How responsive street furniture could make streets more usable for everyone

Image: Responsive Street Furniture.

There's a touching video doing the rounds at the moment,  showing how a whole neighbourhood in Istanbul learned sign language in order to surprise a deaf neighbour. (Yes, okay, it's an advert for Samsung, but bear with us.) As the deaf man, Muaharrem, walks down the street on the designated day, passerbys sign "good morning". The baker is able to tell him what breads are on offer. A woman who bumps into him apologises with her hands. A taxi driver welcomes him into his cab in sign. 

It's clear that once he understands what's happening, Muaharrem is happy and grateful at the gesture. But during that first walk through town, he mostly looks mystified. Public spaces and streets, and the chance interactions they create, aren't designed for people like him: they work in favour of people with all their senses intact. And he's so used to this status quo that anything else feels strange and unfamiliar. 

But thanks to a new idea, nominated in the digital category for this year's Design of the Year Award, all this could change. Responsive Street Furniture, a concept created by engineer-designers Ross Atkin and Jonathan Scott, would allow streets to adapt to individuals' needs as they walked along. 

Here's roughly how it would work: users would regiser online with the service, and list any special needs or requirements, and would then receive a tag like the ones shown above.

As they walk along the street, the tag would communicate with nearby responsive street furniture. Crosswalks would wait longer for elderly users to cross, or beep for the hard of hearing. Streetlights would brighten for people with weaker eyes. Bollards would read out locations and the names of nearby shops. Fold-out benches would unlock for those who need to sit down more frequently. 

Implementing such an idea would involve a pretty large-scale replacement of our current stock of street furniture, of course. But it's important that the idea is floating around now: as smart city technology takes hold, it's likely streetlights and other types of street furniture will be replaced with new models, bristling with sensors and the kinds of technology which could easily fit into a responsive system. (It's worth noting that the Responsive Street Furniture system would collect "as few data as possible" on its users and their whereabouts, as noted on Ross Atkin's website.) 

Until then, the pair have created a prototype bollard, which carries out many of the functions mentioned above, and also includes a small streetlight. The video below shows it in action at a 2014 conference, and gives examples of users who could benefit from it: 

Lupita, a visiting tourist, has a tag which instructs the bollard to give her local information in Spanish, while Sylvia's tag tells the bollard to shine its light more brightly.

Overall, this is one of the first "smart city" ideas we've heard which haven't left us feeling a bit queasy. Let's hope the it makes it out of notebooks and conference centres and onto city streets.


A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget is hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?

Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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