As part of a broader vision to make cities smart, connected and environmentally sustainable, innovators are working on creative ideas to update the urban streetscape — think trashcans, street lamps, bicycle counters, bus stops and parking garages — for today’s digital lifestyle. Case in point: a new plan from New York City announced this month to transform the city’s outdated pay phone booths into a citywide network of 10,000 futuristic pillars that will give New York City residents and tourists free, super-fast and reliable Wi-Fi coverage.

1. New York City’s WiFi pillars

The Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation has partnered with a consortium of tech companies known as CityBridge to radically transform the city’s streetscape. By the end of 2015, CityBridge plans to replace the city’s outdated public pay phones with 400 super-thin Wi-Fi “Links” capable of delivering Gigabit Wi-Fi speeds to New Yorkers. And within a few years, that number could reach as high as 10,000 Wi-Fi “Links” located throughout the five boroughs, including many in residential neighborhoods.

According to CityBridge, each “Link” will also offer residents the ability to charge digital devices, look up directions on touch screens, and provide civic feedback on specific issues. New Yorkers will also be able to make free phone calls anywhere within the United States. And best of all, these WiFi “Links” won’t cost city taxpayers a dime — the plan is to serve up ads on the Wi-Fi pillars, transforming citywide WiFi into a free municipal service subsidized by advertising sponsors. Over the first 12 years of operation, says CityBridge, this network will generate over $500 million in advertising-related revenue.

2. Boston’s device-charging park benches

In a first-of-its-kind rollout, Boston is now experimenting with a new form of mobile experience: a dozen solar-powered park benches placed in select parks, playgrounds and sports fields throughout the city. By converting this solar power into electricity, these “Soofas” offer charging capabilities for multiple digital device owners, making them a social experience for mobile users as much as a technological experience. This “smart urban furniture” idea, which originally started as a project by the MIT Media Lab before being spun off as the company Changing Environments, is so creative that it was even featured at this year’s White House Maker Faire in June.

Eventually, say the three co-founders of Changing Environments, the plan is to expand the network of Soofas to build a smart energy infrastructure that collects urban data and informs citizens and city planners about everything from air quality to noise level by connecting to the Internet. In a statement about the launch of Soofas, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh pointed to the potential of smart benches for Boston: “Your cell phone doesn’t just make phone calls, why should our benches just be seats?”

3. Singapore’s supertrees and Israel’s eTrees

In Singapore, the vision for the city of tomorrow extends beyond just physical objects found on urban streets. Singapore has been experimenting with innovative ways to update the look and feel of the city that fully integrates technology with the surrounding natural environment. In June 2012, for example, the city launched its “supertrees” — a set of 18 man-made, 164-foot-high trees that are capable of absorbing and dispersing heat, collecting rainwater and generating solar power. The “supertrees” themselves contain vertical gardens and at night, they even light up with digital displays. For now, these trees are part of the vast Gardens by the Bay landscaping project, but it’s easy to see how similar types of supertrees might become stand-alone objects beautifying grim urban streets while simultaneously functioning as nodes of urban sensor networks.

The next step, of course, is to connect all those man-made trees to the Internet. As a preview of what might happen in the future, Israeli company Sologic announced in late October the launch of “solar-powered trees,” in which the “leaves” of the tree are actually solar panels that provide energy for WiFi connections, while the “trunk” of the tree contains outlets for electric-powered and USB devices. You can literally surf the Internet while connected to these eTrees. This concept, of course, is still in the experimental stage, but according to Sologic, both France and China are considering potential acquisitions of these solar-powered trees, each of which costs $100,000. The eTree was invented and developed by solar energy expert Michael Lasry and designed in collaboration with artist Yoav Ben Dov.


These three ideas hint at the vast potential of transforming outdated urban infrastructure into smart, connected networks. Giving urban streetscapes a facelift is just the start. New “smart city” innovations promise to improve urban lives in tangible ways via cost savings, new ways to empower citizens and new types of apps and services offered to city dwellers. Across the world, the race is on to become a model “smart city.” And now with the Internet of Things, those cities might become smarter than ever.