Sustainability at the Mobile World Congress

Sustainability MWC

The Mobile World Congress (MWC), held every year in Barcelona since 2006, is one of the largest trade fairs in the world, attended by more than 100,000 delegates from 204 countries and speakers including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and the Formula One three-times champion Lewis Hamilton. Its not an obscure fair discussing mining equipment or jewellery: What is discussed there directly affects the way we communicate, interact with the world and even our thinking processes. Our mobiles are already an intimate (sometimes too much) part of our lives.

Mobile is Everything”, as the theme this year says. From connected cars to the airline and cruise industries, the mobile technology is changing the way many industries operate. “Mobile is impacting everything in our lives, covering the likes of media, Internet of Things, security and identity,” says Michael O’Hara, GSMA’s chief marketing officer and one of the organizers. The presence of CEOs of Ford, Bosch, Royal Caribbean Cruises – companies normally not associated with the mobile industry – confirms the “everything” trend.

Sustainability not big in the MWC agenda (but getting there)

The huge event in itself has been certified as carbon neutral and green behaviour is incentivized. Public transport is free of charge to delegates – although a strike was organized to coincide with the event.

Sustainability however is not a priority at the MWC (yet). The few exceptions this year were the Green Pavilion – with less than 20 companies, mostly renewable energy suppliers, not typical mobile companies – and some of the GSMA awards promoting sustainable issues, such as:

  • The Green Mobile Award: which went to Telefónicafor its Global Energy Efficiency Programme 2010-2020
  • Best Mobile Innovation for Emerging Markets: M-KOPA III Solar Home System for M-KOPA Solar
  • Best Mobile Service for Women in Emerging Markets: Vodafone Telekomunikasyonfor Vodafone Kırmızı Işık(Easy Rescue)
  • Mobile in Emergency or Humanitarian Situations: Flowminder, Ncelland TeliaSonera for Aid the displaced post Nepal earthquake
  • Best Use of Mobile for Accessibility & Inclusion: Turkcellfor Turkcell My Dream Companion Mobile Audio Description

There was also a debate about Smart Cities Sustainability and a Mobile For Development Seminar & Jumpstart.

Hundreds of thousands of gadgets and other equipment were on display, but on a quick tour we could not find the “old” Samsung “Blue Earth” phone or something similar. Some startups however are promoting more sustainable solutions. Here are two examples of startups based in Barcelona:

The sustainability of the mobile industry

The mobile industry faces various sustainability challenges. From the use of energy to responsible sourcing of minerals, namely coltan. The discussion about 5G is particularly interesting: some ask for maximum data transmission; others prefer less energy intensive standards in order to keep their equipment running for more time without replacing its batteries.

Despite the event being carbon neutral, the carbon footprint of mobile devices was not the agenda either (for years?). Apple – never present at the Mobile World Congress – says for instance that its iPhone 6 plus has a total carbon footprint of 110kg CO2e over its life cycle, almost twice iPhone 5s emissions at 65kg CO2e. Consequently, the footprint of the whole mobile industry is massive and growing. It is predicted an increase of emissions by a factor of three until 2020 compared to 2007, rising from about 86 to 235Mt CO2e. As for the water footprint of mobiles, there is not much research and Apple does not disclose the information, but researchers at the University of Tokyo estimate that it takes 912 liters of water just to manufacture – not considering its life cycle – a mobile.

A key issue, highlighted by – the obviously biased – Mark Zuckerberg is that 4 billion people do not have access to internet, creating a big divide between the have (connection) and have-nots. Another issue we see is consumerism or, as minimum, (un)sustainable consumption: even if you keep your mobile in perfect physical conditions, the operating systems upgrades start to make it slower, driving you to buy a new mobile.

Last but not least the whole IT industry has the challenge to bring the women. A random sampling in Barcelona counted only 1 woman for every 20 delegates, but the organizers say they were 20%. Full male panels were the norm. But the GSMA is making an effort: it has organized three events under its Connected Women launched in Barcelona, with the women’s rights campaigner Cherie Blair (and Tony Blair’s wife) and others. Ideas like the Girls Who Code project can be a good start.

It is not all bad, on the contrary! The mobile technologies bring benefits to all four pillars of sustainability:

  • Environmental protection: thanks to better and mobile communication we need to travel less, apps tell you precisely when your public transport is coming, you can do some work and communicate with minimum energy use;
  • Social development: communication is becoming more accessible to people anywhere, leapfrogging the old wired technologies, mobiles help doctors diagnosing diseases of patients in remote areas, smartphones help people flee wars and persecution;
  • Economic growth: mobiles are used to make payments, sometimes as one of the main payment channels, as it happens in Kenya with the GSMA-awarded Vodafone’s M-Pesaand its 10 million users, whose funds handled represent 11% of Kenya’s GDP.
  • Better governance: mobile pictures and videos show and communicate bad behaviours from the police, politicians and companies.

What is curious is that NGOs are not promoting “green IT” or a broader sustainability agenda with the mobile industry. Greenpeace for instance used to publish its “Guide to Greener Electronics”, but the last edition is from 2012 – an eternity in such a fast moving industry.

Putting sustainability in the mobile agenda

This article is not a sustainability impact assessment, but the mobile technologies are in general bringing more positive than negative impacts to our planet and society. More benefits and challenges – also to sustainability management – will come with the ubiquitous Internet of Things, augmented reality, weareables and the amazing speed of 5G. The even better news is that it should not take a big effort to put sustainability in the agenda of the next Mobile World Congresses and in the mobile industry day to day. A good idea would be to start with implementing some of the Sustainable Development Goals or more practically calculating and disclosing the carbon and water footprints of mobile phones at least.

How can sustainability management benefit from mobile?

Mobiles can also bring benefits to us involved in the sustainability practice. As most of us agree, directors and managers spend a disproportional amount of time collecting, managing and reporting information and less time dedicated to real performance or to innovation. IT in general and mobile in particular can free practitioners time and, more importantly, better engage the whole organization. Connected sensors, smart meters and weareables, combined with a decent (mobile friendly!) software, for instance can already collect, assess and even predict complex situations, all in real time and without human interference – in theory at least.