Design Challenge Brings Wi-Fi and More to a Payphone Near You | Steven Aitkenhead



What if payphones could double as a wifi-hotspots? Or offer video chatting? With Public Utility Challenge, they can and will.

Payphones have been around for decades, but now because of smartphones, they are rarely used. And yet, these payphones can serve as crucial lifelines during natural disasters.

Public Utility Challenge is dedicated to improving public infrastructure through open source challenges, and for their first project, they are focusing on the payphone. To reinvent the payphone and make it relevant for the 21st Century, Public Utility Challenge is currently sourcing proposals from designers, engineers, architects, and others in the Innovative Payphone Project design challenge.

IVY member Steven Aitkenhead, Director of Engagement for Public Utility Challenge, sat down with IVY Magazine to talk about his efforts on the design challenge. If you would like to learn more, visit the Public Utility Challenge Website.

Steven is an IVY Member (NYC). Connect and collaborate with him here.

You’re hoping to reinvent payphones for the 21st century. What technologies are you hoping designers will to incorporate into these new payphones?

First and foremost, they need to continue being payphones, able to place landline phone calls and provide security to the public. The initial idea is to have a “smart payphone,” turning something like our smartphones into a public structure. We are looking to have;

  •    Wi-Fi hotspots to provide connectivity on the sidewalks.
  •    Thermal point-of-sale (POS) printer to produce receipts, tickets, etc.
  •    Payment processing to process credit/debit cards (from any region) to pay for services or make transfers.
  •    Digital Displays to allow interactive advertising to coexist with public service announcements (PSAs).
  •    IP Cameras for surveillance in times of emergency and also to connect other users around the world via visual communication software.
  •    Speakers to complement and integrate as part of speaking signage and way-finding technologies.
  •    Motion-detection sensors to capture energy cost savings. This way, digital signage will only be triggered when someone is around to make use of the payphone.
  •    Solar powering capabilities through solar panels.

Public Utility Challenge hopes to use open source challenges to tackle major projects. How do you think these open source challenges are be better equipped than government agencies to solve problems?

Open source challenges are intended to aid government agencies in how they can tackle solutions in public space; it is not necessarily better, it just makes things broader.

Look at it this way: the PUC is an approach for government agencies to leverage public opinion, and not through a vote or a poll, but through actual designs from people who believe they can create an impact and improve lives. Naturally, the challenge is meant to bring different perspectives to the table. Government agencies have the actual equipment—these open source challenges only strengthen them. PUC, specifically, allows others to design affordable solutions for government agencies.

Do you think we’ll see more and more open source challenges/solutions in the future?

Yes, it is already happening in many different ways! If you really think about it, the whole concept of sharing economies and crowdsourcing are both open source solutions.

Challenges will continue to rise as demand for innovation continues to grow. Our mission is to improve the public space, sparking creativity amongst civic societies to play a bigger role in the process as a whole. The key is to continue moving collaborations forward, reinventing new solutions, driving costs down, and consolidating market requirements based on what the public wants/needs.

How is social media altering the way we think about public projects?  

Social media has already changed the way we think about almost anything; it provides professional and personal content in our palms, instantly spreading messages and connecting people. Think of how it enables things to spread exponentially, on a spider web which allows us to “travel” from one part of the planet to another in seconds. The sharing of content directly impacts the person exposed to it.

That same effect holds for public projects. The content about new public developments shared by a single person can globally draw someone else’s attention, setting the stage for others to be inspired, lighting the entrepreneurial urge.

This is a currently an international project. How do you think other countries, particularly the UK and Australia, stack up with the U.S. on updating public assets such as payphones?

Some of these cities are already ahead of the game; the have attached Wi-Fi hotspots on to their payphones. However, they have not made them multi-use. Countries like Australia, Turkey, Guatemala, Mexico, the US, and the UK, are looking to pilot some of these technologies in their cities, at their own pace, of course.

We hope that this will open the idea of innovating infrastructure that may be unique to a country, city or town. We have had conversations with the UK and Australia about their red boxes/phones booths and believe they are already working to change them. The governments are trying to see what the future may be for these iconic, strategically located cabins, counting on creative solutions to lead the way.

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