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Solar-powered, phone-charging benches and digital signs

27 January 2017

MIT Media Lab spinout Changing Environments is hoping to accelerate the development of “smart” cities that use technology to solve urban challenges.

MIT Media Lab spinout Changing Environments is the brains behind the solar-powered Soofa Bench (Credit: Changing Environments)

“The idea is to bring simple technologies to the streets,” says CEO Sandra Richter, a former Media Lab researcher who co-founded the startup with Nan Zhao, a Media Lab PhD student, and Jutta Friedrichs, a Harvard University graduate. “When it comes to smart cities, there’s been a lot of talking, but not a lot of doing. If you don’t want this [smart city] concept to die, you need to bring real-world examples to the places where we live, work, and play.”

The women-founded startup is the brains behind the Soofa Benches that have cropped up around Boston and Cambridge, including on MIT’s campus. The benches contain an embedded charging station powered by a mini solar panel, with two USB ports for plugging in mobile devices. They also connect to wireless networks.

First installed in Boston in June 2014, the benches are now in 65 cities across 23 U.S. states. 

Charging activity is tracked at headquarters where, in a light-hearted competition, the office has a “bench leadership board” with benches that see the most charging activity. Currently holding the top spot is “Amelia,” the startup’s first commercial bench in Cambridge’s Central Square, with 1,817 total hours charged over a total of 3,571 charging sessions, as of mid-January.

Benches in Harvard Square and on the Rose Kennedy Greenway have logged around 2,500 charging sessions. Some newly installed benches in New York City, which were just implemented in May 2016, already have more than 2,000 sessions charged.

Recently, Changing Environments starting deploying its second solar-powered product, the Soofa Sign.

Each sign has apps installed that display public transit times, weather, and events, among other information. This month, the startup will select three additional cities where it will pilot the Soofa Sign.

Each Soofa product comes equipped with sensors that gather pedestrian-traffic data for cities, and can be considered part of the “internet of things” (IoT), in which many kinds of everyday devices are wirelessly connected and exchange data. This data can be used by cities to make decisions about funding city developments, events, and other initiatives that impact the public.

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