Environment / Hardware / Products

How Pensa launched this solar-powered public charging station

A vision for a solar charging station quickly turned into a real product deployed across New York City and now around the world.

Mark Prommel shows a "sketch" of Street Charge at Pensa. (Photo by Brady Dale)

Ideas are easy but execution is hard. It’s a truism of the startup world. Mark Prommel, the creative director at product invention firm Pensa, told the story of one incredibly fast and successful execution from his company: the solar charging station, Street Charge.

The workshop in Pensa is called “The Think Tank,” in house, because as hardware designers, they do a lot of thinking with their hands. Prommel walked through his company’s design process during a talk during Digital Dumbo’s latest half-day conference, “dd:Impact The Design Edition.”  Street Charge is the free community solar charging station for mobile devices, first deployed around New York City last summer.

Pensa makes quick renderings in the shop of its ideas. Even though these renderings are often made in three dimensions, he referred to them as “sketches.” He showed a photo of Street Charge as a 3D model made in paper, as seen in the top photo.

For their next move, they made a minimum viable product of it and put it up outside, attached to a parking sign on the street. You can see it in the photo above. It had one arm of the charging platform with a place to rest your device as it charged.


Street Charge’s minimum viable product on a hacked parking sign.

Putting the idea out early via Fast Company exposed them to “the loving embrace of Internet feedback,” Prommel said. Despite the social media skepticism, they also heard from lots of people who wanted to help them make it. For example, AT&T had seen the FastCoDesign story and it already access to permits at NYC parks by way of its WiFi contract. This enabled them to get the units installed and circumvent the permitting process.

The whole timeline (from sketch, to MVP, to story to deployment) took about five months, “Which is an insane timeline if you know anything about hardware development,” Prommel said.

Once it was up, social media turned into an immediate plus. They not only got supportive words but images of people using it. Of similar importance, users posted images that evidenced an appreciation for the form of the object. The fact that it was winning on form and function in the public mind was viewed as a real win for the company.

Street Charge has since been deployed all over the world and, while all New York City’s chargers are still in storage for the winter, it will be upping its number of sites by about 50 this summer. “A lot of our vision of what we thought it might be is now coming true,” Prommel said.

Prommel also walked through the story of desktop wire bender DIWire (which we covered here). He made a larger argument about industrial design, the Internet of Things and the value of crowdsourcing of various forms to improve execution and decrease the cost and development time of projects.

“I think hardware design and industrial design are changing, mostly due to the way objects are evolving and the way they connect together,” he said. “It’s a really exciting time to be developing products and we’re glad to be doing it with all of you here in Brooklyn.”

Companies: Pensa
Series: Brooklyn

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