Open spaces, parks, nature preserves, and other patches of green are supposed to be places for resting, relaxation, and respite. But the reality is that in our 24-7 hyper-connected world, powering down often requires powering up. After all, with books and magazines losing market share and tablets in the ascendancy, reading is an activity that is increasingly powered by electricity. What’s more, Wi-fi is now seen as a human necessity. And whether you’re a kid playing on a basketball court or a lawyer taking a few minutes off in Central Park, keeping smartphones charged at all times is a necessity. All of which means that in order to truly enjoy the great outdoors, people increasingly need access to something they used to only get in the not-so-great indoors: electricity.
And that’s happening. Around the world, smart entrepreneurs and engineers are introducing aesthetically-pleasing structures that can produce and provide juice in public parks in unobtrusive ways.
In Israel, where planting trees has long been a national project, the first eTree has been planted. The brainchild of a company called Sologic, the eTree looks like a basic tree with a wooden trunk. But the leaves and branches – the canopy it effectively creates -- is made up of solar panels.
Like trees, these structures provide shelter and serve as attractive pieces of natural sculpture. But this one does more. The panels produce electricity, which can charge phones and laptops through USB ports embedded in the surrounding benches. What’s more, the installations house and power wi-fi nodes, which effectively turns a cool shady place into a hotspot. The power can also chill drinking water. And a small battery hidden in the structure can store power, which can be used to keep highly efficient LEG bulbs lit at night. These eTrees aren’t cheap. The basic Acacia model, equipped with seven branches that have a combined capacity of 1.4 kilowatts, costs $100,000. The first “tree” has been planted in a public garden in Zichron Ya’akov, a city about an hour north of Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile, in public parks in Massachusetts, visitors may be noticing a new wrinkle in the sturdy, dowdy park benches they have come to rely on. On July 4 – fittingly enough – a company called Soofa installed a piece of equipment that will allow people to declare independence from the electricity grid on the historic Boston Common – one of the nation’s first great public parks.
Soofa, a Cambridge-based start-up founded by three women, Jutta Friedrichs, Sandra Richter, and Nan Zhao, makes what it calls smart benches. They’re low-slung benches with wooden slates. But in the middle, there’s a square container with a solar panel on top. It produces electricity, which it can then channel to devices like phones or laptops through USB ports.
Soofar first unveiled its product at a White House event in June. Each Soofa has a proper name – the one on Boston Common is called Boris. And as this map shows, there are now five Soofas in Boston proper as well as two in the suburb of Babson. “Computers took people off the streets,” notes Jutta Friedrichs, co-founder and designer of the smart urban furniture. “We envision Soofas acting as magnets that invite people to enjoy the outdoors while reading the news, sharing a video, or catching up on email without fear of running out of power. The company’s website documents how much sun power each has collected and how many hours of charging it has provided.
These “smart benches” can do more than simply serve as passive producers of electricity. Equipped with sensors, the benches will be able to provide data on weather conditions, noise, and air quality.
Both the eTree and the Soofa represent an important trend. With people expecting that energy will be available to them at all times, and at all places, we have to rethink the way that electricity is generated, distributed, and stored. Building such capacity into our public urban “furniture” is one smart of way guaranteeing access. And these initiatives represent an effort to fundamentally rethink our landscape. “Your cell phone doesn’t just make phone calls,” as Boston Mayor Marty Walsh put it. “Why should our benches just be seats?”