Smart street furniture improves accessibility and connectivity in our cities, but important questions about data access and security remain unanswered.
A study by the University of Sydney examines how people engage with smart street furniture such as benches, bus stops and kiosks – increasingly common features of streetscapes across the world.
Dr Justine Humphry, a Senior Lecturer in Digital Cultures in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney, co-led the Smart Publics research project examining the emergence of smart street furniture. The final report focused on two case studies: BT InLink kiosks and Strawberry Energy smart benches, commonly found in the UK.
Smart benches and kiosks help meet the connectivity needs of young people and those sleeping rough who face long-term barriers to digital access. The InLink kiosks feature a free VOIP service allowing users to call any number in the UK.
“For the people who didn’t have a mobile phone, that was a critical feature,” says Humphry. “The Wi-Fi and USB charging was also critical for those groups who had chronic credit shortages or lacked regular internet access or large data packages.”
Humphry and her team found many people were unaware of the functionality of smart street furniture. “For the vast majority of people going about their daily business, they recognised these devices as advertising billboards or benches,” says Humphry.
However, some groups – particularly homeless people, students and gig workers – made frequent use of the smart furniture. “These are all groups that have much higher digital connectivity barriers in general,” says Humphry. “Sometimes they were short term barriers in the case of gig workers, who might need to charge their phone on the go.”
Smart street furniture in Australia
Australia has taken “a cautious approach” to the adoption of smart street furniture, says Humphry.
Among the most successful examples are ChillOUT Hubs installed by Georges River Council in the Sydney suburbs of Kogarah, Hurstville and Mortdale. A small-scale collaboration between the council, the University of New South Wales and Street Furniture Australia, the hubs feature Wi-Fi and charging facilities.
“They are innovative in their design, and they accommodate the Australian climate and environment quite well,” says Humphry.
Local councils and communities can use the data gathered from smart street furniture to better understand the use of public spaces and make more informed decisions about how to manage them, she explains.
Humphry says some of the challenges faced by councils when embarking on smart street initiatives include establishing “data-sharing contract arrangements as well as the need to upskill council staff to manage new kinds of data capabilities and systems”.
Importantly, she says, we need to address issues around data access and protection. “There are a lot of questions about how to work with the data-generating capabilities of street furniture in the most beneficial way possible without it creating risks for local citizens.”