John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
The “Soofa” has two USB charging ports and tracks data on air quality, foot traffic, and radiation.
To charge your phone in public, you can mosey into a coffee shop and tap into an electrical outlet. Or, if you happen to live in a select few cities, you can find a Soofa bench and suck up some free, clean energy.
The forward-thinking furniture, debuted last year by engineers at the MIT Media Lab (who now run Changing Environments), looks like a regular bench with a Benihana griddle stuck in the middle. That’s actually a solar panel that channels electricity via USB ports. Two people can use it at once to charge phones, tablets, and other devices. Thanks to an energy-storage feature, it can also provide juice at night.
The bench’s name is not a riff of “sofa,” but a variant of the acronym for “smart urban furniture appliance,” according to Mashable, which explains:
The company aims to make the bench a kind urban watercooler for people to meet and refuel their devices before continuing with their day.
“There isn’t too much knowledge or perception around renewable energy these days because people are removed from it—it’s either on the roof or set aside somewhere that you don’t see it,” co-founder Sandra Richter told Mashable. “We wanted to change the way people see its immediate benefits by putting something out into public spaces.”
Aside from replenishing batteries, the Internet-enabled bench records stuff like ambient temperature, air quality, noise level, pedestrian traffic, and radiation. Municipal departments can access this data to presumably craft better public services and urban design. For instance, there’s talk that Cambridge—whose climate-action plan calls for reducing the urban heat island—might use Soofas to “identify where the heat islands are so that the city can concentrate its efforts in those targeted geographic areas.”
Changing Environments has rolled out nearly two-dozen Soofas in Cambridge and Boston and, with more than $1 million raised in venture capital this year, hopes to deploy others around the globe. Already, L.A. has announced plans for 15 benches as part of its Great Streets Initiative, and Soofas are appearing from Boulder to Miami to King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia. Footage from yet another in Essen, Germany, reveals the hidden feature of using the solar panel as a pillow—although your benchmate might smack you for obscuring the sunlight with your big head.