If city dwellers were to look up from their smartphones (please, guys, give it a try), they would see that the urban fabric is stitched with analog life. Some are vestiges of another time, such as newspaper boxes and parking meters. Others, like bus shelters and bike stands, are experiencing resurgence.
Then there are the bits of infrastructure caught in between, chief among them the telephone booth. In New York City, the number of payphones has dwindled to a third of its peak total. And while these thousands of remaining totems remain static and underutilized, they have sprung into action just when you thought them useless. In 2012, for instance, The Atlantic and other media outlets observed people reaching out to friends and families in the wake of Hurricane Sandy through the metal-clad lifelines.
Perhaps because they teeter on the line between outmodedness and relevance, the phone booth has been the subject of popular reimagining. Adaptive reuses of payphones range from pragmatic to political. In London, the new business of solarboxes has begun repurposing the booths into charging stations for gadgets, replacing telephony equipment with plugs and digital advertising and outfitting rooftops with photovoltaics. Meanwhile, architect John Locke’s Department of Urban Betterment project mounts plywood bookshelves to New York booths.
The execution of these concepts also represents a wide continuum. For every site-specific one-off, such as the telediskos of Berlin or the artist collective Kingyobu’s systematic refashioning of Osaka phone booths into goldfish aquariums, there is a project that is as scalable as it is durable. Austria Telekom began converting its phone booths to charging stations for electric vehicles in 2010, for example. More recently, again in New York, the CityBridge consortium is rolling out the LinkNYC initiative in earnest: more than 500 payphones should be reinstalled as Wi-Fi/phone-advertising “Links” by July.
According to the sponsors of Public Utility Challenge – Innovate Payphones, phone booths’ potentials for reinvention are still not completely tapped. The new competition is looking to the wisdom of crowds to identify a definitive multidimensional solution.
Launched February 16, the Payphone Challenge invites students and design and technology professionals to push the payphone’s evolution forward. Applicants are invited to consider the payphone’s extant role in emergency communications as well as its prime urban locations, in light of municipal quality-of-life metrics like accessibility, safety and human health and wellbeing, in order to “embellish the payphone as a commodity of the future, not the past.” As the competition brief further states, “We are looking for an innovative solution that couples a rich and dynamic urban environment with an attractive and effective design.”
While the Payphone Challenge is encouraging groundbreaking creativity, the competition does require a series of 21st-century fundamentals: Entries should include integrated technologies like Wi-Fi, a thermal point-of-sale printer and a variety of audiovisual and payment components, plus photovoltaics mounted in or near the rooftop. Physical accessibility is another criterion, as is a total fabrication and installation cost that comes in under $20,000. Preferred elements include wayfinding and compatibility with preexisting smart-city technology platforms, among others.
The Payphone Challenge will have real-world applications, in turn. The winning proposal will earn a $25,000 prize, and its team will have the opportunity to manufacture and install that design in a variety of urban streetscapes. The submission deadline is May 12. Click here for more information.