Design for living in the doughnut: the case of the mobile phone

Maja van der Velden

lifecycle thinking
mobile phone
planetary boundaries
sustainable design

System thinking (Checkland & Poulter, 2010; Jackson, 1991; Sevaldson, 2011) offers a framework for conceptualising a product as an open system of complex interactions. At the same time, the open system is located within a complex set of planetary boundaries, which form the ecological ceiling for any system on our planet. Research led by scientists from the Stockholm Resilience Center and Australian National University resulted in the Planetary Boundaries framework, which establishes nine “specify precautionary biophysical boundaries within which humanity can thrive” (Steffen et al., 2015).

Economist Kate Raworth (2012, 2017) added an inner circle to the nine boundaries, called the social foundation (see Figure 1). This foundation, based on the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), consists of twelve social aspects. Together, the ecological ceiling and the social foundation create a “safe and just space for humanity”. Economic activity taking place in this space is, by necessity, “regenerative and distributive”. Any other type of economic activity will result in overshooting the ecological ceiling or contribute to a shortfall in the social foundation. How can we design for living the doughnut? I am exploring this safe and just space for people and planet as a design space, taking the mobile phone, one of the most unsustainable, digital consumer goods, as my case.

At the start of 2016, Norway, a country of five million people, had a mobile phone density of 97% (ages between 16 and 65). Even so, two million new mobile phones were sold in Norway in 2016 (Elektronikkbransjen, 2017). The systemic approach taken in my research project informs the understanding of the mobile phone as a product that starts its life in the cobalt mines in Eastern Congo and ends its life among e-waste scavengers and small recycling workshops in India, China or Ghana. Other lifecycles are possible too, but this scenario is quite common. In this perspective, selling two million new mobile phones in Norway in 2016 is a risk to the “safe and just space”. The particulars of this risk arevisualised in a so-called Risk Catalogue. The Catalogue presents the social and environmental risks found in the lifecycle of the mobile phone. By combining systems thinking and lifecycle thinking, it becomes possible to map the effects of design decisions not only in the use phase, as often is the case in critical inquiries in HCI, but also in the resource extraction phase, the manufacturing phase, and the end-of-life phase. Some of the risks can be related directly to design of the mobile phone, while other risks are the effect of other aspects of the product lifecycle, but here design may play an indirect role in sustaining these risks. I my contribution I will map the risks found in the mobile phone lifecycle on the doughnut of social and planetary boundaries and discuss options for intervention through design.Figure 1. The doughnut of social and planetary boundaries

Checkland, P., & Poulter, J. (2010). Soft Systems Methodology. In M. Reynolds & S. Holwell (Eds.), Systems Approaches to Managing Change: A Practical Guide (pp. 191–242). Springer London.
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Raworth, K. (2012). A safe and just space for humanity: can we live within the doughnut. Oxfam Policy and Practice: Climate Change and Resilience, 8(1), 1–26.
Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Sevaldson, B. (2011). GIGA-Mapping: Visualisation for complexity and systems thinking in design. Nordes, (4). Retrieved from
Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., … Sörlin, S. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 1259855.

Posted: Oct-2017

RSD 10 Call for Papers

RSD10 offers a platform for discussing ongoing work with peers and presents the state-of-the-art in the systemic design field. This year there are two paper tracks: short papers for ongoing work, and long papers for finished work.

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