Do you want to know if your city’s park benches or furniture are being used as a social space or for ‘rough sleeping’?

While you could have someone go around and check, a more efficient way would be to install sensors and see which are being activated for long periods at odd hours – say between midnight and 5 a.m. Alternatively, sensors which record little activity at all (day or night) might indicate that the furniture or bench is broken and in need of repair.

To date, the impact of the Internet of Things (IoT) on places of relaxation such as street furniture or public parks has been muted. Now, that is changing. In December, the federal government awarded a research grant to the University of New South Wales under which an interdisciplinary team from the latter’s Built Environment faculty will work with the Georges River City Council and Street Furniture Australia to install ‘responsive’ technology such as smart sensors on street furniture to monitor and respond to their use in real time.

Under the program, IoT sensors will be installed on picnic tables, bins, barbeques, seats, ash receptacles, bubblers and lights. These will measure phenomenon such as sound and flow of water and will provide live messages to Council on whether, for example, an ash receptacle is overheating or a street bollard is damaged.

UNSW senior lecturer Dr Nancy Marshall says examples of smart technology applications for municipal assets fall into several areas.

One is smart furniture. Sensors could be put on seating and benches, for example, to show often they are being used, by whom (‘bouncy’ and light movements might indicate children, certain movement patterns may indicate older people), and how long people are spending there. In addition, weather related sensors can provide data about the temperature, weather, wind and rain to explain the use or non-use of an asset.

One example of smart furniture is smart bins. A product already on the market from Solar Bins Australia contains sensors which tell councils how full the bin is and whether it needs to be emptied. refilling. Bins could also provide information about the number of people who walk past them, temperatures or whether the bin is damaged, Marshall said.

This, in turn, could yield insights about how these are being used and why. Any seat or bench which is hardly being used at all, for example, could be broken or in a position where it is unduly exposed to weather (and should be moved). Any lack of use by children or elderly could indicate that either the furniture is not in a child friendly location or it is not accessible. Again, relocation might be considered. As mentioned above, a bench being occupied at odd hours might indicate rough sleeping.

According to Marshall, all this can be used to improve both the amenity and user experience of public open spaces along with the efficiency with which these spaces are managed. On the first point, additions such as Wi-Fi or plug-in points for laptops and phones could provide different options as to how people use public spaces. On the second, management efficiency can be improved by collecting bins only when sensors indicate that they are full or targeting maintenance at facilities which are not being used (and may need of repair or relocation).

“I think there is a lot of potential for a revolution in how we use public open space and smart technology,” Marshall said. “I think technology is trying to catch up with more traditional amenity and the experience in public open space.”

Speaking about the UNSW project, Marshall says data will be complemented by non-digital feedback. As well as visual observation, this includes using social media channels to engage with the community about how parks and facilities can be improved. This, she says will deliver a ‘bottom-up’ approach under which the community become ‘co-designers’ of public spaces.

Others share Marshall’s enthusiasm. A spokesperson for the Georges River Council says the group is enthusiastic about the opportunity to deliver resident benefits as well as to enable the Council to manage the public domain in a more responsive manner.

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Looking at how technology can connect residents to local announcements and events and assist Council to understand community needs is something the council strongly supports, the spokesperson added.

The research comes as cities around the world look at how technology can be used to improve management of public facilities and better connect residents with local facilities and events. In Tel Aviv, for example, residents are issued with a digital card which gives live updates about rates and discounts available at sport and recreation facilities, what is happening in the city personalised according to taste (culture, music and so on) and about issues such as roadworks or community events which may disrupt streets.

Whilst benefits are numerous, greater use of technology in parks and the public domain raises questions. As a place where people go to ‘unwind’, the placing of technological devices in parks may be seen as invasive. Some may also feel uncomfortable about governments (albeit local ones) gaining data about them in a place where they want to relax. Additional questions surround privacy, data ownership and how we can protect the technology from vandalism.

Speaking of the UNSW project, Marshall says the university will own the data – which at any rate will be not be identifiable for individual people.

As for security, she says sensors will be embedded in the design of the furniture and will not be visible. Moreover, data could help improve safety by assisting councils to identify furniture or other facilities which are not in a safe spot and may need better lighting.

As for technological invasion, Marshall says people will continue to enjoy these areas as they do now. Moreover, she points out that the world has changed and that the public space realm has changed with it. Walk through Sydney CBD and you will be filmed on CCTV many times per day. Even in parks, devices such as mobile phones track where we are. By comparison, the sensors on street furniture will be relatively non-invasive.

The Internet of Things is transforming our lives (mostly) for the better.

The public realm, it seems, is no exception.