No longer should we have to beg a block’s worth of bartenders to let us charge our dead phones. What if USB outlets were treated like public property instead?
Thanks to a trio of hardware designers and engineers who generated the idea at the MIT Media Lab, Boston is now turning to cute benches that can charge mobile devices. With 10 already installed in parks across the city in a pilot project, the solar-powered “Soofas” mark a new milestone in smart urban furniture.
“I think it almost looks like a little creature, like a little critter that spans the city and helps people,” says Sandra Richter, co-founder of Changing Environments, the company behind the Soofa. “The two USB ports almost look like little eyes, and the concrete looks like a little head.”
Richter, along with Changing Environments co-founders Nan Zhao and Jutta Friedrichs, are also inviting Bostonians to name the benches; “Hedy,” “Nan,” “Mia,” and “Franklin” have already hit the streets, and residents can now track their energy usage online.
The designers wanted to make the benches friendly enough to invite social interaction, but they also had another motive. Richter, Zhao, and Friedrichs all happen to come from Germany, home to possibly the most advanced solar energy economy in the world.
“We wanted to make a real urban design object that’s really fun, and sexy, and communicates the things we care about–which is smart, social, sustainable spaces,” Richter says. “We really believe in renewable energy. We’re not going to change the world with the benches, but we’re creating awareness for solar power.”
Changing Environments isn’t the only company trying to provide solar charging. In 2013, design consultancy Pensa rolled out another type of solar-powered device charger called the Street Charge–a sleek, black pole that sports three surfaces for laptops, tablets, and phones. The look, function, and attitude of the Soofa is different, though–some of which Richter attributes to the fact that all three founders are women.
Going forward, the Soofa’s biggest challenge will be scaling up and fundraising. So far, Changing Environments has partnered with Cisco and Verizon to pay for the pilot, but the co-founders want to produce more. When I spoke to Richter, she was at the lab, working on a new bench.
“It’s definitely an interesting time in the beginning when you’re three people and put all your blood, sweat, and tears into something you believe in,” Richter says. “We spend a lot of time investing, making sure everything works perfectly. And we also love building stuff.”