The Loneliness Epidemic

By Laurie Aznavoorian

We are all a little less worried about sitting these days, remember a few years ago when sitting got touted as the new smoking?

Now the new smoking is breathing outdoors if you live in Sydney. Analysis of the city’s level of smoke-related particulate solution known as PM2.5 performed at UTS was found it to be the equivalent of smoking up to 32 cigarettes. Air quality here is ten times worse than some of the most polluted cities in the world! Isn’t that special.

So, you can take the weight off your shoulders you’ve been carrying about sitting on your arse all day and while you’re at it, take the weight you’ve been carrying about your weight too because they are the least of our worries. Climate change is without a doubt up there, it’s indeed a conundrum, but not one to talk about now. Today’s focus is a new malady that’s proving to be more lethal than either obesity or smoking. What’s the new concern, the one public health experts have deemed an epidemic? Loneliness.

More than one-fifth of Americans and British people say they are chronically lonely and in Australia we fare no better, according to the Australian Psychological Society’s Australian loneliness report one in four Australians feel lonely.

. The bad news is that loneliness does not just impact us psychologically, it’s also linked to physical health. Researchers at UCLA have learned that social isolation triggers stress hormones leading to cellular changes that cause inflammation, which leads to heart disease, stroke, metastatic cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. As if that is not enough, when were lonely we become sooks and forget about exercising, eating right or going to the doctor. Consequently, lonely people have a 26% higher risk of dying.

The UK is so concerned about this that they’ve appointed a minister of loneliness and put in place programs to confront the ‘loneliness epidemic’. Australia, Canada, Germany and New Zealand are considering similar moves. But detecting and dealing with loneliness is no small task, we know humans are social beings, but just because someone is alone does not make them lonely. Similarly, we can be surrounded by people and have a robust number of social media friends, but still feel our social relations are lacking.

The rise in people who report being lonely tracks with other societal shifts that have occurred such as younger people increasingly moving away from home and their established social networks, delaying marriage, skipping kids and working all the time. But older people not as impacted by those shifts are also lonely. Nearly half of Britons over 65 say television and pets are their main form of company. And the poor Japanese have the hikikomori, they are hip under 40s who don’t leave their house for six months.

Entrepreneurs can smell opportunity in the air and have developed products and services that they hope will put an end to isolation. One is Tribe, a co-living space in Brooklyn whose motto is “we help you make friends”, and of course there is WeWork who claim to be “building a new infrastructure to rebuild social fabric and rebuild up the potential for human connection.” (for their former CEO Adam Neumann that means getting stoned on a private jet). Microsoft’s new London store is designed less as store and more as community hub and meeting place. And then there are services like Hey Vina, Bumble BFF and Peanut expressly designed to help humans bond with other humans.

The healthcare market has responded to epidemic by practicing ‘social prescribing’ a new way to help patients that involves placing social workers and non-medical support people in doctor’s offices to link patients to a wide range of social, emotional or practical services to address: housing problems, financial stress, loneliness and social exclusion.  

While we haven’t labelled it as such and our motivations may be different, architects and designers have been tackling the problem of loneliness for some time. We search for the “genius loci”, a spirit of place or distinctive atmosphere that draws people to place and one another. Even the typology of typical commercial office buildings has also evolved to foster connection, now footprints, core locations and the introduction of stairs and atriums all contribute to the building as a platform for community building. More buildings today feature outdoor areas, fresh air and daylight that provide much needed areas of refuge for sound mental health.

Similarly, workplace designers use spaces as attractors to encourage serendipitous interaction and exchange of information. They also encourage movement with clever planning devices. And in recent years much attention has been placed on the interplay between the digital and physical environments to heighten, real time predictive user experiences. Workplace apps connect people in space and enable them to establish professional and social networks. 

Our vocation is to make spaces for people, it’s imperative we think about how the environments we create help us tackle social issues like loneliness. It’s not a simple problem but one we hope to learn more about. .

I am excited to finally be able to tell you about the launch of a research project we are doing that will address the impact of spatial design on human’s ability to establish workplace networks, build community and feel a sense of belonging.

The work is being conducted by B:Hive – a workplace community BVN designed in Auckland New Zealand), BVN Architecture, The University of New South Wales and the Worktech Academy who are the fastest growing global online knowledge platform and member network exploring the future of work and workplace.

After many reviews and false starts we have launched a survey to B:Hive users this morning and will follow up with interviews and observations. Our findings will be published on the Worktech Academy website and used in other academic and design related publication. Watch this space!


Butler, Sarah; Microsoft to Open First European Store in Central London; The Guardian; July 11, 2019

Entis, Laura; The Big Business of Loneliness – Coworking spaces, friendship apps, and adult dorms are selling human connection;

Howe, Neil; Milennials And The Loneliness Epidemic; Forbes, May 3, 2019

Liotta Morgan; Fostering Connections to Overcome Loneliness; New GP; April 2019

Ozcelik, Hakan and Barsade, Sigal; Work Loneliness and Employee Performance; published on line November 30, 2017

Philpot, Catherine; The Silent Epidemic; The Salvation Army; April 30, 2019

Social Prescribing – A New Way to Think About Healthcare; blog; September 6, 2019


Buzzing in the Hive its all about sonic branding

My work is a drop in the bucket, a speck in the cosmos. I’m just a pea in a pod, another cog in the wheel, maybe a more appropriate descriptor of insignificance for me is a tool in the shed – a very blunt one. Idioms aside, being a bee in the hive need not be a harbinger of doom. Particularly when you’re a bee in the hive at the B:Hive in Auckland New Zealand.

After spending time at this new workplace collective, I felt anything but paltry. Buzzing with the swarm left feeling like I belonged, despite not knowing a soul in a place. The B:Hive is home to several disparate tenants, each has their own secured office space, but they share amenity. Unlike the stereotypical co-working cohort, many patrons of B:Hive come from established companies that fall outside the sexy start-up epithet. But hey, who’s to say selling non-corrosive coatings isn’t sexy.

Tenants at B:Hive are naturally attracted to the networking opportunities that sharing space offers, but they also like a delivery model that enables them to expand or contract twice a year. More importantly, officing in the hive grants entry to a community of organisations that share the same values: rejection of waste and opulence, refusing to accept that being small dictates a work life of suffering in shitty, soul crushing, suburban office parks.

Instead they’ve opted for daylight, fresh air and amazing amenity: break areas, technology enabled meeting rooms, places to focus, hold assemblies and play ping pong. A plethora of interesting furniture groupings supporting different workstyles and demands is on offer. BUT WAIT THERES MORE. The steak knives of the deal come in the form of a bright orange corkscrew stair that any sane ambulant person would choose over the lifts. It’s gloriously fun to use and the exercise keeps your behind right sized.

One enters the B:Hive by traversing The Good Side, a conglomeration of food and beverage purveyors who have sipped the same ‘communal ethos Kool-Aid’. Shared outdoor seating encourages customers, or non – customers, to seamlessly flow between the dozen or so retailers. Permeable boundaries suck in occupants from surrounding buildings and neighbouring residential areas.

The resulting cornucopia of users is what makes the experience unique. Stumbling on an assembly of retirees enjoying a coffee next to a corporate faction in the throws of a serious business discussion is par for the course. Children frolic as their mothers eat lunch; climbing up, around and underneath concrete tables. In this cross-pollinisation of humanity anything goes, there’s no fear of damaging property or retribution from traditional workplace stick in the muds.

What makes this possible is a very deliberate non-precious aesthetic and a welcoming vibe. Apologies for the pun, but it’s what gives B:Hive its buzz.
There is a real buzz too, an omnipresent background noise in both workplace and at The Good Side that serves as an aggregate binding the incongruent parts together. The soundtrack to B:Hive has been carefully curated, it is the brainchild of the CEO, who amongst other things, was once a DJ. For a person with the concentration qualities of a dog near a squirrel, I found the sound honed my focus and I felt less pathetically alone.

Human beings for the most part experience sound subconsciously, we tend to focus on what’s seen and pay little attention to the noises that impact our experiences. Like most things, these can be positive or negative such as shopping at Coles and listening to ‘down, down the prices are down’ ad nauseum. It makes you want to go to Woolies just to hear the ‘fresh food people’ song.

Songs trigger emotional responses, jingles have historically been an integral part of branding, but beyond catchy tunes sound is an effective and very underutilised tool in design. This concept became clear at a conference I attended in San Francisco where we in the audience were asked to listen to tones Apple uses in the iPhone. Then we voted on what sounds would be appropriate for a fictitious Apple Airline: music at the gate, check in, the tone your phone makes when you receive an upgrade.

It became obvious that some sounds are on brand and others are way off. The strategic use of sound to convey rich, emotional stories is referred to as ‘Sonic Branding’ it’s the focus of agencies like Man Made Music in New York who worked with companies like AT& T to identify their brand’s sound. They’re responsible for the six – note chime used in ringtones, commercials and in-store music for AT&T.

Scientists have experimented with integrating senses to improve experiences. One interesting study conducted at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford in 2010 drew connections between different tones and pitches and the way we experience basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. By pairing music tracks with tastes, they found sound altered a person’s perception of food.

This is due to a rare neurological phenomenon that causes one sensory pathway to be experienced through another called synesthesia. Chefs like Heston Blumenthal are on to this, he loves to tinker with the relationship between auditory and olfactory senses and taste. So too does sound designer Felipe Carvalho; he used synaesthesia to compile a soundtrack for eating. No kidding, you can purchase “Sound of Chocolate” online.

In the UK venues like Spiritland are jumping on the sonic band wagon by touting their restaurant / bar as a place to have an acoustic eating experience. Conceived as a ‘dining room of sonic architecture’, Spiritland has velvet curtains, rounded leather booths, custom ceilings and walls that deliver superb sound quality and acoustics.

At least six more venues in London follow this new trend of providing high level listening, eating and drinking experiences where sound quality is as important as the taste of the food. With top-notch sound systems and a return to vynal, they’re an audiophile’s dream. Some say heralding a return of quality over convenience, inviting us to engage with music in a more purposeful way.

I suspect the intent of music at B:Hive was not a deliberate overture in sonic branding; never the less, the impact it has there and at The Good Side leads me to believe sonic branding may be more than a buzz word earning a square on the workplace bullshit bingo board.

But before you go full hog designing noise into your next project, heed the advice of sonic branding experts. They warn a little sound goes a long way and recommend leaving plenty of white noise e.g. silence, to balance out the sound the world throws at us. They say everyone could do with a little less noise these days. I’m inclined to agree.

Smith, Jessica and Walker, Josh; “Listening Clubs”; https://www.LS:N Global Music: Streaming: Retail; January 30, 2017
Sedacca, Matthew; “Sonic Seasoning is the Growing Scientific Field That Uses Sound to Make Food Taste Better”; Quartz; December 24, 2016
Zemni, Hakim; “A Sonic Branding Revolution is Going on and You Are Not Ready For it”; Insights Consulting; November 29, 2018
Molloy, Shannon; “Victoria Police Hunting for Bourke St Hero dubbed ‘Tolley Man’ Over Alleged Burglaries”;; November 16, 2018
“What Does Your Brain Sound Like?”; Fast Company Co-Design; October 22, 2014