As director of strategic partnerships and business development at Soofa, Edward Krafcik is interested in improving the health of communities through innovation. Working alongside business leaders, real estate developers, social engineers, landscape architects and urban designers, Krafcik attempts to re-imagine our communal landscape as “smarter, more social and more sustainable.” He finds, more often than not these days, that technology plays a leading role in achieving such aims. Products like the Soofa Bench, a solar-powered bench that also acts as a charging station for cell phones and other small electronics, are helping to bridge the gap between technology, leisure and face-to-face social interaction. We sat down with Krafcik to learn more about his vision of how tech and parks can work hand-in-hand to bring people outside and draw them together.
Parks & Recreation magazine: There has been much hand-wringing over how to get people away from their screens and out into nature and communal open spaces, but your work helps bring tech and the outdoors closer together. Talk about why you think that’s important.
Edward Krafcik: As a former landscape architect, I certainly can understand the fears around integrating technology into outdoor environments like parks and communal open spaces. However, it’s important to remember that we live in a world today where all of us in some way or another interface with technology. The notion of a park being a “refuge” today needs to be considered in the context of our technology-centric lives. From connecting with our friends and meeting new people, to getting around the city and experiencing new places when we travel, we rely more than ever on technology. Whether it’s an app on our phone or the public Wi-Fi network in our local coffee shop, technology is important to our everyday lives. That said, I don’t see technology as the enemy of our great parks and public spaces, rather, I see it as a valuable amenity that can be offered. Further, just because technology is made available, it doesn’t mean that everyone will bury their heads in their phones. It simply provides them the same comforts they are used to everywhere else in the city. Another way to look at it is to consider the growing generation of people who are highly connected and ask the question, “Are these people coming to our parks at the same rate they would if we offered amenities that met their technological needs?”
P&R: How have you seen people interacting with tech like the Soofa Bench in parks and public spaces?
Krafcik: As a young technology and design company, it’s extremely important for us to observe how our products are being used and interview those who are using them. Some examples of what we’ve seen have been kids at basketball courts plugging in small scoreboards to our bench’s USB ports to keep score over the course of an afternoon, people using our bench as a place to meet up with friends, young children explaining to their parents how the solar panel is using the sun to power their phones, and many similar stories. One of my favorite things about our technology or any type of human-centered technology is that so many different types of people will find a way to use it.
P&R:What trends do you see in the area of tech, parks and open public spaces?
Krafcik: The most important thing right now is making and implementing technology-enabled products that have a clear benefit to both the public and the park departments that deploy them. What I mean by this is that with all of the dialogue these days around data privacy in the public realm, it is critically important that technology provides a clear benefit to the public. Technologies that in any way use data from the public to enhance operations for park departments, for example, will come under scrutiny if they don’t show the public in a clear way how the data is benefiting them. This is important because a theme I’m seeing is that there will be a growing collection of companies that offer products and services which help park departments generate and use data. This data will help park managers more effectively and efficiently manage day-to-day operations, measure the efficacy of programming and help show the return on investment from capital improvements. Of course, the success of these companies will be largely contingent on how well they can connect with the public. Ultimately, though, with more and more government departments becoming data-driven and evidence-based in their decision-making processes, it’s only a matter of time before more companies will be able to offer similar types of technology for park departments.
— Samantha Bartram, Executive Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine