Payphones may seem like yesterday’s technology, but they aren’t quite dead yet ... at least not in New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced semi-finalists in a competition designed to drag payphone infrastructure into the 21st century – the "Reinvent Payphones" Design Challenge.

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the number of payphones in the United States has plummeted over the past 15 years from two million to less than 250,000. Many telephone companies are phasing them out and location owners complain that the earnings barely cover the connection charges. With mobile phones having evolved into pocket computers with full internet connectivity, a coin-operated landline phone that’s bolted to the ground is at a distinct disadvantage.

The question is – clever aesthetics aside – can the fortunes of the payphone be revived by turning them into huge, immobile smartphones with touchscreens, charging stations, alternative energy sources and community art installations? New York has 11,000 public pay telephones and Mayor Bloomberg is keen on making the metropolis into a major digital city with his policy of turning phones into WiFi hotspots and deploying interactive touch screens around Union Square. The Mayor’s office sees the need to modernize payphone infrastructure as an opportunity for “optimizing the use of public space.”

The competition winners were announced last Tuesday by Mayor Bloomberg, Chief Information and Innovation Officer Rahul N. Merchant and Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot at the offices of social product development company Quirky. Eleven semifinalists were chosen from 125 submissions, with six awarded special prizes for connectivity, creativity, visual design, functionality, and community impact. They are:


Sage and Coombe Architects

The winner of the Connectivity Award, which is based on the “ability to connect New Yorkers and enable communication, including for safety and emergency purposes,” NYFI is intended as a hub for public information, services and WiFi access as well as for running applications. It comes in two versions – a ten-foot unit for commercial and manufacturing districts, and a smaller model with fewer functions for residential and historic districts.

NYC Loop

FX Fowle

The Creativity Award is meant to display “originality, innovation, and quality of idea” and the NYC Loop “provides sound harmonizing technology as well as a smart screen for making calls and enhancing personal mobile communication.” Aside from the smartphone functionality, it also has a projector to shine an “information puddle” on the pavement, it displays installations for local artists and is powered by pedestrians walking across embedded pressure plates.


frog design

Winner of the Visual Design Award for “including visual appeal and user experience,” the Beacon payphone is solar powered and acts as a, well, beacon in times of emergency as well as providing community information.

NYC I/O: Responsive City

Control Group and Titan

The NYC I/O: Responsive City looks like a more traditional payphone kiosk from the outside, but the wraparound windscreen is also a touchscreen that is an “open, urban-scale computing platform” to provide “open access to real-time data and a distribution platform for community, civic, arts, and commercial apps and messaging” that won the designers a tie Community Impact Award for the “support of local residents, businesses and cultural institutions.”


NYU ITP, Cooper Union, Parsons

The other winner of the Community Impact Award, Windchimes is meant to not only make phone calls, but to act as an environmental sensor array, though it's questionable how long those anemometers will survive in Manhattan.

Smart Sidewalks

Syracuse University, UC Davis, Parsons, Rama Chorpash Design LLC, Cheng+Snyder

Smart Sidewalks won the Functionality Award for “flexibility, versatility, scalability, accessibility, and sustainability,” and is aimed at “lowering the digital divide.” Aside from functions it shares with the other finalists, it also changes colors to identify its location or for various civic or emergency functions. The chameleon-like ability is shared with strips in the pavement that change colors to help with pedestrian navigation or neighborhood tours.

Franchise contracts for the installation, maintenance and operation of public payphones in New York are due to expire on October 15, 2014. This has prompted to question of the future of the city’s payphones, for which the Reinvent Payphone Design Challenge will provide ideas.

The judges of the competition included Ben Kaufman, founder and CEO of, Andrew McLaughlin, entrepreneur in residence at Betaworks, Majora Carter, founder of Startup Box, Jason Goodman, CEO and co-founder of 3rd Ward, Nancy Lublin, CEO of, and former United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer Beth Noveck.

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