Pulse Smart Hubs look like giant smartphones, and their most obvious function is to display adverts on city streets, but that advertising income supports a wide range of useful civic functions. Some are visible on the sides of the hubs, while others are only visible to other devices, such as the free public Wi-Fi connection.
You're unlikely to have seen a Pulse Smart Hub because the first 15 examples only went live last month in Belfast. The system was formally launched by Deirdre Hargey, the Lord Mayor, and Patrick Fisher, founder and CEO of the London-based Urban Innovation Company, which developed the smart-hub and funded the £3 million project.
So far, the city council has approved sites for 25 hubs, and the plan is to have 30. However, Urban Innovation hopes they will also find homes in other cities. Leicester could be the next one.
Pulse's main features include:
Public messaging to promote the city, local services, and events with its partner, Visit Belfast, and Belfast City Centre management;
A side-mounted touch screen that provides access to local (Google-based) street maps, weather maps, and visitor information provided in collaboration with Visit Belfast;
The ability to make free phone calls from the side-screen;
A police override function that enables public messages to be shown on the main screens, in case of an emergency;
A 999 emergency call button that connects directly to the police, fire, and medical services (911 in the USA);
Sensors that capture air quality data to support the city's clean air initiatives;
A Public Access Defibrillator (PAD) that could save a life. PADs are designed to be used without training.
Fisher hopes to provide even more functionality in future Pulse Smart Hubs. He is partnering with Smart Belfast to launch a £20,000 competition for "the best new tech idea designed for the hubs that tackle city challenges". Smart Belfast brings together universities, businesses, local government, and citizens to collaborate, innovate, and experiment using cutting-edge technologies and data science.
Urban Innovation is talking to Leicester City Council about a £2.5m project to install 24 Pulse Smart Hubs in the city centre. BT already has permission to install some InLink smart-hubs that do the same things, but without the defibrillator. Fisher says Urban Innovation has chosen sites that are not close to BT's smart-hubs and that the two can be complementary. This may already be the case in Belfast where — according to InLinkUK's map — BT already has nine InLink smarthubs.
BT has installed hundreds of InLink smart-hubs since launching the system in 2017, and there are well over 200 in London alone. It was an obvious business for BT, given that it could typically replace two old public phone boxes with one smart-hub. It can deflect the claim that it is cluttering up the streets by arguing that it is actually reducing the clutter.
New York was the first city to install these Link smart-hubs, and is using them to replace 7,500 payphones across five boroughs. The smart-hubs are supplied by New York-based Intersection.