We need more innovations and fewer Thomassons
A view from Mark Boyd

We need more innovations and fewer Thomassons

Have you see any Thomassons recently?

Described as a "useless and defunct object attached to someone’s property and aesthetically maintained", it was named after a hapless US baseball player who, despite turning up to games, served no purpose. So a Thomasson is a flight of stairs to a blank wall, a plinth without a statue or a sealed letter box. As much use as a biscuit baseball bat.

It is amazing how much stuff you see in public places that is now redundant. Look out for those Rabbit telecoms signs from the 90s. The phones only worked if you were in spitting distance of one of a handful of masts. Few were, nobody bought them and the network bombed. Some of the signs marking the masts still hover over newsagents and bus stops.

Back to Thomassons and the US and, more specifically, New York. The city that never sleeps has been thinking radically about its communications: a High Line, a planned Lowline and a new line in city bikes. Amid all this, New York payphones, like their UK cousins, have been majorly "underutilised" – code for smells of pee and littered with escort cards. So the city ran a pitch to reimagine this service and keep New Yorkers connected.

The new winning "Link stations" will soon start appearing in Manhattan’s streets – a phone-box-sized installation with touchscreen interfaces, free calls and free mobile charging points. Compact, functional, nice. Probably has a printer thrown in for the ride. The winning consortium was led by the outdoor media company Titan.

'Unlike expensive London follies, the New York Link project is to be entirely funded through advertising revenue'

But leaving all the frippery aside, the key thing that stops these stations from being just a 2.0 pimped-up Thomasson is that they will also provide super-fast mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. This infrastructure is a big deal. It takes the city close to its ambition of providing "the largest free municipal Wi-Fi network in the world", as announced by the New York Mayor’s office.

This has got to be a win for everyone, especially those who are lost, or out of power or cash. And it has not cost the city a penny. Unlike expensive London follies such as the cable car with no commuters and the expensive bike scheme, this project is to be entirely funded through advertising revenue on the screens. The new pay boxes promise to return significant annual ad revenue and jobs to the city, and comfortably covering all build costs.

Such innovation should act as inspiration to us. London needs to step up to the plate and become more mobile-friendly. Perhaps one for those pitching for Transport for London’s bus shelters to consider? This could create lots of new opportunities for local, personalised and connected content. Be mindful of Thomassons – let’s knock this one out of the park.

Mark Boyd is a founder of Gravity Road

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