Soofa, so good: from Obama’s White House to the Granite City

Aberdeen is to install smart benches in three city locations as part of a plan to provide citizens with mobile and laptop charging points, and monitor the environment.

The solar-powered 'Soofa' benches, made by a spin-out from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), can charge electronic devices and collect data on footfall and air quality. They hit the headlines in 2014 when President Obama was photographed speaking to company co-founder Sandra Richter at a White House ‘Maker Faire’.

The initiative to install the benches came from CityLab, a student innovation programme founded by Aberdeen City Council, Aberdeen University and Robert Gordon University. CityLab allows students to consider civic challenges and, during a 12-week user-centred design course, come up with tangible solutions.

The idea for the smart bench sprung from students’ concerns around the safety of young people late at night, if they become separated from friends and their phones are out of charge.

Other projects to emerge from CityLab include Tuk In, an electric ‘tuk-tuk’vehicle which, through Community Foods Initiative North-East, will sell meals in regeneration areas made from re-directed food, on a 'pay-as-you-feel' business model, and Next Step Energy which, subject to being approved, plans to install rubber pads in city pavements that will harvest kinetic energy from pedestrians to power street lighting.

“CityLab is about using the city as a classroom where young people can help make Aberdeen a better city,” said Councillor Ross Grant.

“The programme allows the students to focus on city challenges and create tangible and innovative solutions through user-centred design principles and the expert knowledge of key stakeholders from public, private or third party organisations.

"The aim is that each winning project could be carried forward by the city council, or by an interested city partner. The standard has been excellent and we are delighted to see the winning projects being rolled out across the city.”

Ed Krafcik, partnership director at Soofa, said: “We’re very excited about the Aberdeen launch as we are slowly ramping up our expansion into Europe. Their smart approach, working in close collaboration with telcos, developers, technology suppliers and others will create lasting value, benefiting everyone.”

Since its launch in 2014, the Soofa bench has been installed in around 75 cities throughout the world.  News of its pending arrival in Aberdeen emerged at the FutureScot/Sunday Times Scotland Digital Cities event in the city last month.

Picture by Pete Souza, courtesy of The White House.