The Future of Phone Booths: Workshop

Phone booths are an endangered urban species, joining the ranks of newspaper boxes, parking pay meters, and other urban elements whose original function has been replaced by technology and changing social behavior.

A common thread runs through all these pieces of the urban landscape that are too quickly deemed to be obsolete: they contain a vast amount of potential and capacity to perform additional or alternate functions than they were originally designed for.

Cities too often respond to outdated infrastructure with a “remove and replace” strategy – more often than not, simply “remove”. It’s a wasteful and shortsighted approach.

Instead of removing and replacing, cities should be looking at reprogramming the assets they already have for additional use and benefit to its citizens.

In an era of limited urban resources, cutting cables and killing the capacity they connect to, while leaving the resource-rich structures to rust in a warehouse or under a bridge is not the way we should be going about things.

Think about not only what has been lost, but the future capacity that will never come to be.

As one of the satellite projects leading up to Reprogramming the City at DOGA in Oslo, I initiated an extended workshop last week in Oslo exploring the future of the city’s phone booths. In partnership with Telenor and sponsored by Bykuben Oslo City Ecological Center, we are working with participants from the Edvard Munch school to imagine different futures and functions for phone booths in Oslo.

Working on the future of Oslo’s phone booths.

As with so many things in the city, Oslo phone booths have their own particular charm and reverence. Designed by Georg Fredrik Fasting, they are a celebrated piece of Norwegian design history. Years ago, getting ahead of the trend to remove the phone boxes, the remaining phone booths were given listed status, preventing them from being removed or physically altered.

Workshop participants were broken into groups. Each group had adopted a phone booth from a map of the remaining booths:

When cities do think about alternate uses for phone booths and kiosks, the knee-jerk solution is always the same: turn them into wifi access points. The first wave of workshop ideas tend to be the same. To counter this, I have participants start with assessing the needs of the larger area surrounding the booth and the needs of the people who live and work in that area. With near ubiquitous cell phone ownership and limitless public wifi access in cafes, train stations and elsewhere, wifi as a need quickly disappears.

Then “opportunity” is brought into play. What opportunity does the phone booth present – its structure, location, connectivity, and other assets. Finally, and most importantly, I ask participants to walk me through the “path to reality” of their ideas. Ideas are nice, but the path to making the idea come to life is the difference between a clever idea and a real idea.

The ideas came thick and fast. Far too many to detail individually at this point. The most refreshing thing to come out of this particular workshop was the depth of exploration of need and opportunity, and the social history contained in the booths and their location. One quick dip into the idea pool…

The “America Booth” in Oslo.

The phone booth above is known as the “America Booth” – when it was first installed, it was the only phone booth in the city where Oslo residents could call America. Now, it is located at the port where most cruise ships arriving from America first dock. As the group who adopted this booth noted, its role has now been reversed, from reaching those in America to receiving those coming from America. What opportunities exist for it in this new context?

The final result of this and the other ideas will be revealed at Reprogramming the City in May 2018. The workshop was merely the launching pad for the larger work taking place. Participants now have a month to go away and develop their ideas. A selection will then be made of ideas that will be developed into real-world solutions and brought to life at the booth locations.

It’s a process that is deeply rewarding to lead. It also raises the question as to why more cities aren’t applying more focus and depth to the future potential of their phone booths. There are some great DIY projects out there, but at the city level, there’s not a lot of creativity or depth to the future potential.

If you’d like to talk about going more deeply into ideas or opportunities for your city’s phone booths, I’d love to have that conversation. Please get in touch.

In the meantime, stay strong while more phone booths go away, their present and future potential disappearing with them.

Removing future potential in London.

For Oslo booths, it’s not too late. To keep in touch with this and other reprogramming existing urban assets initiatives I’m working on…

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