The problem – well, one of the problems – with our cities is that so many of the things in them only do one thing. The sun may warm your back very nicely, but it doesn't do much for the electricity grid. Benches provide a lovely place to sit down, but they're not much use if you're lost and your phone battery is at 2 per cent.
Worry no longer, though, because east London's Canary Wharf complex is getting four amazing new smart benches. These will transform the sun's energy into phone charge, provide you with information on the local area, and offer an emergency call button with which you can request assistance, all at the same time. All that, and you can even sit down on them, too.
What witchcraft is this, I hear you ask? It's this witchcraft, here:
This is the "Strawberry bench". The solar-powered smart bench (yes, really) collects energy via a solar panel on its roof, and uses it to power a range of functions: monitoring air quality, disseminating information about the local area, offering free power-ups for the phones of passers-by.
This summer, four of these benches will be installed around Canary Wharf, the privately-owned office and retail estate at the heart of London's Docklands. The concept was the winner of the "Cognicity Challenge", a competition intended to find innovative proposals to use technology to create smarter urban environments (and, as a side effect, make everyone feel all warm and fuzzy towards the Canary Wharf Group).
The name, incidentally, has nothing to do with actual Strawberries. The company behind them is Belgrade-based Strawberry Energy, whose previous products include the "Strawberry Tree", a vaguely familiar solar-powered mobile phone charge and wifi hub with a bench attached to it. Both products were the work of architect Miloš Miliojević. (EDITOR'S NOTE: Earlier we conflated Miliojević with the founder of Strawberry Energy, Miloš Milisavljević. We apologise for the confusion.)
Here's a Strawberry Tree now:
A Strawberry Tree at work in Obrenovac, Serbia in October 2010. Image: Uwireless/Wikimedia Commons.
Milisavljević says that the Strawberry Bench isn't just about making street furniture more useful: it’s about showing off quite how useful solar power can be. In a statement announcing the new bench, he said that it would “enhance people’s experience in public spaces and motivates them to enjoy hands-on experience of renewable energy”.
Perhaps so. But we suspect solar energy to be a bit more practical in Serbia (approximately 2,000 hours of sunshine a year) than they will in London (approximately 1,500 hours of sunshine a year). The benches contain rechargeable batteries, so the power should keep flowing even on grey days – but there must surely be a limit.
We've reached out to Strawberry Energy to ask how many phones the benches can realistically charge. We'll update this story once we know.
UPDATE: A spokesperson for the firm has been in touch to tell us the following:
Strawberry Tree Black is designed to support, in London’s weather conditions, up to 2,000 10-minute charges per day when the LED light is switched off; and up to 4,500 10-minute charges at periods without sunshine, thanks to a battery capacity of 360Ah, power output of 900W and smart electronics.
The Strawberry Smart Bench is a smaller system, but has no LED light. Even if you drastically decrease figures above, it will still have more than enough energy to power mobile phones even when there is no sunshine at all.
So, there you go.