I Have to Ask You: Embracing Smart Benches

Posted on December 13, 2017

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week Edward Krafcik, Soofa, addresses the three biggest challenges in getting cities to embrace smart benches.

How do you overcome this? Since the early days of 2015, I’ve been digging into problems facing municipalities and counties to learn how the technology we build here at Soofa can help solve them. While this on it’s own isn’t an easy task, getting cities to actually purchase and install our solar powered park benches to address the particular problem presents additional exciting challenges.
That said, our team has learned a ton over the past couple years from a number of forward-thinking, fast-acting, and results-driven local government leaders to ultimately make the process easier for each new municipality we collaborate with.
My hope is that these learnings can be applied to help you implement and test many new technologies, and work with startup companies generally.

Challenge #1: Knowing the problem(s) to be solved and having the right metrics in place to be able to measure how well you’re solving it over a defined time period.
Many of our partner cities reach out to us initially because they want to get better insights into how their parks and public spaces (downtown plazas, main street sidewalks) are being used. Part of the problem we’re solving is pretty clear; instead of having to go out and count people by hand to do this, they simply install our smart benches with a few bolts and let the sensor inside do all the work.
However, the challenge isn’t just in understanding how our technology will provide reliable and consistent data, it is in being able to put together a roadmap with clear, measurable outcomes that let management track the success of the “pilot” or “phase 1” portion of the project. Thus, we need to know exactly what questions we’ll be asking the data being collected from the very beginning.
One example of this that I really love, because it involves public art and design, comes from Santa Monica, CA. The Downtown Santa Monica Business Improvement District (BID) is rolling out custom designed holiday-themed public art this winter season. By having a Soofa Bench with a sensor inside within range of the installation along the 3rd Street Promenade the BID is measuring the impact the art installation has on overall patterns of use of the space by people. They will answer questions including are more people coming downtown, are they staying longer, are the same people coming regularly or are new people coming more often.
This is just one use of the data. By collecting baseline data illustrating how the space functions during non-programmed times, the BID is able to evaluate how well all of its events and programs, as well as streetscape improvement projects, perform by comparing actual traffic to the average baseline.
Challenge #2: Getting past no.
The good news is that while it may seem pretty daunting in the beginning of a new, high-tech project to get through all of the paperwork and approvals from management, committees, and council, it is possible!
The top three ways we’ve seen our city partners do this most effectively are below.

  1. Be a really good story teller. This ties back to challenge #1. Being able to go to management with a solution to a problem using new, sometimes unproven, technology with a simple yet comprehensive story that explains how it solves the problem and how success will be evaluated is key.
  2. Present solid evidence and use cases. While it’s likely you’ll be offered to be part of early adopter programs by tech startups, it’s actually pretty unlikely that you’ll be the first city to test the technology. That said, what we often do here at Soofa is prepare tailored case studies and examples from other, similar cities. We take it a step further by organizing collaborative conference calls with the case study city and our prospective partner city so that they can learn from each other directly. I recommend you require this from all companies; if the technology works, they should be happy to oblige with your request.  
  3. Challenge management to empower you in the first place. A really great example of this has been happening for more than four years at Prince George’s County, MD. The Parks and Recreation Department assembled an Innovation Task Force that encourages and supports staff to come up with innovative solutions to problems. We wrote a case study about this on our blog.

Challenge #3: Making our data something people rely on daily, weekly, monthly, etc.
Imagine you’ve put all the grueling hours in to get your new technology or service installed and operational. Now the real (fun) work begins! Our most successful projects are the ones that continue using the data we collect after the first month, second month, and so on, up to the point where the data becomes highly relied upon (or “operationalized”).
After all, the goal of using new technology or data analytics services is to solve a problem completely. If you only do it for a little while then stop then it really isn’t being solved, it’s just being band-aided for a period of time. Two of my favorite examples of where our data has been operationalized are below, with links to the case studies.

  1. The Park District of Oak Park, IL: the Park District hosts tons of events and wants to be able to see how many people come to each to better allocate marketing spending to advertise them and know which types draw in the most people. Our data lets them do this with ease and consistency. They are also optimizing their maintenance crews’ schedules based on how much use each park sees per hour and per day.
  2. The City of Las Cruces, NM: knowing that downtown Las Cruces empties out very quickly after 5pm on weekdays, the Economic Development Office needed a way to measure whether a multitude of initiatives and types of programming would keep people downtown after work, to ultimately generate more economic activity in the evenings. The value of this data goes both ways; the city learns what works and the businesses know that downtown will be busy, encouraging them to stay open later.

I hope you find this helpful as you are working on similar initiatives. Please feel free to reach out anytime, I’m always happy to share more details about how we’ve worked with our partner cities to overcome the challenges associated with getting everyone on board to roll out new technology.

Supplemental Reading

Podcast: Smart Urban Furniture Appliances (aka Soofa) with Ed Krafcik
Smart Cities with Four Bolts and a Bench
How a Bench Can Help Cities Measure the Impact of Community Events

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