As of 2015 the United Nations stated that billions of people residing in developing countries were not connected to the Internet and able to experience the many and “enormous economic and social benefits the Internet can offer.” In total 57% of the world’s population is not connected to the Internet and in some sub-Saharan African countries, such as Somalia, the connection level is as low as 2%. In South Africa, Internet connectivity as a percentage of the population only stands at 47%. Louise Meek, founder of Isabelo Smart Technology, has set out to change this trend in South Africa.
Meek and her team have designed, created and launched the Isabelo Smart Bench. An innovative piece of permanent street furniture, the Isabelo Smart Bench, was first launched in May 2015 and is an environmentally friendly, entirely solar powered, public bench that offers free access to the Internet for its users who can sit on one off the four bench arms leading off a central upright (see picture). The bench also includes four USB charging points enabling users to plug in tablets, cell phones and other USB supported charging devices which allows them to spend longer periods of time sitting at the bench, accessing the Internet and engaging with other members of their community. Its name, Isabelo, is derived from the Zulu word ‘to share’ and Meek points out that the concept is all about sharing. She says “we loved this name, as it says a lot about what the smart bench stands for; a place to share a seat, a place to share content online, a place to share ideas and conversations, and of course, a public asset that attracts more people into our public spaces… making them safer, more inclusive and vibrant.”
In a country that faces many socio-economic development challenges and high Internet and data costs, innovative solutions are required, and the Isabelo Smart Bench could just be one such innovative solution. In its design, “Isabelo addresses the many challenges we face in African cities such as extreme weather conditions (very hot and very cold), as well as vandalism, crime and inequality. All these challenges we believe we have been able to address by creating something durable (made out of concrete) that can house this sort of technology in a way that can last – and serve the many users that rely on our product to connect to the internet.” It is also non-discriminatory. “Anyone can use it” says Meek who adds that “it is open to the public to access 24/7. Whether you are young or old, employed or unemployed – this is a product that is reliable and always here for you.”
Not only can the wide-scale installation of affordable Isabelo Smart Bench’s help support government economic development initiatives but it can also lead to many other, and much more difficult to measure, social improvement impacts. Commenting on these social improvement benefits, Meek believes that the Isabelo Smart Bench isn’t simply reducing the digital divide, it is also providing placemaking capacity: “when we look at each new site for a smart bench we always look at the “placemaking capacity” of the public space, in order to maximise the impact of our product to city residents. We want it to be accessible to pedestrians, it must be convenient to reach and easy to use, and it must be a location where people feel comfortable to sit down and dwell. Then the softer side of people connecting with each other (as well as the internet) starts to happen! Isabelo’s seating configuration is designed to allow conversations to happen.”
The benefits of having reliable access to the Internet are multiple. Individuals and businesses can identify and provide new opportunities for innovation, expansion and e-commerce. Communities, in which its residents and households are connected, can use the Internet to help attract new businesses and investments and help bridge urban and rural divides. Job opportunities for the youth can be created, advertised and taken advantage of those who have access while new business ideas, concepts and products can be launched and shared with local, national and global economies. However, without access many of these potential opportunities cannot be taken advantage. With the installation of Isabelo Smart Benches around the country Meek is hoping to change this and the users are clearly happy with the opportunities and services they are getting:
- “Who would have thought I could walk home from school, and on the way I can sit here charging and be on the internet?!” – Kgotso, a 14-year-old high school student.
- “The Isabelo wifi spot really helps us as we use it to run our business, sending and receiving emails!” – Anam, a 32-year-old entrepreneur.
- “In the evenings, I come here with my laptop and work! I feel safe, and I am always meeting new people” – Jabu, a 22-year-old young woman.
- “There is no excuse anymore to say I don’t have internet access. Isabelo is there for you. You can go inside the internet and find everything you need to make your life better.” – Michael, a 20-year-old student.
- “I can charge my phone and get connected for free – anytime!” – Godfrey, a 24-year-old student.
Having already raised seed capital in early 2015, after finishing in the top eight of the City of Johannesburg funded ‘Green City Startup’ competition, Meek and her colleagues at Isabelo Smart Technology, were able to install the first ever Isabelo Smart Bench. The prototype was tested in Johannesburg inner city suburb of Maboneng, an area that is presently undergoing great urban regeneration and has lots of outdoor bars, cafes and informal vendor selling points. The first concrete bench was installed in September 2015 in Braamfontien, another Johannesburg inner-city neighbourhood experiencing urban regeneration. Meek says that “since launching in 2015 we now have a presence in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Stellenbosch, with aspirations to get to other major South African cities like Durban, Nelspruit, East London and Port Elizabeth before the end of 2017. Our objectives are to work with the private landowners, as well as the public sector, to secure appropriate sites for our products in public spaces in our cities.
We are very excited about Johannesburg City Parks, who have been the first Johannesburg based public entity to procure our product for inner city parks. We look forward to leveraging these sorts of relationships into the future to reduce the digital divide in South African cities and public spaces.”