Can a bench bridge our digital divide?


South Africa has a shaky past with public benches. Historically branded with signs mandating division, today they exist as an uncomfortable reminder of injustice. But entrepreneur Louise Meek is convinced that they have more to offer our cities. In an effort to redeem their purpose – bringing people together rather than pushing them apart – she came up with a tech-savvy initiative that’s catalysing unity in public spaces.

Isabelo, meaning ‘share’ in isiZulu, is a WiFi-enabled, solar-powered bench that’s living up to its name. Having taken shape at the hands of industrial designers Adriaan Hugo and Katy Taplin in 2015, the devices have so far made their way into areas of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Stellenbosch. The idea behind them is ingenious: use an old symbol of racial divide to bridge the technology gap that has emerged in society more recently. Meek and company have carefully considered the locations of the benches to curb safety concerns and their concrete casing secures the devices themselves from any prospective opportunists.

Technology is the instigator of 21st century innovation. What better reason to harness its power than to get us to stop living past one another and start doing life together? For Meek, ‘access’ is the key word. Her invention is making the internet available to all and in the process encouraging people from different backgrounds to engage with one another in their cities. It’s this type of thinking that will take us forward.