Public seating gets a smart upgrade in Maboneng

The isabelo smart bench in downtown Joburg is an example of win-win innovation that will allow us to share ideas from city streets.

From the Series

On a street in the hip enclave of Maboneng in downtown Joburg a group of people are sitting on a plywood bench, all glued to their cellphones. This may seem like nothing out of the ordinary, but it’s the bench that makes this particular scene extraordinary.  

This is the first isabelo smart bench, which offers free-Wi-Fi to anyone who congregates here, four USB ports for cell phone charging and a battery-run light for use after dark. It is completely solar-powered.

The bench’s name, says Louise Meek, who oversaw its design and installation, is derived from the Zulu word for “to share”. “The smart bench is all about sharing: sharing a seat, sharing public spaces and sharing content online. What we love about it is that people can sit down, charge up and freely access information and share ideas,” says Meek, founder of Public Access Consulting and a finalist in The Green City Startup, a competition funded by the City of Johannesburg and the University of Johannesburg.

It was this recognition that led to the idea being implemented in the form of the Maboneng protoype.

Meek explains the thought behind the idea:“We were looking at ways to both reduce the digital divide in our cities and drive prosperity through access to the Internet and it was out of this that isabelo™ evolved.”

Connecting and sharing online has so irrevocably changed the way we conduct our business and social interactions and even our studies, that those without online access are missing vital opportunities to expand these areas of their lives. And owning a smartphone, so widespread regardless of economic status, does not translate to quick access to the Internet. Data is expensive and airtime is carefully saved to be able to stay in phone contact. While free Wi-Fi can be found at many of the city’s coffee-shops, you pay for it usually with a fairly costly flat-white.

The isabelo bench only asks for a few extra minutes of your time in exchange for Internet access, because it serves a dual purpose.  

Users need to complete a quick questionnaire delivering location-specific civic and environmental data to clients who use isabelo to conduct valuable, real-time market research. This in turn covers the costs of the free Wi-Fi.

We believe there are not enough two-way conversations happening with brands and their consumers, city managers and city residents, and we see these benches as the perfect way to facilitate deeper conversations that can deliver real impact.” 

Naturally a great idea needs a designer with a shared vision and for this Meek turned to Adriaan Hugo from the award-winning product design company Doctor and Misses, and his vast experience designing custom made furniture.

The final prototype for the environmentally friendly bench was designed with four seating “arms” that extend outwards from a central tower housing the necessary Wi-Fi tools and USB charging ports. On top of this sit the solar panels. The bench for Maboneng needed to be built and installed quickly and for this reason was made out of plywood, but future installations will use longer lasting concrete.

Hugo is excited about the future of the public furniture piece. 

Our vision is to have at least 10 smart benches in Joburg by the end of 2015, with more benches being installed in other South African cities over the next 12 months.

The isabelo bench is a seat of win-win innovation. It creates positive cause and effect by offering a free service to the community that in turn contributes vital information to the city’s developers and helps to brighten the future of urban regeneration. 

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