Massachusetts-based tech start-up Changing Environments has invented a public bench which uses solar power to re-charge the mobile phones of Boston residents while also collating information on the surrounding urban setting.

The new “Soofa” bench comes equipped with a solar panel whose surplus electricity can be used by passing members of the public to charge up their mobile phones.

While prior efforts to bring USB ports to the public have been impeded by concerns that hackers could use the units to spread viruses, Changing Environments chief executive Sandra Richter said the Soofa comes equipped with rigorous security measures to prevent any such malfeasance.

The concrete boxes housing the recharging ports are fitted with security screws which Richter claims can only be opened by company staff. Any attempts to pry the boxes open using brute force would render electronics within them useless.

In addition to providing members of the public with a convenient means of recharging their mobile devices, the Soofa also uses an integrated computer to gather data on the urban environment in which it is installed, conveying the data to the Internet by means of a wireless connection. While the bench at present only monitors the amount of sunshine it receives, its developers plans to use the device to amass information on a broad variety of environmental parameters, including air quality, noise levels and pedestrian flows.

Changing Environments began as part of the MIT Media Lab before being spun out into an independent start-up. It’s founders are a trio of women in their early 30s from Germany – a designer, an electrical engineer and a marketing expert.

According to Richter, the company aspires to make solar power more acceptable to the general public as part of efforts to improve urban air quality and the uptake of renewable energy.

solar bench

The company has already installed around half a dozen Soofas in public, including two in Boston Common and Two in Titus Sparrow Park, with funding supplied by Cisco Systems and technical support provided by Verizon.

According to its website, Changing Environments is now seeking “sponsorship requirements” to produce more Soofa benches as it works out the best means of monetising the devices.

While advertising is the most obvious option, another potentially lucrative source of revenue is selling the data it collects to corporate clients.