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.