Smart Street Furniture

Winter 2015/2016
The Soofa bench allows people to recharge electronic devices while they relax. It also can collect and transmit data, including weather, pedestrian flows, pollution levels and more, via the Internet. Photo courtesy of Soofa

Technology has been integrated into street furniture to provide both phone-charging stations and tools for gathering valuable data. 

AS PEOPLE BECOME increasingly digitally connected, designers and developers are finding new ways to integrate technology, both indoors and outdoors. One company doing just that is Soofa, a startup out of MIT’s Media Lab. Soofa designs smart urban street furniture with the mission of creating outdoor places that are social, sustainable and smart. Its first product, the Soofa Bench, is a solar-powered charging bench that helps people stay digitally connected, through USB charging for tablets and phones, as well as physically connected, by offering them a comfortable place to sit and converse.

Being able to stay charged — and thus social and productive — is critical to the growing masses of highly connected people. Today’s younger, more digitally connected generations are the tenants and business owners of tomorrow. Designing outdoor spaces with digital connectivity is critical to attracting these people. City stakeholders understand this, so the Soofa Bench has quickly popped up in cities and neighborhoods across the U.S. Soofa Benches can be found in places as diverse as public parks, city streets, dense mixed-use neighborhoods and residential tower roof gardens. The Soofa Bench immediately activates places and spaces when installed, and sparks conversation among those who use it. It’s not unusual to see two strangers having a conversation while recharging their devices or a child excitedly telling her parents about the bench that uses the sun to power their phones.

The Soofa Bench has quickly become a symbol for the concept of smart neighborhoods and smart cities — places that use technology to enhance services, reduce costs and resource consumption, and enable residents to engage more effectively and actively with each other and the places in which they live and work. Simply put, smart cities and places are responsive places that allow on-demand access to the digital world.

The commercial real estate community has much to gain from providing opportunities for digitally powered experiences. This is why Soofa has partnered with early adopters in the industry who are focused on innovation and sustainability. These partners include LeFrak and L&L Holding Co. in New York City and Beacon Capital Partners in Boston. Developer interest in Soofa technology is motivated by more than just a desire to provide connectivity to space users. The sensor-equipped Soofa Benches also measure everything from air quality to pedestrian traffic.

Soofa Benches are connected to the Internet and transmit sensor data to the cloud, where it is analyzed and shared in a simple format. Prior to the introduction of sensor and beacon technology, analysis of human traffic and spatial use was reliant largely on human investigation, which is subject to a great deal of selection bias. While placement of sensors can retain some bias, a data-collection system that monitors a site 24/7, in all weather, year-round, produces far more reliable metrics.

These metrics can include total pedestrian traffic counts, impact of weather, dwell time and repeat visits. While this may sound like a vision of the far future, it’s possible today; Soofa’s data dashboard shows place metrics like these and more. The data Soofa provides can quantify the intuitive feeling that a place is performing well — or not so well. It can be used for post-occupancy analysis or space management. It can also be used to evaluate the effectiveness of marketing campaigns, to determine conversion rates of passers-by to brick-and-mortar retail sales and more. By connecting Soofa street data with that of an individual business, point-of-sale (POS) system, or residential or office building, countless additional place-specific metrics can be created.

Recognizing how people use — or don’t use — a space can inform future design decisions and development strategies, from the type of store that should fill a vacant retail space to the placement of outdoor infrastructure and green space. Data from intelligent street furniture like Soofa Benches can help designers, developers and building owners and managers make smart decisions about outdoor space design. What’s more, smart, connected infrastructure represents a commitment to the needs of the digital generation. At the same time, the Soofa Benches themselves offer people an urban refuge where they can relax and recharge.