Economic development

Benches can help Africa’s cities become smarter

Children and the public enjoy charging their phones and using the Wi-Fi.

A public bench that charges your phone and provides Internet access is a great idea. See how smart bench designers across the world react to their local context.

Your smartphone is probably within easy reach. From it, you can access the Internet, the sum of humanity’s knowledge. And this opportunity is one difference between you and two-thirds of South Africans, who do not have a smartphone or convenient access to the Internet.

And, for those who do have a smartphone, paying for meaningful Internet access becomes unaffordable for the average South African very quickly.

So it is small wonder why free Wi-Fi zones are so popular, including the one provided by the Isabelo Smart Bench on the corner of Wale and Adderley streets.

Isabelo Smart Bench

Offering pedestrians free unlimited Internet access, the bench also provides a night light to encourage safe use after hours, and four USB mobile charging points to make sure you’ve got enough battery life to enjoy surfing the Internet.

The brainchild of Louise Meek of Public Access Consulting, the Isabelo bench was designed and built by industrial designer Adriaan Hugo, co-founder of Dokter and Misses, to deliver this service in conditions typical to South Africa’s cities. The bench’s hardware can broadcast Wi-Fi via a variety of technologies, including point-to-point or 3G connections. It is comprised of modular cement blocks that make up the bench seating, and a central pillar which houses the required hardware and supports the solar panel on top of a wide overhead metal sail.

Watch an explainer video on the with Louise and Adriaan




Four bolts secure the Soofa smart bench to the pavement of many cities in the US, and globally. Providing seating for three, mobile phone charging and Internet access, the bench also supports sensors which track how the bench is used and other data. It seems much like a regular bench, just with a solar panel and charging points in the middle of it.


The team behind the bench, Changing Environments, “has created a big data software platform for public Internet of Things devices; … aggregating processing points for big data that can be used by cities.”

The Changing Environments team plans to make this data accessible to hackathons with a desire to spur civic innovation around health and security.

In Los Angeles, the bench is part of the city’s Great Streets initiative and is being placed at bus stops to allow commuters to benefit from it.

Watch an explainer video by Reuters, who interview passing pedestrians and the makers of the bench.

Strawberry Smart Bench


This slick-looking bench created by Strawberry Energy is one iteration of their smart bench, which comes in a variety of shapes.

Started and run by Miloš Milisavljević the company now brings the Internet of Things to around 400 000 users globally and its sensors can track weather conditions and noise levels of the local environment.


In some locations, the bench serves to assist with public safety and users are able to make emergency phone calls.

Watch Miloš chat about the bench on The Trailblazers show


Sologic’s eTree

sologic etree users

This smart bench features branches, and while providing a shady place to sit, it also provides the usual opportunity to charge your phone, access to free Wi-Fi, a night light and a drinking fountain – as well as a water trough for animals.

Watch CCTV catch up with Sologic’s creators to discuss the bench


Kit Kat’s ‘no Wi-Fi’ bench


And in a clear case of #firstworldproblems, Kit Kat, the Nestlé chocolate brand, launched a bench in 2012 that featured a Wi-Fi blocking device (effective up to 5m) to give stressed-out always-on pedestrians a break.

We love the idea, and look forward also one day experiencing the problem of being over-connected! Seriously though, our context in Cape Town is obviously different with an intense demand for connectivity from all sectors.

One way to see this is the quick adoption of the Isabelo bench by passing pedestrians from all walks of life, from Cape Town locals to globe-trotting tourists, the opportunity that a convenient connection to the Internet offers is being readily taken up.

If you’d like to connect with us about ideas of how to bridge the digital divide, please get in touch on email, Twitter @ctpartnership or Facebook.


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