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Weighing the resource implications of modular products

Designer Dave Hakkens made a social media splash last fall with Phonebloks, his concept for a phone with swappable parts. Modular phones would allow users to upgrade, repair, and customize parts of their phones. The overall aim is to reduce electronic waste by getting people to hold onto their phones longer. To bring such an idea into a competitive market, Hakkens needed a sophisticated partner. That's where Google comes in. The company now plans to release its first modular phone, developed under the name Project Ara, in 2015.


At first glance, a modular phone seems like a great option for reducing material use. But in the span of the phone's expected 5-6 year lifespan, it's reasonable to think that advances might emerge in energy harvesting or manufacturing techniques that could render it relatively inefficient. So a question remains whether the phone base will be able to adapt to such changes. Moreover, if one of the goals of the project is to reduce electronic waste, a system will need to be in place to collect and recycle or repurpose modules that are no longer wanted. Given the modules' tiny size, it's possible that the resources they contain won't be perceived as valuable enough to prioritize or make a collection and recycling system viable.

Of course, modularity isn't simply about extending the life of a product. It's also another form of mass customization. People can pick or choose what components they want. In the case of Ara, Google is banking on people's willingness to pay not only for their own preferred mix of apps, but for a customized mix of hardware modules that do everything from take pictures to take your pulse.

Interface's FLOR carpet tile is perhaps the most well known modular product on the market, and is a big part of the company's overall sustainable business strategy. If there's a problem, users can replace tiles individually, rather than replacing an entire floor's worth of carpet. The end result is less waste and an extended life for the overall floor covering. The Guardian recently portrayed a handful of other modular products, from shoes to an indoor aquaponics system, as inherently sustainable. However, it's not clear that modularity is necessarily aligned with sustainability. Manufacturers and entrepreneurs working on modular products intended to be "sustainable" should consider their end goals relative to things like initial resource inputs, waste, lifecycle costs, and recoverability to ensure that modular is indeed doing better with less.


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Resource Fix: Liquid cooling tech saves energy and captures IT heat for reuse

Iceotope has developed a liquid cooling system for servers. The company's unique technology cools IT equipment at the source, rather than cooling the surrounding air. This eliminates the need for large-scale air conditioning and refrigeration equipment and reduces energy use by about 20 percent.

The servers are encapsulated in liquid-filled pipes, so there are no concerns related to air quality, humidity and so on regarding where they can be placed. And because there are no fans, the servers operate quietly. This all means that the servers don't necessarily need to be in a dedicated space; they can be placed anywhere, potentially saving space or using idle space.

Iceotope's technology also provides the infrastructure for easily capturing waste heat for reuse in buildings, providing a twin benefit in energy savings.

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An Innovative Open Data Initiative

In complex settings like major cities, access to and productive use of data is increasingly critical

Dublinked’s online data store provides access to data from both the public and private sectors

Dublinked’s activities support innovation in social, environmental, and economic arenas

There is significant potential to transfer Dublinked’s model to other cities around the world

Dublinked is a partnership among entities in the Dublin region that provides access to valuable datasets that were previously inaccessible or difficult to find to foster innovation and economic development.



Innovation Summary

Dublinked is a unique open-data initiative based in Dublin, Ireland that supports collaborative and creative problem solving among members of the regional government and industry sectors. Dublinked’s central resource is an online data store for private citizens, government agencies, entrepreneurs, and businesses. Unlike other open-data initiatives that focus solely on opening up public data with an eye to transparency, Dublinked provides broad access to datasets from both the public and private sectors. Dublinked’s objectives include spurring job creation, creating new products and services, and providing a space in which to test new ideas and technologies. The initiative’s scope ranges from supporting large industry working on infrastructure projects, to helping startups develop new apps or supporting social entrepreneurs working to alleviate poverty and improve health outcomes in the city. Several apps, including one that identifies travel routes and another that maps projects being planned across the city, have already been developed.Dublinked also provides opportunities for public and private parties to come together and use data to drive systems-based thinking that can lead to innovative solutions. It organizes workshops to improve relationships and to simplify the processes for people in the region to work together.


Dublinked is ultimately about leveraging existing resources to solve problems. It opens up human and information resources which may previously have been inaccessible or difficult to find, and provides a space for their productive use. It creates an environment to support innovation in social, environmental, and economic arenas, which could lead to solutions that reduce waste, conserve water, optimize traffic flow, or reduce resource use in other ways.

In complex settings like major cities, with the immense scale of the resources and systems at work and the magnitude of data being collected, access to and productive use of data is increasingly critical. Dublinked has created a low-cost model for connecting people with data in a way that benefits both the public sector and businesses, which has the potential to transfer to other cities around the world to help them optimize their resource use.


The idea for Dublinked, which was founded formally in 2011, came about during one of the greatest financial crises Ireland has ever experienced, when it was clear that the city needed new ways to do better with fewer resources. Funding comes from the National University of Ireland Maynooth and four local authorities (Dublin City Council, DunLaoghaire Rathdown County Council, Fingal County Council and South Dublin County Council). Members pay a small fee to access data. IBM Research provides open collaboration technologies and tools.