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SUTD's mobile app gets special mention

The designers say the Honk! app aims to support and sustain Singapore's heritage recycling economy, traditionally known as the karung guni trade

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The Honk! app showing items posted for collection by recyclers. Items are geo-located on a map of Singapore.

A DIGITAL solution designed by Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) professor Lyle Fearnley and his engineering colleagues Poon King Wang and Andy Zheng has got special mention at this year's SG Mark awards.

The digital solution called "Honk!" is a mobile application that its designers say proves that the traditional karung guni (rag and bone) trade and modern technology can converge. Named after the iconic handheld horn used by such traders to alert residents of their presence, the app connects households directly with traders through their smart phones to deal in the sale and collection of second hand goods or recyclable waste.

The designers of the mobile app say that it aims to support and sustain Singapore's heritage recycling economy, traditionally known as the karung guni trade, in order to simultaneously increase the domestic recycling rate and improve economic opportunities for small scale, mostly elderly recycling entrepreneurs.

"Remarkably, around 90 per cent of Singapore's domestic recycled waste is collected by informal karung guni, not government contracted public waste collectors (PWCs). Yet many still believe the karung guni is a vanishing trade that will be unable to keep up with rising transport costs and emerging technologies. We designed and built Honk! to challenge the assumption that traditional trades and technological futures can't be put together," say the designers of the new mobile app.

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The karung guni men travel block to block, honking their hand-held horn to notify residents of their presence. "Our mobile app Honk! built for Android and IoS devices, utilises cellular network technology to allow households and the karung guni men to connect and initiate trades in the 'data cloud'. With GPS to provide location data for both karung guni and households, photo snap posting of items, notification 'honks' and advance scheduling, the Honk! app expands and streamlines the karung guni economy for the digital era. Honk! turns waste into environmental treasure," they add.

Talking about the inspiration for creating this app, Dr Fearnley said: "I am a social scientist, more precisely a cultural anthropologist. Anthropologists don't usually develop apps or technologies of any kind. For me and several colleagues, the initial inspiration came from a social science study we conducted of Singapore households' waste recycling practices.

"In our interviews and fieldwork, one of the things that we found interesting was that despite the oft cited challenges of recycling in Singapore, many people do recycle, but in informal ways, such as reusing cardboard boxes, selling newspapers to karung guni or donating clothes to charity, rather than depositing things in the blue bins provided by the National Recycling Programme (NRP).

Vanishing trade

"At the same time, many people - even some karung guni collectors that we interviewed - kept repeating that karung guni is a vanishing trade. We wondered if there was a way to intervene to keep this traditional form of recycling going. More recently, the importance of doing so was highlighted by the statistics reported in The Straits Times that the informal sector currently collects nine times more domestic waste for recycling than the NRP. What would happen if that vanishes?"

Meanwhile, Dr Fearnley's engineering colleagues at SUTD's Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities (LKYCIC), Poon King Wang and Andy Zheng, were working on a separate research project on living with technology and the future of work. After some casual conversations, they had the idea to explore using current digital city technologies like smart phones, mobile apps and databases to redesign the informal recycling sector, including karung guni and charities.

"We applied with this proposal to the SUTD-MIT International Design Centre, and with funding from them we began the design and development process. Our goal was to develop a digital platform that would increase recycling rates, but do so by building on and redesigning - not disrupting - the existing karung guni social system," says Dr Fearnley.

Sharing how the app works, he says that it is designed to work like a taxi booking app (like Grab) but connects households with mobile karung guni collectors and charities. Household residents can photo post items that they want to recycle. Karung guni will see these items listed on a realtime map of Singapore, and can follow-up by contacting the seller through SMS or phone.

"On the other hand, karung guni can also post schedules of which neighbourhoods they will visit, which will be pushed out as notifications to households in those neighborhoods. When their lorry enters into a neighbourhood, the app will also ask them if they want to 'check in', which will send out notifications to households," says Dr Fearnley.

Digital connectivity

"In a sense, we aimed to replace the karung guni horn -- the traditional way karung guni forge connections with households - with digital connectivity through the data 'cloud'. The whole system works on a geo-spatial, or location based services platform, to improve connectivity. Anyone can register as a recycling agent, but the design is not intended to be a peer to peer recycling system (Carousell already does that). The goal is to increase recycling of lower value but higher volume items (compared with Carousell), such as newspaper, cardboard, and in particular, electronic waste (e-waste)."

Asked what problems the new app solves, Dr Fearnley says that it aims to increase recycling rates and sustain a traditional, small scale entrepreneurial trade managed by predominantly, though not exclusively, elderly men. It does so through design by overcoming several problems in the existing informal recycling sector.

"First, communication: how can we increase the efficiency of communication between recyclers and households, going beyond the karung guni horn? This is particularly relevant as many new housing estate designs are not as conducive to karung guni as in the past, because of covered or underground car parks and pay per entry gantries.

"We noticed in our research that several karung guni already had started giving their phone numbers to residents for easier contacting, and our design extends this principle but makes communication 'ubiquitous' and universal (many-to-many, rather than one-to-one). Second, can we increase the efficiency of routing, which is a key cost of recycling collection? Third, can we increase trust, which is an obstacle to the karung guni trade, by providing opportunities for review and evaluation of karung guni and households," says Dr Fearnley.

As for challenges faced when creating this app, he says the "primary challenge we face currently is how to enroll collectors, such as karung guni and charities. Although we successfully enrolled several karung guni during our pilot runs, to launch this in a sustainable way requires more organisational resources. During our pilot we also found significant discrepancies between household and karung guni expectations (people posted items that karung guni would never collect), which we are addressing in new design updates. Finally, there are other serious challenges to the karung guni trade that cannot be addressed by technology alone, such as falling global prices for recyclables."

Looking ahead, Dr Fearnley says that he and his team are currently looking at various ways to partner with other organisations in order to develop a phase 2 launch of Honk!, as well as extending the system to collection of other kinds of waste, such as food waste and electronic waste.

He adds that while the app is available for download on App store and Google Play, and is fully functional, it is a prototype only as their pilot has ended. So there are no active collectors currently.

Turning to value creation through design, Dr Fearnley says that Honk! creates social value by supporting elderly karung guni traders who struggle to make a living. It also creates environmental value by increasing domestic recycling and closing the waste loop. Further, the app creates economic value by expanding the market for second hand goods and recoverable waste.

Domestic recycling

Singapore's domestic recycling rate is much lower than comparable societies. Honk! is designed to grow community participation in recycling by enhancing the human face of waste recycling. The SUTD designers use digital tools such as geo-location, photo posting, and user reviews to increase trust and connectivity between household residents and karung guni traders.

Further there is minimisation of waste and environmental footprint. Honk! expands the market for second-hand goods and recoverable materials, diverting domestic waste from Singapore's incinerator plants and the offshore Semakau landfill. By improving the efficiency of the karung guni routes, the app also optimises the "first-mile" of recoverable waste from households to recycling yards, reducing fuel use and carbon footprint.

Honk! pioneers the circular economy, using technology to expand informal recycling networks. With digital tools, Singapore's heritage can become its future, says the team.