Digital Billboards in Stockholm Swap Ads for Homeless Shelter Info

digital billboard on city street
The Swedish digital kiosk normally displays ads targeting consumers. But when the mercury plummets, it provides crucial info to homeless people in need of emergency shelter.

Clear Channel /

The urban built environment isn't always accommodating to those who have nowhere else to go after the sun sets and temperatures plummet. Increasingly, urban design can be downright hostile to those sleeping on the streets.

This winter, however, the Swedish capital of Stockholm is offering a brilliant and big-hearted antidote to a sweep of anti-homeless "defensive design" tactics popping up in both European and American cities. To be clear, Stockholm isn't making special accommodations to those who find themselves hunkering down on park benches and on sidewalks — rough sleepers, as they're often referred. But it is transforming another ubiquitous street-side fixture, the digital billboard, into a helpful tool for getting the city's homeless population indoors in frigid weather.

It's frequently the case that people sleeping on the streets have no idea where to go when temperatures become so cold that staying outdoors becomes life-threatening. Most are without cellphones and other devices that would help guide them to the nearest shelter with open beds. And they usually don't have advance warning of when dangerously cold conditions will set in and, as a result, are often caught by surprise and forced to brave the elements because they simply have no other choice.

The concept is simple: once temperatures take a turn for the severely chilly (19 degrees Fahrenheit or below), the product-pushing commercial advertisements that populate Stockholm's digital billboards vanish and are replaced with information on how the city's homeless population can seek "warmth and rest." More specifically, the messages provide clear directions to nearby open shelters and other emergency services operated by churches and nonprofit groups in conjunction with the city's welfare services department.

"These are people who don't necessarily follow the media or turn to local authorities for help ... but they can't miss billboards," Ola Klingenborg, a senior executive at Clear Channel International, tells Reuters of the pilot program headed by the Swedish arm of the global outdoor advertising behemoth.

In total, 53 Clear Channel-operated billboards across the city — a city with an estimated homeless population upwards of 2,400 people — will display the special cold-weather messaging through the end of this winter. And even when the digital billboards are functioning in "normal" mode, Reuters reports that passersby may notice that mixed in with the ads for H&M; jeans, and Electrolux washing machines are blurbs on how they can donate goods or volunteer with local homeless charities.

Jan Jonsson, Stockholm's vice mayor for social affairs, calls the billboards, which are located in areas where rough sleepers have been observed congregating, a "great complement" to the city's existing services for the homeless.

An unlikely mix of consumerism and altruism

Although affluent, squeaky-clean Sweden isn't normally associated with high rates of homelessness, an ongoing housing crisis has resulted in an increased number of people sleeping on the streets. Traditionally, a majority of homeless people in Sweden's larger cities aren't native Swedes, although that trend is beginning to change.

If the pilot scheme proves successful, Klingenborg reveals to Reuters that other digital billboard-touting towns grappling with homelessness in the country could follow suit: "We already have other Swedish cities telling us they want to use this." It's unclear at this point if the initiative could potentially expand outside of Sweden to other countries where Clear Channel operates (which is pretty much everywhere).

Stockholm's homeless-helping digital billboards aren't the first instance of advertising platforms being harnessed for the greater public good in Sweden.

In 2017, pharmacy chain Apotek Hjärtat unveiled a digital billboard depicting a man who grimaced and audibly coughed every time a smoker passed by. Placed in bustling Odenplan Square (current home to a homeless-assisting billboard), the hacking advert was geared to encourage people to kick the habit. (And, of course, buy the pharmacy's smoking cessation products.) Last year, in the city of Uppsala, Scandinavian engineering firm Ramboll debuted a more traditional static billboard on the side of an office tower that depicted two very large outstretched hands that just happened to double as a very large bird feeder.