in young children and adolescents. However, the long-term effects regarding the use of mobile phones in children is yet to be determined. Recent studies suggest there may be a correlation between the use of mobile phones and some changes in cognitive function. In a study by Thomas, et al., there were some observable changes in cognitive function that occurred with high levels of exposure, specifically in relation to attention span. However, it is still not conclusive and therefore more research is needed to provide clarity (Thomas, et al., 2014).


Despite the uncertainty surrounding the effects of mobile phone usage in children, there is no denying their impact on the experience of childhood for more recent generations of children. Historically, there has been a strong emphasis placed on the importance of play and interaction between children and objects. Froebel, the man responsible for the first Kindergarten, described it as ‘an institute for academic play’. He believed that play should be the principle means of learning at a young age, and that in doing so, children can begin to construct their understanding of the world. He went on to develop ‘gifts’, which were toys designed to stimulate learning through directed play. The gifts included dice, shapes of wood, paper to be folded, rods and buttons (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2022). Further research has since identified the importance of such educational toys in helping to increase IQ and motor control, developing social and emotional intelligence, better concentration and enhancing creativity (Yao, 2020). However, the daily use of mobile devices by children has reduced their time spent playing with physical toys, preventing them forming healthier, more creative behaviours such as reading or imaginative play. This has the potential to reduce children’s attention, motor control, and language skills (Solon, 2016). The current response to this from technology companies has been one with a strong emphasis on marketing. Instead of discouraging parents from providing their children with mobile phones, the technology companies have promoted their products as having educational properties, providing children with a new, versatile ‘e-learning’ experience, allowing them to widen their target market and maximise on profits.



The lack of consideration to the design of the mobile phone in relation to contexts such as racism, the environment and childhood, reflects a commercially driven approach to design as opposed to one that focused on social advancement. Therefore, there are opportunities to redesign the mobile phone, following social design principles, to provide an alternate solution that will have a greater benefit to the global society. I will now present a series of alterations that I believe could be made to the design of the mobile phone in order to ensure it is a greater example of social design. I will base my alterations of the iPhone 12, as it was the best-selling mobile phone in 2020.

Figure 1- Apple iPhone 12



The first issue I will address is regarding the sustainability of the mobile phone. Sustainable development is defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (World Commission , 1987). The energy consumed by a mobile phone during use and when charging can be considered to be 32.4 MJ/year, resulting in a worldwide energy consumption of 2.05x10^10 MJ/year (Yu, et al., 2010). As of December 2020, 38.5% of electricity produced in the UK was using fossil fuels and nuclear energy (Buljan, 2021). These have devastating impacts on the environment, releasing harmful gasses which contribute to global warming, destroying habitats and damaging ecosystems. Furthermore, our resources are being rapidly depleted, impacting future generation’s ability to continue life as it currently is. Therefore, minimising the mobile phones reliance on non-renewable energy will improve its sustainability.



I propose the use of thin film photovoltaic cells, which range in thickness from a few nanometres to tens of micrometres and are also up to 90% transparent, allowing them to be incorporated into both the screen and back panel of the phone (A. Shas, et al., 1999). Integrating this technology into the design of the phone, will not only create a self-charging device but will also cut down on the environmental impact of the phone. The technology is not yet developed enough to have an efficiency which would allow the total charging of a mobile phone. However, reducing the reliance on external energy sources will still have an improved environmental impact. Alternatively, embedding photovoltaic cells into our clothes will provide a larger surface area, and therefore facilitate a greater production of electricity. Nottingham Trent University has already begun developing this technology, where tiny solar cells are encapsulated in resin, allowing the textile fabric to be washed and worn like any other piece of clothing (Nottingham Trent University, 2018). Furthermore, an additional benefit to the use of photovoltaic technologies is the ability for the use of mobile phones in remote or undeveloped areas, where people do not have easy access to electricity.

Figure   2- Thin-film Photovoltaic Technology

Figure  3- miniature solar cell to be utilised in clothing


The lack of recycling of old phones also significantly contributes to their environmental impact. Therefore, changes are required in relation to the systems in place that enable the recycling of phones. One such approach could be to provide incentives to users to hand in their old phones, as suggested by Yu, et al. However, I suggest the application of the principles of a circular economy- a framework which is based on three principles; to eliminate waste and pollution, to circulate products and materials and to regenerate nature. It aims to transform the throwaway society we have cultivated, into one where waste is eliminated (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, n.d.).  One way in which this can be achieved with regards to the mobile phone is through the adaptation of our current ownership models and assumptions. A subscription service could be implemented, where the company retains the ownership of the phone, and the user only rents it for a period of time. Therefore, the responsibility of recycling old products falls on the company, as opposed to the user, allowing them to harvest key resources from old products to reuse in the manufacture of new ones. This reduces the necessity for exploiting natural resources in order to sustain our current consumer driven society.

Figure 4- Circular Economy Principles by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation



To address the issue regarding impacted child development, I would adapt the interface of the iPhone. When setting up a new phone, you would be required to enter your age and children below a certain age would have an adapted interface to reduce the potential impact on their development. Research suggests that interactive games and activities used by children on mobile devices such as phones can still have a positive impact on their development and learning. It is the apps which provide passive

entertainment, such as Netflix, which do not provide a rich learning experience. Therefore, only certain apps would be allowed to be installed. There would also be a screen time limit to ensure that children still interact with real world toys as many online educational tools and games provide children with instant gratification. This doesn’t develop their skills regarding self-regulation, which is instead built through learning without constant rewards, or sitting patiently without digital stimulation (Solon, 2016). Therefore, it is imperative that children continue to have a balanced approach to online and physical learning.

Figure 5- Welcome start up screen on Apple iPhone 12


Finally, I will address the issue of implicit racism currently encoded in the Face ID technology which Apple have implemented into their iPhone 12. The use of big data in the development of Face ID has resulted in a biased AI. However, the issue goes further than that. For example, darker skin tones reflet less light, and therefore provide less detail for recognition in algorithms to analyse (Lunter, 2020). Therefore, the issue is not just with the data used to develop the AI, but also in the technology. As a result, I propose the use of Iris Recognition as opposed to facial recognition. It has been identified as the most reliable form of biometrics, but it has failed to be utilised by many technology companies due to its requirement for substantial computing power. However, Nugroho et al. have already developed an iris recognition algorithm which can be run in a lighter computing platform such as a simple electric board (Nugroho, et al., 2018). Furthermore, the rapid and constant improvement of algorithms using an iterative approach, will enable bias to be reduced considerably in comparison to the current levels, ensuring an inclusive product (Lunter, 2020).


In conclusion, the current design of the mobile phone is one that reflects a commercially driven approach to design and therefore, the impacts it has on areas such as racism, childhood and child development, as well as sustainability, have not been taken into consideration. I have therefore presented a series of adjustments that could be made to the iPhone 12, using a social design approach to challenge our existing systems and technologies to provide a design solution that will enable the advancement of society as well as ensure the viability of earth for future generations. By making adjustments such as the use of photovoltaic cells to produce renewable energy for the charging of phones, the environmental impact is reduced. Moreover, rethinking our economy and applying circular economy principles to change our assumed ownership models can further reduce the mobile phones impact on the environment and ensure the recycling of precious resources. Implementing an adjusted interface for young children, with an emphasis on interactive games and learning as opposed to passive entertainment will also reduce any impact they may have on children’s development. Finally, the use of iris scanners as opposed to Facial ID will reduce any bias and implicit racism in the design of the phone. The centrality of mobile phones to our daily lives requires an approach to design which is not purely focused on commerciality or profitability. By applying these changes, we can begin to challenge and problematise assumptions that have informed the design of the current phone and ensure the collective advancement of society.


Figure 6- Apple iPhone 12- image available at






















Figure 7- Exploded view of the iPhone- available at



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