Blind or disabled people are often required to adapt to the world around them, using aids like a guide dog or a wheelchair.

But what if the city itself could adapt to the individual needs of the people on the street? Imagine street lights that get brighter as a visually impaired pedestrian approaches, signs that can announce their location out loud, a street crossing that gives extra time to an elderly person, or benches that fold down for someone who needs a place to rest.

That's the vision of Ross Atkin, a British designer and engineer who has created what he calls "responsive street furniture." The urban fixtures connect to a nearby user's smartphone or programmable key fob, which provide details about the user's specific needs.

Inspired by the digital world

Atkin was inspired by the adaptability of digital devices and software.

"When we're doing accessibility in public space, we're constantly trying to just get to the best compromise between the needs of disabled people, because we've only got one street and it has to work for everyone," Atkin told CBC's Spark with Nora Young, in an upcoming interview.

In contrast, said Atkin, digital tools like mobile devices and apps can be specifically tailored to individual users' needs.

"I realized that we could potentially apply some of that logic to the streets."

Atkin is working with landscaping firm Marshalls, which has already produced some prototype versions of his designs.

Making smart cities 'clever'

Atkin recognizes that smart cities can seem like a pie-in-the-sky idea. Some large companies pushing the technology, he told Spark, are "not really focused around the needs of actual people that live in cities."

Responsive Street Furniture

Users of responsive street furniture would program their individual needs into a smartphone or key fob. (Ross Atkin)

Still, Atkin believes that smart cities can truly help people, as long as they're designed correctly.

"Coming from an accessibility point of view, there's so much stuff I know we could do if we had good, smart city systems, and there's so much more independence I know we could give to people," he said.

To that end, Atkin has written a five-point manifesto for what he calls the "clever city":

  1. Digital technologies embedded in cities can help solve people's problems.
  2. Technologies need to be build around the needs of specific people, not the needs of government or the private sector.
  3. Technologies should be as simple as possible, and easy to explain so people will want to use them.
  4. Technologies should collect as little data as possible to serve their purpose.
  5. Technologies don't have to be integrated into a top-down platform, but can address one problem at a time.

The challenges of the smart city

It's not hard to imagine the complications of a city with responsive street furniture, especially if lots of people were using the technology. For example, what would happen if multiple users with conflicting needs are travelling through the same part of a city?

"We'd have to introduce some kind of triage," said Atkin. "Effectively, certain people with certain needs [would trump] other people with other needs."

Although his manifesto calls for a simple approach that collects little user information, Atkin says his responsive street furniture might eventually require secure logins to deter mischief-makers.