NYC’s Mayor Challenges Designers, Hardware Hackers, And Policy Buffs To Reinvent The Humble Payphone

With cell phones as ubiquitous as they are (a recent report from the Pew Research Center purports that around 85 percent of American adults have one), it seems safe to say that the age of the payphone is winding down.

That said, they haven’t outlived their usefulness yet, and now New York City seems dead set on dragging them into the 21st century. That’s why earlier tonight mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a curious challenge to the city’s numerous hackers and designers. Their task? To give those payphones a much-needed revamping.

As it stands there are still over 11,000 phone booths peppering the five boroughs, a pretty staggering drop from the nearly 35,000 that could be found around town in the mid-to-late 90s. With a slew of payphone vendor deals set to expire in October 14, there’s an opening to bring (even more) modern technological niceties to the streets of New York, and the city’s government is all over it.

It may seem like a strange move, but it isn’t coming completely out of left field. Last April, the city revealed that it planned to trick out 250 of those existing phone booths with 32-inch touchscreen displays, and a pilot program launched in July saw a handful of them converted into Wi-Fi hotspots in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. As VentureBeat’s Devindra Hardawar points out, the sky is really the limit here — at the New York Tech Meetup held earlier tonight, NYC Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot said that the entries don’t even have to “look like payphones.”

Though I suspect that hardware hackers with a penchant for rapid prototyping will have a much better chance of wowing the folks in charge, virtual prototypes and concepts will be considered as well. The 15 most promising concepts will be publicly demoed on March 15 at Quirky’s Chelsea digs, where they’ll be judged by a panel of tech/policy luminaries like Betaworks CEO John Borthwick and the U.S. Open Government Initiative’s Beth Novek. Itching to throw your own kooky concept into the mix? Hit this link to register and get cracking — you have until February 18, 2013 to get your prototypes in.