Starting this week, Soofa “smart” benches will be installed across the country

Mimi Rancatore, general manager and co-owner of Toscanini's ice cream, poses on the Soofa bench outside their Central Square storefront. Image courtesy of Soofa.
Mimi Rancatore, general manager and co-owner of Toscanini's ice cream, poses on the Soofa bench outside their Central Square storefront. Image courtesy of Soofa.

The next time you visit Toscanini’s ice cream shop in Central Square, you can get a cup or cone, and also charge your phone. This morning, the sweet shop was the first location in Cambridge to have a Soofa solar-powered bench installed outside its storefront. It’s one of 11 that will be placed throughout the city in the coming week.

The Soofa benches were designed by MIT graduates Sandra Richter and Nan Zhao, and Jutta Friedrichs, who graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The trio are now co-founders of the MIT Media Lab spinoff Changing Environments, and each bench has a solar panel that powers two USB ports that can charge a phone or any other gadget.

Boston installed 10 benches in 2014 as part of a pilot program, and the response was “overwhelming and exciting,” said Richter. After receiving calls from around the world and exhibiting their bench at the White House, the Soofa team decided to launch an early adopter program for cities and municipalities interested in their smart seating. This week, the Soofa started shipping 100 benches, which are built in Pennsylvania, to sites throughout the country. Los Angeles, Austin, Miami, and green spaces in the California State Park system are among the many locales where they’ll be charging smartphones in the coming weeks.

Richter said they’ve made some design tweaks to the benches since they first prototyped their product. But one thing stayed the same: In order to spark a dialogue about solar energy, they chose to continue to prominently place the solar panel at the center of the benches instead of creating a canopy-like extension.

“It really becomes a conversation piece,” she said. “People talk about solar and it’s right in your face … it’s something very special to the public in that it makes cities both sustainable and also social.”

“Soofa is perfect, and it fits in with our sustainability platform,” said Jennifer Lawrence, the sustainability planner for the Cambridge Community Development Department. “It was really important for us to be part of the early adopter program since they’re Cambridge startup.” Lawrence said that a total of 13 benches will be installed in Cambridge in the coming months, including two that have been privately funded by a local biotech firm and will soon be in place in Kendall Square.

Sandra Richter, co-founder and CEO of Soofa, and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, shortly after Boston’s pilot program launched last year. Image via Soofa.

After piloting the program last year, Boston will also add 10 more benches to its public spaces soon, said Richter. And the benches themselves will continue to evolve. Over time, she anticipates adding more sensor technology to the seats that so that they will begin to track things like the temperature of the location or count the number of people who walk by.

“We’re making smart cities a little more of a reality,” Richter said.

Janelle Nanos can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.
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