Next time you’re walking around a park in Boston or New York City, or window-shopping on a Los Angeles street, you might notice a Soofa bench or sign. At the benches, you can charge your phone while enjoying the outdoors instead of having to find an outlet in a crowded coffee shop. The 2½-meter-tall signs, tailored to pedestrians, display local news and events as well as mass-transit times and the current temperature. Both are solar-powered and equipped with sensors that can estimate foot traffic.
The startup, founded by IEEE Member Nan Zhao with Jutta Friedrichs and Sandra Richter at MIT Media Lab, aspires to make cities smarter by introducing technologies that can improve lives. Zhao says they thought benches and signs were a natural place to start.
A few months after their first meeting in 2014 with the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, an innovation group that applies technology to improve the city, they installed their first wooden bench in Titus Sparrow Park. “Within two minutes of installing the bench, someone sat down and intuitively charged her phone,” Zhao says. “We hadn’t even put up instructions.” The founders approached the woman, who said she immediately understood what the bench was for—which gave them the confidence to keep going.
Since then, Soofa, made to sound like a high-tech piece of furniture, has its benches and signs in 65 cities—in Canada, Costa Rica, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. The privately held company has not disclosed its revenue.
Soofa’s sensor detects signals from mobile phones to determine approximately how many people pass by its benches and signs. The municipalities have access to that data, which has helped them improve services and decide where to build new infrastructure. High foot traffic in an area, for example, could lead to more outdoor seating, playgrounds, and traffic signs, and increased police patrols. By counting how many people pass by, the data also can help determine the success of a new public space or a municipal event.
TAKE A SEAT
The venture, originally named Changing Environments, started out as a brainstorm: The founders asked themselves how a sustainable technology could help people spend more time outdoors. They came up with solar-powered charging stations, using 30-watt photovoltaic solar panels, that can be incorporated into city infrastructure. Benches made the most sense, Zhao says, because people likely would want the option to sit as they waited for their devices to charge. Each charging station, located in the middle, has two USB ports.
The charging stations have yet to run out of power, Richter says. When it’s snowing, people are less likely to sit outside to charge their phones, and when it’s sunny and the days are longer, there is more power stored. The charging stations may be used at night—which is especially useful for those who rely on a ride-hailing app to get home. Coffee shops have been placing the company’s benches outside their establishments so their customers don’t linger inside by the outlets. The benches are secured by four bolts drilled into the ground. The charging stations can be purchased separately as well as installed on existing benches.
A week after its installation in Boston, the Soofa bench was displayed at the White House Maker Faire as an example of smart-city technology. Shortly afterward, Cisco and Verizon sponsored the deployment of the next 10 benches, even before the founders had set up a bank account for their business. MIT Media Lab also supported the venture with its E14 Fund, which provides stipends, mentoring, and legal and accounting services to employees launching startups.
Whereas cities and businesses purchase the benches, the signs rely on a different business model. Cities install the signs in strategic places, where there is high pedestrian traffic, and businesses and organizations pay Soofa to advertise their services and events on them.
Designing the proximity sensor was no simple feat, Richter says, because it must distinguish that signals are from pedestrians’ phones and not from nearby buildings and cars. To protect privacy, the sensor does not identify information on the signal—meaning Soofa doesn’t know who is passing by. Sensor data is transmitted to the company’s database.
Ultimately, the founders say, they would like Soofa to help cities become better connected with their residents. The company says it wants to work with municipalities to apply technology to improve people’s lives.
The startup also is making it a point to educate the public about the importance of smart cities. Each new installation of benches or signs is kicked off with an event in which the mayor or business owner introduces them to the community. A member of Soofa’s staff attends the ceremony to discuss how the technology can help improve neighborhoods, and to speak about making cities smarter.