New School News

Phone It In: Parsons Groups Win Several Categories in NYC Contest to Redesign Public Phones

This March, New York’s Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge announced the finalists of this competition to reimagine the concept of the public phone for the 21st century. Of the more than a hundred entrants – many backed by large corporations and major design houses – a New School team of Milano and Parsons students made the semi-finals, and a Parsons faculty member and student made the final cut. Today is the final day to pick a fan favorite on Facebook, so read on!

Windchimes, a project from Parsons environmental studies senior Rena Lee and collaborators at Cooper Union and NYU, was especially inspired. Their design, which won the Community Impact category, envisions turning New York City’s payphone infrastructure into an environmental sensing network for data collection and community empowerment. Rena’s team is the only student group and also the only team with a functioning prototype, equipped with sensors ready to collect microclimate data to be sent online via the existing landline.

“New York City is extremely important on the global stage, and a major global of today is the changing climate,” says Lee.  “Another problem more particular to our city is environmental injustice. Many low-income communities are subject to more sources of pollution and a lack of investment in public infrastructure. Windchimes tries to address these issues from the community’s perspective.”

Also a finalist is a project from Rama Chorpash, Director of Product Design at Parsons, in collaboration with designers from Syracuse University, UC Davis, and Cheng + Snyde.  His project, Smart Sidewalks, turns a phone booth into a smart object, complete with maps, email, weather reports, transit maps, and free wifi. Plus, the object’s base both measures the foot traffic around itself and helps funnel water off of city sidewalks. “We wanted to pack as much technology as we could into the smallest space, for the least cost,” Chorpash told The News.

As it turns out, Chorpash brought a lifetime of experience to his design. “Not only was I a payphone user,” he said, “but I grew up in the Sierra Nevada in Northern California, without electricity, with hippie parents. We used to drive for an hour to get to a payphone to make a phone call. I have very clear memories of going to the store to get change for payphone calls to my grand mother in another state.”

In the semi-finalist category were two groups of Parsons and Milano students led by professors Jeff Smith and Andrew Shea. Their designs, Look Up! and Meet MANNY. “The public policy students helped us understand the huge potential for an increase in advertising revenue,” that the phone booths could generate for the city, said Shea.

Now, the city is looking at these designs and the other category winners and incorporating elements from each into a formal RFP for actually implementing re-designed phone booths around the city.  Category winners get special consideration if they choose to compete in the RFP. In the meantime, these projects are competing against each other (and others) in the fan favorite competition. To vote, visit and like The City of New York’s Facebook , then click on the “vote” Reinvent Payphones tab and make your choice. But choose wisely – you could be seeing the winner on every sidewalk in the city.

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