Buildings don't have to be permanent — modular construction can make them modifiable and relocatable.
- Modular construction involves building the components of a habitable structure in a factory, and then assembling those components on-site.
- The history of modular construction stretches back centuries, and it became briefly popular in the U.S. after World War II, but it's never quite caught on.
- Construction firms like iMod Structures, which constructs buildings that can be modified and relocated, may soon change that.
Modular construction is on the rise. Once a marginal sector focused on building affordable homes, modular construction is now building an increasing share of structures used for commerce, healthcare, and education. By 2028, the modular construction market is projected to be worth $114 billion.
What is modular construction? It's like building with Legos but on an industrial scale: standardized block-shaped modules are constructed in a factory, transported to a building site, and assembled together to form a habitable structure.
What's most striking about modular buildings isn't appearance but the speed of construction. In 2015, for example, a Chinese construction company built a 57-story glass-and-concrete skyscraper made of 2,736 rectangular modules in a record-breaking 19 days. That's three stories per day.
In addition to speed, modular construction promises to be more modifiable, more transportable, and less wasteful than traditional construction methods. The method could transform construction, which, despite being one of the world's biggest sectors, is one of the slowest growing in terms of labor productivity and digitization.
One modular construction firm aiming to bring the sector into the 21st century is iMod Structures, which builds shipping container-sized modules that can be assembled into buildings. The modules can then be disassembled to modify the existing structure or transported to a different site to build a new one.
Freethink recently visited iMod Structures to get an up-close look at its unique spin on modular construction.
Do buildings have to be permanent? | Hard Reset by Freethink www.youtube.com
Techniques like this could help bring construction into the 21st century. But despite its futuristic and transformative appeal, modular construction is far from a new idea. In fact, the history of prefabrication — the broader category of construction to which modular belongs — goes back centuries.
Prefabrication: From 17th-century cottages to diners to skyscrapers
One of the earliest examples of prefabrication came in 1624, when a colonial American fisherman commissioned an English construction company to fabricate components of a building and ship them overseas to the fishing village of Cap Anne.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, English firms also shipped prefabricated structures — storehouses, cottages, and hospitals — to Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. In the U.S., prefabricated homes became popular during the Gold Rush when California towns had too many people but too few houses.
In the early 20th century, mass-production made modular construction more practical and, sometimes, more popular. From 1908 to 1940, Sears sold about 70,000 kit homes across the country; some of the cheapest models started around $160. (Kit homes were like IKEA products: the manufacturer builds and precuts the parts, and the buyer assembles them.)
Still, prefabricated homes weren't particularly popular in the first half of the 20th century; homebuyers generally viewed the structures — especially the metal and experimental ones — as strange and undesirable.
Pre fabricated house shipped via boxcarThe Aladdin Company via Wikipedia
But appearance wasn't a major concern during World War II. Facing huge demand for cheap and simple housing for soldiers in the early 1940s, the U.S. produced hundreds of thousands of Quonset huts — prefabricated, semi-cylindrical structures made of corrugated galvanized steel — which about six unskilled laborers could construct in a day.
A Quonset hut being put in place at the 598th Engineer Base Depot in Japan, post-World War IIUS Army Corps of Engineers via Wikipedia
After the war, millions of U.S. soldiers returned home, and the nation faced a housing shortage crisis. Hundreds of companies entered the prefabricated housing market, with several receiving support from the federal government. One of the most iconic models was the enameled-steel Lustron house, which cost $7,000 to $10,000, took two weeks to assemble, and promised to "defy weather, wear, and time."
By 1958, roughly 10 percent of all homes in the U.S. were prefabricated. In addition to homes, the prefabrication industry also built thousands of diners throughout the 20th century, especially after World War II when owning a prefabricated diner was a decent small-business opportunity. Popular in New Jersey, the narrow diners could easily be shipped to buyers by rail.
Interior of a 1938 Sterling manufactured diner, with curved ceiling, in Wellsboro, PennsylvaniaI, Ruhrfisch via Wikipedia
Despite the post-war boom, modular construction never really caught on in most parts of the world, though many architects and builders have long been attracted to the method. Some of the reasons include consumer perception that modular homes are unattractive, technological constraints, and the high costs of researching and developing new building techniques.
These challenges can be prohibitive, especially for large-scale projects.
"Building anything over 10 stories in modular is something no one has wanted to do because you have to invest in research and development," Susi Yu, executive vice president of residential development for the Forest City Ratner Corporation, told Fast Company. "There's science behind it that you need to figure out."
But attitudes on modular buildings may be shifting.
"Today, modular construction is experiencing a new wave of attention and investment, and several factors suggest it may have renewed staying power," noted a 2019 report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. "The maturing of digital tools has radically changed the modular-construction proposition — for instance, by facilitating the design of modules and optimizing delivery logistics. Consumer perceptions of prefab housing are beginning to change, particularly as new, more varied material choices improve the visual appeal of prefab buildings."
The report goes on: "Perhaps most important, we see a change in mind-set among construction-sector CEOs, as many leaders see technology-based disruptors entering the scene — and realizing it may be time to reposition themselves."
In recent decades, construction firms around the world have built all kinds of modular buildings, including modular skyscrapers in the U.K., U.S., and China; containerized homes in Mexico; and classrooms in rural South Africa.
"In many countries, modular construction is still very much an outlier," McKinsey noted. "But there are strong signs of what could be a genuine broad-scale disruption in the making. It is already drawing in new competitors — and it will most likely create new winners and losers across the entire construction ecosystem."
The benefits of modular construction
Modular construction has the potential to deliver $22 billion in annual savings to U.S. and European markets, mainly because of the inherent benefits of building components in a controlled factory setting. The Modular Building Institute lists a few examples:
- Shorter construction schedule. Because construction of modular buildings can occur simultaneously with the site and foundation work, projects can be completed 30 percent to 50 percent sooner than traditional construction.
- Elimination of weather delays. 60 to 90 percent of the construction is completed inside a factory, which mitigates the risk of weather delays. Buildings are occupied sooner, creating a faster return on investment.
- Improved air quality. Because the modular structure is substantially completed in a factory controlled setting using dry materials, there's virtually no potential for high levels of moisture (which can cause mold growth) to get trapped in the new construction.
- Less material waste. When building in a factory, waste is eliminated by recycling materials, controlling inventory, and protecting building materials.
- Safer construction. The indoor construction environment reduces the risks of accidents and related liabilities for workers.
But perhaps the biggest benefit of modular construction is relocatability and modifiability.
Future-proofing buildings and cities
Buildings are hard to modify and practically impossible to move. That's a problem for many organizations, including the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district currently maintains thousands of decades-old trailers it built to accommodate a fast-growing student population.
Seeking to replace those trailers with structures, the district partnered with iMod Structures to build "future proof" modular classrooms that can be reconfigured and relocated, depending on fluctuating enrollment levels.
"If you have one of our classrooms in a particular location and 5, 10, or 20 years later, you need them across town at another campus within the school district, you simply disassemble, relocate, and reassemble them where they are needed," Craig Severance, Principal with iMod Structures, said in a statement. "And it can be done within a few days, minimizing school [downtime] and disruption of our children's education."
iMod Structures classroomiMod Structures
Founded in 2009 by former real estate investors John Diserens and Craig Severance, iMod Structures takes a hyper-efficient approach to modular construction. Instead of making many types of prefabricated components, the firm makes only one standardized block-shaped frame, each roughly the size of a shipping container. The firm builds the frames in factories and then outfits them with walls, windows, and other custom features the client wants.
Because the frames have the dimensions of a standard shipping container, they can be easily transported to the building site by truck or rail. On site, the frames are connected together or stacked on top of each other. Once the structure is intact, workers finish the job by adding plumbing, electricity, and other final touches.
The process saves a lot of time.
"Typically, it would take nine to 15 months to manufacture a classroom out in the field," said Mike McKibbin, the head of operations for iMod. "We're doing that in twelve days."
Today, iMod Structures is focusing on future-proofing classrooms in California. But it's not hard to imagine how this kind of modular construction could transform not only the ways we build buildings but also organize cities. For example, if a company wants to set up offices in a new part of town, it could build an office park out of iMod Structures frames.
But what if the company needs to expand? It could attach more modules to its existing structure. If it needs to shut down? Instead of demolishing the office park, the structure could be modified and converted into, say, a hospital or apartment building. Alternatively, the modules could be removed from the site, and reused elsewhere, so the city could construct a park.
Under this kind of framework, cities could become far more flexible and dynamic, able to quickly adapt to changing needs. And with no need to demolish buildings, modular construction could prove far more sustainable than any method the industry uses today.
"We don't want our buildings to ever end up in a landfill. Ever," said Reed Walker, head of production and design at iMod Structures. "We want to take that system and use it again and again and again."
A new study calls the technique "location spoofing."
Research indicates that "deepfake geography," or realistic but fake images of real places, could become a growing problem.
For example, a fire in Central Park seems to appear as a smoke plume and a line of flames in a satellite image. In another, colorful lights on Diwali night in India, seen from space, seem to show widespread fireworks activity.
Both images exemplify what the new study calls "location spoofing." The photos—created by different people, for different purposes—are fake but look like genuine images of real places.
So, using satellite photos of three cities and drawing upon methods used to manipulate video and audio files, a team of researchers set out to identify new ways of detecting fake satellite photos, warn of the dangers of falsified geospatial data, and call for a system of geographic fact-checking.
"This isn't just Photoshopping things. It's making data look uncannily realistic," says Bo Zhao, assistant professor of geography at the University of Washington and lead author of the study in the journal Cartography and Geographic Information Science. "The techniques are already there. We're just trying to expose the possibility of using the same techniques, and of the need to develop a coping strategy for it."
Putting lies on the map
As Zhao and his coauthors point out, fake locations and other inaccuracies have been part of mapmaking since ancient times. That's due in part to the very nature of translating real-life locations to map form, as no map can capture a place exactly as it is. But some inaccuracies in maps are spoofs that the mapmakers created. The term "paper towns" describes discreetly placed fake cities, mountains, rivers, or other features on a map to prevent copyright infringement.
For example, on the more lighthearted end of the spectrum, an official Michigan Department of Transportation highway map in the 1970s included the fictional cities of "Beatosu and "Goblu," a play on "Beat OSU" and "Go Blue," because the then-head of the department wanted to give a shout-out to his alma mater while protecting the copyright of the map.
But with the prevalence of geographic information systems, Google Earth, and other satellite imaging systems, location spoofing involves far greater sophistication, researchers say, and carries with it more risks. In 2019, the director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the organization charged with supplying maps and analyzing satellite images for the US Department of Defense, implied that AI-manipulated satellite images can be a severe national security threat.
Tacoma, Seattle, Beijing
To study how satellite images can be faked, Zhao and his team turned to an AI framework that has been used in manipulating other types of digital files. When applied to the field of mapping, the algorithm essentially learns the characteristics of satellite images from an urban area, then generates a deepfake image by feeding the characteristics of the learned satellite image characteristics onto a different base map—similar to how popular image filters can map the features of a human face onto a cat.
Next, the researchers combined maps and satellite images from three cities—Tacoma, Seattle, and Beijing—to compare features and create new images of one city, drawn from the characteristics of the other two. They designated Tacoma their "base map" city and then explored how geographic features and urban structures of Seattle (similar in topography and land use) and Beijing (different in both) could be incorporated to produce deepfake images of Tacoma.
In the example below, a Tacoma neighborhood is shown in mapping software (top left) and in a satellite image (top right). The subsequent deepfake satellite images of the same neighborhood reflect the visual patterns of Seattle and Beijing. Low-rise buildings and greenery mark the "Seattle-ized" version of Tacoma on the bottom left, while Beijing's taller buildings, which AI matched to the building structures in the Tacoma image, cast shadows—hence the dark appearance of the structures in the image on the bottom right. Yet in both, the road networks and building locations are similar.
These are maps and satellite images, real and fake, of one Tacoma neighborhood. The top left shows an image from mapping software, and the top right is an actual satellite image of the neighborhood. The bottom two panels are simulated satellite images of the neighborhood.Zhao et al., 2021, Cartography and Geographic Information Science
The untrained eye may have difficulty detecting the differences between real and fake, the researchers point out. A casual viewer might attribute the colors and shadows simply to poor image quality. To try to identify a "fake," researchers homed in on more technical aspects of image processing, such as color histograms and frequency and spatial domains.
Could 'location spoofing' prove useful?
Some simulated satellite imagery can serve a purpose, Zhao says, especially when representing geographic areas over periods of time to, say, understand urban sprawl or climate change. There may be a location for which there are no images for a certain period of time in the past, or in forecasting the future, so creating new images based on existing ones—and clearly identifying them as simulations—could fill in the gaps and help provide perspective.
The study's goal was not to show that it's possible to falsify geospatial data, Zhao says. Rather, the authors hope to learn how to detect fake images so that geographers can begin to develop the data literacy tools, similar to today's fact-checking services, for public benefit.
"As technology continues to evolve, this study aims to encourage more holistic understanding of geographic data and information, so that we can demystify the question of absolute reliability of satellite images or other geospatial data," Zhao says. "We also want to develop more future-oriented thinking in order to take countermeasures such as fact-checking when necessary," he says.
Coauthors of the study are from the University of Washington, Oregon State University, and Binghamton University.
With the rise of Big Data, methods used to study the movement of stars or atoms can now reveal the movement of people. This could have important implications for cities.
- A treasure trove of mobility data from devices like smartphones has allowed the field of "city science" to blossom.
- I recently was part of team that compared mobility patterns in Brazilian and American cities.
- We found that, in many cities, low-income and high-income residents rarely travel to the same geographic locations. Such segregation has major implications for urban design.
Almost 55 percent of the world's seven billion people live in cities. And unless the COVID-19 pandemic puts a serious — and I do mean serious — dent in long-term trends, the urban fraction will climb almost to 70 percent by midcentury. Given that our project of civilization is staring down a climate crisis, the massive population shift to urban areas is something that could really use some "sciencing."
Is urbanization going to make things worse? Will it make things better? Will it lead to more human thriving or more grinding poverty and inequality? These questions need answers, and a science of cities, if there was such a thing, could provide answers.
Good news. There already is one!
The science of cities
With the rise of Big Data (for better or worse), scientists from a range of disciplines are getting an unprecedented view into the beating heart of cities and their dynamics. Of course, really smart people have been studying cities scientifically for a long time. But Big Data methods have accelerated what's possible to warp speed. As "exhibit A" for the rise of a new era of city science, let me introduce you to the field of "human mobility" and a new study just published by a team I was on.
Credit: nonnie192 / 405009778 via Adobe Stock
Human mobility is a field that's been amped up by all those location-enabled devices we carry around and the large-scale datasets of our activities, such as credit card purchases, taxi rides, and mobile phone usage. These days, all of us are leaving digital breadcrumbs of our everyday activities, particularly our movements around towns and cities. Using anonymized versions of these datasets (no names please), scientists can look for patterns in how large collections of people engage in daily travel and how these movements correlate with key social factors like income, health, and education.
There have been many studies like this in the recent past. For example, researchers looking at mobility patterns in Louisville, Kentucky found that low-income residents tended to travel further on average than affluent ones. Another study found that mobility patterns across different socioeconomic classes exhibit very similar characteristics in Boston and Singapore. And an analysis of mobility in Bogota, Colombia found that the most mobile population was neither the poorest nor the wealthiest citizens but the upper-middle class.
These were all excellent studies, but it was hard to make general conclusions from them. They seemed to point in different directions. The team I was part of wanted to get a broader, comparative view of human mobility and income. Through a partnership with Google, we were able to compare data from two countries — Brazil and the United States — of relatively equal populations but at different points on the "development spectrum." By comparing mobility patterns both within and between the two countries, we hoped to gain a better understanding of how people at different income levels moved around each day.
Mobility in Brazil vs. United States
Socioeconomic mobility "heatmaps" for selected cities in the U.S. and Brazil. The colors represent destination based on income level. Red depicts destinations traveled by low-income residents, while blue depicts destinations traveled by high-income residents. Overlapping areas are colored purple.Credit: Hugo Barbosa et al., Scientific Reports, 2021.
The results were remarkable. In a figure from our paper (shown above), it's clear that we found two distinct kinds of relationship between income and mobility in cities.
The first was a relatively sharp distinction between where people in lower and higher income brackets traveled each day. For example, in my hometown of Rochester, New York or Detroit, the places visited by the two income groups (e.g., job sites, shopping centers, doctors' offices) were relatively partitioned. In other words, people from low-income and high-income neighborhoods were not mixing very much, meaning they weren't spending time in the same geographical locations. In addition, lower income groups traveled to the city center more often, while upper income groups traveled around the outer suburbs.
The second kind of relationship was exemplified by cities like Boston and Atlanta, which didn't show this kind of partitioning. There was a much higher degree of mixing in terms of travel each day, indicating that income was less of a factor for determining where people lived or traveled.
In Brazil, however, all the cities showed the kind of income-based segregation seen in U.S. cities like Rochester and Detroit. There was a clear separation of regions visited with practically no overlap. And unlike the U.S., visits by the wealthy were strongly concentrated in the city centers, while the poor largely traversed the periphery.
Data-driven urban design
Our results have straightforward implications for city design. As we wrote in the paper, "To the extent that it is undesirable to have cities with residents whose ability to navigate and access resources is dependent on their socioeconomic status, public policy measures to mitigate this phenomenon are the need of the hour." That means we need better housing and public transportation policies.
But while our study shows there are clear links between income disparity and mobility patterns, it also shows something else important. As an astrophysicist who spent decades applying quantitative methods to stars and planets, I am amazed at how deep we can now dive into understanding cities using similar methods. We have truly entered a new era in the study of cities and all human systems. Hopefully, we'll use this new power for good.
Noise causes stress. For our ancestors, it meant danger: thunder, animal roars, war cries, triggering a 'fight or run' reaction.
Noise is a belittled threat that disrupts the functioning of people, animals, even plants. It causes stress, provokes aggression, increases the risk of heart disease. Blocking the issue of noise can bring catastrophic consequences for us.
Morning coffee. I set up my laptop in the garden. All I can hear is the morning chirping of birds. Nothing to bother me. Suddenly, the roar of a chainsaw tears into the idyllic scenery. Actually, it's two chainsaws, which the new neighbours are using to massacre trees on the plot next door. Construction work has started. I hide in the house. Unfortunately, even with my windows shut, my ears register a muffled yet distracting roar. Noise has caught up with me here, in the countryside, the place I escaped to from the city. Is there any way to protect myself from it?
The necessary cost of progress?
Or maybe I'm just sowing needless panic? After all, noise has been accompanying us for ages and we have been dealing with it somehow. In Ancient Rome, there was a ban on riding chariots at night to prevent the rattling of wheels from waking the residents, in the Middle Ages streets were sound-proofed with hay, while today we set up noise barriers along roads and railroad tracks, and install sound-proof windows. But the noise level is increasing along with the expanding networks of motorways, railway lines and new airports; we are all experiencing noise, and it's affecting not only the inhabitants of big cities, but also small villages like the one I live in. The most common source of undesired sounds is road traffic; research shows that that 125 million Europeans are subject to sound intensity levels exceeding 55 decibels (which is considered to be harmful). To give you something to compare that to: rustling in the woods is around 10 decibels, a whisper is 30–40 decibels, while a regular conversation is about 50 decibels. One passenger car generates sound of an intensity exceeding 65 decibels, a lorry over 70 decibels, and a plane taking off 120 decibels. In large European or American cities, such as New York or Los Angeles, the average sound intensity is 80–90 decibels. If for an extended period of time we hear noise exceeding 85 decibels, we expose ourselves to hearing damage, balance disorder or even pain. Noise at a lower level of intensity causes us to be nervous and fatigued.
Why do most of us trivialize the issue then, saying You can live with it. It's something you can get used to? I pose that question to Agata Stasik, a sociologist from Kozminski University in Warsaw. "Noise is one of those harmful factors that has a delayed effect on us; it's hard to detect the negative influence of noise on our health without going through costly long-term testing. Indeed, it is easy to notice the unfavourable effect of noise on our well-being. Yet the fact that noise bothers us can be quickly put off as a sign of our oversensitivity, which has no place in a big city. For many people, noise is quite justified and viewed as a necessary cost of progress. Even more so as it usually appears as a side effect of processes like mobility or the effect of industrial activity that serves to meet commonly accepted needs. As a result, any discussion usually goes in the direction of having an only choice between pre-modern life and life in noise," the expert explains.
1.6 million years of life in good health
Maybe it's high time to stop drowning out the issue of noise and confront the effects it has? "Noise pollution is the second threat to public health right after air pollution," is the conclusion of the research of the Environmental Burden of Disease Project presented by the World Health Organization (WHO). As far as eight years ago, the WHO estimated that each year we lose 1.6 million years of good health due to the noise coming from our environment. And this pertains to Europe only! Let's add to that the calculations made by the European Environment Agency (EEA), which show that on the Old Continent, noise is responsible for 10,000 premature deaths, 43,000 hospitalizations and 900,000 cases of hypertension. Yutong Samuel Cai, an epidemiologist from Imperial College London, analysed the data of 356,000 British and Norwegian people. Noise considerably increased the risk of cardiovascular disease; the impact was stronger than the effects of smog, for example. Francesca Dominici from the Harvard School of Public Health came to similar conclusions when she took a good look at the data of over six million Americans (aged 65 years and older) who lived in the vicinity of 89 airports. The results of her research published in 2013 in The BMJ show that an increase in noise intensity of 10 decibels translates into an increased (on average 3.5%) number of patients with cardiovascular diseases: heart attacks, cardiac dysrhythmia or ischaemic heart disease. Why does that happen?
"Noise causes stress. For our ancestors, it meant danger: thunder, animal roars, war cries, triggering a 'fight or run' reaction," explains Bart Kosko, a professor of electrical engineering from the University of Southern California and the author of Noise, published in 2006. And although modern noise, such as the sound of cars on the streets, does not usually pose a threat, our body reacts to it by secreting stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, leading in turn to higher blood pressure, higher pulse rates, increased glucose levels in the blood and increased lipid metabolism; excessive lipid levels can build up in the blood vessels.
Add to that sleep disorders. "Our auditory system has a watchman function. It's constantly monitoring our environment for threats even while we're sleeping. [...] However we are often not aware of this noise and our sleep disturbances because we are unconscious while we're sleeping. In the past we've done studies on the effects of traffic noise on sleep, and research subjects would often wake up in the morning and say, 'I had a wonderful night, I fell asleep right away, never really woke up.' When we would then go back to the physiological signals we had recorded during the night, we would often see numerous awakenings and a severely fragmented sleep structure. These awakenings were too brief for the subjects to regain consciousness and to remember them the next morning, but they may nevertheless have a profound impact on how restful our sleep is," noted Mathias Basner from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine during his presentation at TEDMed in 2018. He has been researching the effects of noise on sleep for years, he is also an advisor of the WHO and President of the International Commission of Biological Effects of Noise (ICBEN). Poor quality of sleep disrupts not only circulation, but also metabolism, which increases the probability of the onset of type 2 diabetes, as confirmed by Swiss studies involving the participation of over 2500 people. The risk of the onset of depression also increases considerably, as much as 25%. Recent research conducted by the National University in Seoul showed that poor sleep may also increase the risk of infertility in men.
Be quieter in school and at work!
The sound of the school bell can hardly be heard over the whirring of power drills and rattling of hammers. The primary school in our village is going through a new phase of construction, as it needs to be expanded due to the latest educational reform and the need to provide room for Year 7 and Year 8 pupils. The operation is being performed on a live organism, during the school year. Nobody seems to have given any thought to issues like constant headaches, lack of concentration or lack of motivation for learning. It's strange, because back in the 1970s, Arline Bronzhaft, a professor in environmental psychology, had already looked into the matter. "One of my students at Lehman College was complaining that at the elementary school his child was attending it was so loud that children were not able to study," the researcher mentions in a recently published book by David Owen, Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World. Passing next to Public School 98 in northern Manhattan was an elevated subway line. Some parents were thinking of suing the city, but Bronzhaft convinced them that they needed proof that the noise was in fact harmful to their children. She compared three years of test results of pupils who were in classrooms located right next to the line with the results of pupils who were studying in the quieter parts of the school. On average, the first group had an 11-month delay in terms of its level of knowledge when compared to the second group. Bronzhaft's research not only ignited a heated discussion in scientific circles, but also forced city authorities to sound-proof the ceilings in the school, while special rubber pads were installed between the rails and the tracks (the solution was later introduced on all New York subway lines). The tests were repeated six years later and showed that eliminating the noise helped the pupils even out the results. The level of noise at school as well as at home has an influence on the development of children. Studies conducted at Cornell University show that children growing up in a noisy environment are significantly more often subject to development problems and have to deal with disorders like dysgraphia, are slower learners, understand less from a text they've read, or find it more difficult to remember new information.
Problems with concentration, nervousness, or even aggression affect adults as well, both at home and at work. The sectors that are most exposed to noise naturally include construction, mining and entertainment, but the issue also troubles people working in the increasingly more common open space offices. Based on tests conducted on urine samples, Gary Evans, a psychologist from Cornell University, determined that open space employees had an increased level of the stress hormone, adrenaline. Their motivation to work was also weaker when compared to people working in small, yet separate rooms. Vinesh Oommen from the Australian Queensland University of Technology believes that in open spaces, we are "confronted with a number of issues, such as the lack of privacy or the flood of stimuli, which in turn lead to health issues, reduced productivity and a low level of job satisfaction." Even a regular conversation between two colleagues at adjacent desks can significantly reduce concentration.
Why doesn't the whale sing?
Noise also has a negative effect on plants and animals. The first discoveries confirming this hypothesis were made accidentally by researchers who were measuring the level of stress hormones in whale stool samples in the Bay of Fundy on the coast of Canada. They found that the level of the hormone drastically fell in September 2001, after which it grew again in a few months. The scientists, who were using hydrophones (microphones to receive sounds underwater) noticed that during that time the level of noise generated by ship traffic had significantly decreased, which was the effect of the September 11 terror attacks. The researchers decided to take a closer look at the effects of noise on marine life, and the results of their research showed that it is harmful to animals, disrupting their communication, foraging and reproduction. "Visibility underwater can reach ten metres, but sound spreads over hundreds of kilometres," explains Peter Tyack, an ecologist from The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod. The main source of noise are ships, but the greatest threat is posed by the so-called impulse sources used to search for crude oil. These sources generate a seismic wave underwater, and the signal can be detected by acoustic monitors even thousands of kilometres away. As Tyack's research shows, some animals react negatively even to the sound of a sonar. "Whales stop foraging then, leave the given area and don't return for many days. The sound of the sonar scares them away, even if they are swimming a kilometre deeper than the source of the sound," Tyack explains in his book, Volume Control. Sometimes the sound causes the animal to have a panic attack and suddenly rise to the surface, where it dies from decompression sickness. Impulse sources also kill zooplankton which is food for many marine creatures. Robert McCauley from Curtin University in Perth, Australia took plankton samples before and after a seismic wave was 'triggered'; after the wave was emitted, the abundance of plankton fell by 60% and the number of dead species doubled. Certain animals, like turtles, which react to noise by hiding in their shells, stop to seek shelter in the shells due to the increased frequency of that stimulus; as a consequence, they fall prey to predators more often.
Noise also disrupts the reproduction process in marine mammals. Researchers observing humpback whales near the Japanese island of Ogasawara noticed that in response to noise from ships, males change their mating songs or stop singing altogether. At a distance of 500 metres from the route that ships often sail on, the number of humpback whales was significantly less, while at a distance of 1.2 kilometres from the wake, whales either sing less often or not at all. The whales that stop singing don't start again until at least half an hour has passed after the ship sailed by, according to the article published in PLOS ONE magazine.
And the robin went silent too...
Noise is also harmful to animals on land: the most common source here are roads, production plants, or logging locations near animal habitats. Yet it's not only noise that is a threat to the animals; excessive intensity of artificial light or air pollution are also culprits here. How can we check to what degree noise specifically is harmful to them? Pondering that question was Jesse Barber from Boise State University in Idaho. In 2012, together with his team, he built a half-kilometre stretch of phantom road in Glacier National Park. Speakers mounted on the trunks of fir trees emitted traffic noise. Although the sounds were not deafening (an average inhabitant of a large city would find it to be a delicate hum), the effect they had was dramatic. The number of migrating birds fell by 28% during emission, while certain species completely left the area. Those who stayed suffered; the MacGillivray's warblers did not gain weight like they should have, and they need a supply of fat to migrate successfully. Other research confirmed the observations of Barber's team. Gareth Arnott from Queen's University Belfast demonstrated that noise drowns out the singing of European robins. "In effect, the robins obtain incomplete information regarding the intentions of other birds and their reactions are sometimes inadequate to the situation. In certain cases, the males fight more ferociously, while in others they resign from fighting early on," the researcher says. Noise also disrupts the functioning of bats, which use echolocation to navigate and look for food.
"Noise has a cascade effect on entire ecosystems; it disrupts the functioning of not only animals, but plants as well," Rachel Buxton, a biologist from Colorado State University explains. Insects become more aggressive under the influence of noise; for example, beetles start to attack each other. Bumblebees pollinate plants less frequently; as a result, these plants give lower yield.
Let's make some noise about noise
"The sounds you hear when you walk through the woods, the bustling river, tree branches swaying in the wind or the singing of birds make even us, people, feel better. They are important for our physical and emotional welfare. We should protect them," Buxton argues. But how can we do that? In accordance with EU guidelines (based in turn on WHO recommendations), we should not be subject to noise levels that are a threat to health or quality of life: "At no point in time may exposure to noise exceed 85 dB, and the permissible level of noise in built-up areas during the day should be 60 dB (during the night – 50 dB)." Unfortunately though, things look rather bleak when it comes to implementing these guidelines. The Polish National Inspectorate of Environmental Protection evaluates "facilities that are especially damaging to the environment" and also creates "acoustic maps of areas surrounding airports and entire localities".
The most popular solution is to install acoustic barriers along roads or railroad lines which, as many local residents complain, distort the landscape (accessing the road is also often more difficult). Solutions such as hiding traffic in tunnels are not applied due to their high cost. "The negative impact on health due to noise is not easy to observe on one's own, making it difficult to encourage politicians and citizens to stand up and fight against it. It seems that proposing alternative solutions is key here; in many situations, noise is not inevitable, even if any change in the technologies used and change of habits could be associated with cost at the beginning," Agata Stasik argues.
The so-called third sector, or non-governmental organizations, are introducing effective solutions. In the US, one of the more thriving organizations is The Quiet Coalition (one of its co-founders is Arline Bronzhaft), which is trying to make the authorities realize how negative the effect of noise is on health, work and education. It also supported New York City authorities in creating new regulations regarding noise limits in the city (the so-called noise code), which became the benchmark for other American cities. "While in Poland we have thriving nationwide social movements battling smog, such as Polish Smog Alert (Polski Alarm Smogowy), organizations fighting for silence are usually active on a local level, such as the Quiet Sky over Warsaw association (Ciche Niebo nad Warszawą), which challenges users of Babice Airport in the city to comply with the law. As a result of the pressure exerted by activists, city authorities have announced that they will enforce compliance with noise level standards by users of airports," says Stasik. Yet a nationwide movement in Poland advocating silence is still lacking. Which is a shame, since as our experience with battling smog shows, it could be instrumental in increasing awareness of the issue and exerting pressure on authorities and the private sector. Such a movement would support the activities of citizen science; the idea would be to have citizens create their own noise maps using their smartphones and appropriate software (The Sounds of New York City does that, for example).
Noise pollution has a socio-economic dimension. In her book, The Soundscape of Modernity, Emily Thompson notes that quite often large cumbersome investments, such as production plants or airports, are located in poorer districts, because their residents do not have enough clout to protest against them. Wealthier citizens escape noise by settling in quieter and more expensive districts. "This is a pattern we can also observe in Poland," Stasik confirms.
Let's not forget that we can start the fight against noise with ourselves. "Very much like a carbon footprint, we all have a noise footprint, and there are things we can do to make that noise footprint smaller. For example, don't start mowing your lawn at 7am on a Saturday morning. Your neighbours will thank you. [...] Whenever you're looking to buy a new car, air-conditioning unit, blender, you name it, make low noise a priority," suggests Mathias Basner during his TEDMed presentation. The 'Quiet Mark' programme, active since 2012 and led by the UK Noise Abatement Society, has already started cooperation with over 70 key equipment manufacturers (including Electrolux, Bosch, Logitech and Samsung), ranging from home appliances to lawn mowers and computers. Agata Stasik is also urging us to change our transport habits: opt for a walk, go by bike or use public transport whenever possible.
Contrary to what we might expect, our individual actions can translate into improved social relations. Noise caused by annoying neighbours is, after all, the main reason for an increase in aggressive behaviour, or even violence. Every third person surveyed by Rockwool admitted that loud neighbours deprive us of sleep and cause nervousness and aggression. Nearly two million Brits claim that 'loud neighbours have made their life a nightmare'. Attempts to defuse the stress not only result in increasingly more complaints year after year, but such issues are often solved through the use of force, leading to serious bodily injuries and even the death of those participating in the dispute. So it's probably better to turn down that music.
As Mathias Basner concludes: "Robert Koch once said that one day humanity will fight with noise like it once did with cholera or the plague. It seems that we've reached this point and I hope we will win this fight. And when we win, we'll celebrate in silence."
Translated from the Polish by Mark Ordon.
In May 2018, the city of Paris set an ambition to be carbon-neutral by 2050.
- Countries, governments and companies are aligning on a need for net-zero - and this is an opportunity to rethink decarbonizing our cities.
- There is no "one-size-fits-all" solution – each city's needs must be at the heart of developing integrated energy solutions.
- A city can only decarbonize through collaboration between government, the private sector, and local communities.
The world is at a critical juncture. Never has there been a moment where businesses, energy consumers and governments – from Canada to China – are aligning on a common vision like this: a road to net-zero emissions.
In the years ahead the role played by cities will be under greater scrutiny than ever before. Cities are, after all, the beating heart of business, commerce, trade and society. They cover 3% of the earth's land surface yet they are responsible for more than 70% of all carbon emissions. Cities are where the need for integrated energy solutions, backed up by ambitious policy and urban planning, will be critical if the world is to move towards net-zero emissions in the years ahead.
The private sector has a role to play. Over the past few years, companies and industries have begun to ask how they can play their part. Many in the energy sector are on a mission to help customers decarbonize within their own sectors, businesses, communities and homes. But how could that work for cities?
While every city has unique needs, five are common to building sustainable and smarter cities of the future. These are mobility, energy, environment, urban planning and living. And it is a mix of these elements that is required to develop integrated solutions. To better understand the different needs, convening a diverse set of city stakeholders is key. This I would like to describe as co-visioning.
For example, in May 2018 the city of Paris set an ambition to be carbon-neutral by 2050. This ambition is not without challenges. Rising levels of income and wealth inequality, transport emissions and older and energy-inefficient building stock are among the challenges standing in the way of that goal.
In 2019, Shell, alongside Leonard (a foresight and innovation platform) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), hosted a City Scenarios workshop in Paris. This event brought together 45 key stakeholders from across both public and private sectors and the wider community, who discussed how to collectively address and meet the objectives of the Paris Climate Action Plan, which aims to make Paris a carbon-neutral city by 2050.
The outcomes of this workshop led to a sketch that explores three scenarios. Each describes different visions of the future for the Paris Metropole, while illustrating a pathway to 2050 and describes progress, or lack thereof, towards the goals of the Paris Climate Action Plan. A short description of each scenario is described in the visual below.
The purpose of this exploration was to guide the wisest possible choices and actions that should be taken now, to achieve the shared ambitions for the Paris region. Far from being a regular commercial opportunity, this instead looked to envision future scenarios and what customers' needs in the future could look like. This work has enabled us to better integrate solutions in the years ahead.
After understanding the needs, one approach to co-innovate solutions is to adopt a 'Living Lab' concept. In Singapore, we launched a City Solutions Living Lab to co-create and experiment with city stakeholders' innovative concepts, scenarios, technologies and business models in actual living environments.
The island city-state is forward thinking in its approach to energy transition. It has set ambitious targets to increase renewables, and announced that it plans to phase out petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040. With this shared vision, Shell partnered Singapore's Energy Market Authority (EMA) to jointly work on spurring the adoption of energy storage systems to support the deployment of more solar in Singapore. One ongoing project is to work with local enterprises to develop smart energy-management system solutions that integrate solar and storage to provide fast charging for electric vehicles at Shell service stations.
There is no one-size fits all solution. Starting from each city's needs, integrated solutions need to be innovated and delivered. This will require unprecedented collaboration between government, industry and society. But the urgency has never been greater. After all, making cities sustainable places to live and work for future generations will be imperative if the world is to meet the broader goals of the Paris Agreement and move closer to a net-zero emissions world.