When you’re waiting to cross the street, the crosswalk signal doesn’t know if you’re out for a morning run or you’re an 86-year-old with a walker. Like other infrastructure, it’s designed based on averages, leaving out anyone who happens to be slower or disabled. But as smart tech grows in cities, a walk sign or streetlight may eventually know who someone is–and tailor itself for any particular needs.
In a new design, UK designers Ross Atkin and Jonathan Scott created a system of “responsive street furniture” that senses people walking by and adapts. If someone needs more light, a streetlight will brighten; if someone needs more places to rest, benches will unlock when they pass. When a blind person walks past a streetlight, the post can read out the name of the store in front.
When Atkin first started researching urban design for disability several years ago, he noticed that most attempts at accommodation involved tradeoffs. Some people might need more places to sit down along a route, for example, but extra benches make it difficult for someone with a wheelchair to get by.
He had an epiphany when he started learning about digital accessibility. “I realized there was an entirely different paradigm at work,” he says. “Out in the streets, we were trying to design a ‘one size fits all’ compromise between different users’ needs, but in digital, people were creating devices and services that could reconfigure themselves around the needs of the person using them.” He realized that smarter street furniture could do the same thing.
While it’s easy to imagine that technology like this could also be abused–imagine streetlights sending targeted ads or tracking consumers as they walk around a city–Atkin says he was careful to limit the functions of the system. “We are not collecting any movement data and we do not plan to serve any ads or other unsolicited information,” he says. “We want to sell street furniture, not people’s data. We have deliberately designed the system to collect as few data as are required for it to work.”
Some parts of the system would be relatively easy to add to current infrastructure. “The good thing about a system like this, as compared to bigger, more ambitious smart city systems, is that can be useful even if it is only installed in a few items in a small area,” Atkin says. “For example, being able to get longer to cross, or audible beeps at just one crossing, can make a big difference to the people who use it regularly. So we are not talking about a shift, more of a process of population.” Other technology, like streetlights that brighten more for people with bad eyesight, could be built into new infrastructure that cities are already adding.