Furniture Fit for the 21st Century

Outdoor smart benches allow Detroit residents to plug in for free, sit down and charge up to move forward

DETROIT — Ford Fund is delivering more equitable access to smart technology and mobility solutions for people in low-income neighborhoods. The Ford Smart Bench is a modern day take on an old-fashioned resting place. It's a piece of high-tech street furniture that is powered by solar energy and offers free Wi-Fi, charging for phones, laptops and tablets, and a convenient place to sit.

Three African American males carry the bench structure
Installation begins in late October of 2020 for the Ford Smart Bench located outside of Matrix Human Services. Photo by Eric Mitchell

Ford Fund has installed smart benches at five locations around Detroit—Cass Community Social Services on the near west side, and Ford Resource and Engagement Centers in southwest Detroit and on the city's east side. Most recently, smart benches were hooked up at Urban Neighborhood Initiatives in the Springwells area on the southwest side and Matrix Human Services in the east-side Osborn neighborhood.

"We're proud to offer resources and opportunities that can strengthen communities and help make people's lives better," said Farah Harb, global education analyst, Ford Motor Company Fund, "Staying connected is more important than ever during this difficult time of COVID-19."

Three years ago, before any of us ever heard of social distancing or flattening the curve, Ford and Ford Fund teamed up with Strawberry Energy, a UK based company, to introduce London to the Ford Smart Bench. Ford was the first commercial sponsor for Strawberry's Smart Bench network, and later showcased the smart bench in the U.S. at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, as part of Ford's City of Tomorrow display.

An African American male installs bench framework
Wiring is completed on the benches before the final assembly. Photo by Eric Mitchell

"We believe that combining an age-old concept like a bench with smart, modern technologies is the way to go," said Milan Bosnić, head of production and operations, Strawberry Energy. "The biggest innovation wasn't the technology itself, it was in bridging the gap between smart technologies and people's everyday life. You are bringing smart cities to a basic level that is easy to use for everyone."

Bosnić adds that smart benches Ford installed around the city are being used by people of all ages, men and women, young and old. Some conduct business and some play games, while others rest and read the news.

For many, the goal is connecting to a better life. At Cass Community Social Services Executive Director Rev. Faith Fowler says the bench is used about ten hours a day by people accessing the internet, charging their phone or just sitting.

Smart bench outside at Ford Resource and Engagement Center in Southwest Detroit
A completed Ford Smart Bench outside of the Ford Resource and Engagement Center in Southwest Detroit.

"Most of the people at Cass using the bench are adults experiencing homelessness," said Rev. Fowler. "Smaller numbers of staff members and volunteers also use the bench. When schools shut down for the pandemic, countless students relied on the bench for Internet access."

Across town at Matrix Human Services, Linda Garrison says locating the smart bench outside their community center is a great place because it brings in people from all over the neighborhood. "This is an underserved community in terms of internet access and having free wireless access is a real benefit," said Garrison, director of volunteer services, Matrix Human Services.

"The Ford Smart Bench is a resting place, a meeting place, a spot for recharging, and a link for communication and education," said Rev. Fowler. "In some ways, it serves as a front porch for the neighborhood and a launching pad into the world."