By Cory Phare
When the pandemic exposed the digital divide among his peers, Dominique Hunt designed a solution with the potential to scale from the Auraria Campus to the African continent.
The 26-year-old Metropolitan State University of Denver student was working for the school’s Information Technology Services in March 2020 when Covid-19 forced a pivot to remote learning. In those first months of the pandemic, scores of students phoned the department in search of computers.
“One thing that hit me was the need for ready-to-go solutions to get everyone online immediately,” the Industrial Design major said of that experience. “A lot of our students didn’t have the means to do that – the ability to provide many folks with loaner laptops was great, but we just didn’t have enough to reach everybody.”
When he realized that nearly every student in need of a computer already had an internet-connected smartphone, Hunt had his eureka moment: PhoneBook, a smartphone dock that converts it into a laptop interface. There’s no software housed in the 3D-printed device; a removable keyboard houses a rechargeable battery pack, and the phone functions simultaneously as a receiver for the screen and a trackpad.
PhoneBook this month took second place in the Stanford Center on Longevity Design Challenge, a global competition encouraging students to design products and services to improve the lives of people across all ages. The 2021 Design Challenge theme asked students to examine their lives for lessons they learned during the huge cultural shift brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and to use those lessons to innovate for a healthier future.
Out of 222 entries from 37 countries, Hunt was the top U.S. finisher, besting designs by students from Harvard and Northwestern as well as King’s College of London. He said he was “completely shocked … as a team of one” to earn the accolades of the esteemed panel of judges, especially in a competition attracting so many prestigious schools.
Hunt developed the concept in an MSU Denver Advanced Industrial Design studio course taught by Associate Professor Amy Kern, Ph.D. The class, she said, is structured for students to develop passion projects within the constraints of a design brief, giving a real-life applicability to academic study.
“(Hunt) hit the ground running with research and blue-sky ideation for the PhoneBook at the start of the semester,” she said. “The technology isn’t brand-new, but the sensitivity he put into the design to increase accessibility and usability was particularly relevant during a pandemic.
“It’s a brilliant concept for an underserved user group.”
For Hunt, who grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, it’s a matter of access that stretches from the Auraria Campus across the Atlantic. When it comes to internet access in Kenya and many African nations, he said, the telecommunication infrastructure skipped the hard-wired phase for widespread cellular data networks. As a result, wireless access is plentiful and mobile-phone use common.
“The first step to empowering communities is through access to information,” Hunt said. “In Kenya, you can purchase a day’s worth of unlimited data for about 100-200 shillings – a couple of dollars.”
While similar smartphone-laptop products are on the market, they are either prohibitively expensive and/or designed for obsolescence. In contrast, as a 3D-printed device, open-source plans for PhoneBook can be distributed for local fabrication.
“I wanted to help diminish the tech clutter,” Hunt said. “We have phones. Those can functionally replace laptops. And if we don’t have to produce so many of those, it can have a real impact on climate change.”
After graduation, Hunt plans to continue exploring injection-molding manufacturing and raising funds to further widen access to his design capabilities. He’s also pursuing an internship with alumna Dara Dotz, who has an extensive background in humanitarian-driven 3D printing. Through this MSU Denver-born connection, Hunt is in discussions with Kijenzi, an organization fabricating products for the small but vibrant maker communities in his home country.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that others – including the Stanford design-competition judges – are taking note, as the PhoneBook holds promise of delivering sustainable, multifaceted, accessible solutions to many. Hunt highlighted concepts covered in Kern’s studio class, namely cradle-to-cradle design and circular economy, in aiding this process.
“I’m so proud of Dominique and so many of our students who push the limits of what they envision bringing into our world,” Kern said.
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