The home, household goods & services

Could construction be futureproof?

The age of radical automation is upon us. Fairly soon, robots could outnumber people in some industries. This has prompted dystopian visions of a work-free future, but a quick look at the construction industry provides a more optimistic perspective.

Building is a bedrock industry for any economy and it seems remarkably resilient in the face of technological disruptions happening elsewhere. Why might this be the case?

The main reason is possibly that construction activity, especially house building, is typically custom work. Homes are built according to personalised designs or remodelled, renovated or torn down in similarly unique ways. In other words, each job is relatively unique and factors such as the unique features of a site or the weather can also play a part. The fact that construction relies of dozens of specialised contractors helps too.

Of course, there can be shortages of workers, but using technology or foreign labour has its limits here also.

Ref: Strategy + Business (US), 24.05.17, ‘Why the construction industry may be robot-proof’, by D. Gross.

Lightmare on Elm Street

Could the increased use of LED lighting be a future health problem? Putting aside the fact that over-lit buildings are leading to the destruction of our night skies in urban areas, the introduction of ‘sustainable’ LEDs has created a new problem, which could be linked to obesity, depression and even cancer.

There is nothing dangerous about any light in the visible spectrum provided the intensity isn’t too great. The sun isn’t harmful unless you are exposed to it for too long. The issue comes down to how the increased use of lighting, especially indoors, is impacting the natural cycle that tells our bodies when to sleep. Bright, short-wavelength blue light — like that provided by the sun — wakes us up each morning and makes us alert, but in the evening, it suppresses melatonin and interrupts the transition to a night-time physiology. In short, blue light tricks our bodies into thinking it’s still daytime, which means hunger levels do not decrease and sleepiness does not increase. Hence potential links to sleep disorders and obesity.

In theory, this problem can be solved by adjusting lights towards warmer colours in the evenings, but the issue here is that cooler colours create sharper images, which can be linked to safety. However, if the future is full of autonomous cars and robotic systems this may be less of an issue than it is now. Cool LEDs are also more energy efficient, although simply turning lights off is even more efficient.

But there’s another point to be made here too. Fridges now come with cool white LED lighting, which makes food less appealing. Similarly, white LED Christmas lights take some of the shine off Christmas. Is the future well-lit, efficient and soulless?

Ref: , 26.0317, ‘Are LED Lights Bad for Your Health?’ by T. Lombardo.

The architecture of loneliness

The internet has failed us. Never before have we been so connected, but simultaneously, never before have we felt so alone.

In the UK, loneliness is an epidemic, with a whopping 83 per cent of 18-24-year-olds saying they are sometimes, often or always lonely. Contrast this figure with the 50 per cent of those aged over 55 that say they feel the same way.

The solution to this, apart from deleting social media, is authenticity or realness, according to a University of Houston study. Being yourself creates resilience, whereas being fake or superficial accentuates feelings of loneliness.

But could architecture play a role in reversing this trend? The emerging architecture awards have long tapped into shifting societal trends, so it’s interesting to note that a recent winner was the so-called 10 Cal Tower, a staircase designed by Supermachine Studio architects to encourage physical interactions between parents and their children on the side-lines of playgrounds.

Ref: Architectural Review, 2.12.15, Could architecture play a role in curing loneliness? By Christine Murray

Urban nature spaces and mental health

It is emerging that living in cities — which 50 per cent of the world’s population now do — is negatively linked to mental health. Living in a city may double the risk of schizophrenia, increase anxiety disorders by 21 per cent, increase mood disorders by 39 per cent, and increase depression by 40 per cent.

Vanishing private gardens, increasing noise levels and rising levels of commercially produced visual pollution don’t help either. In short it can be difficult to mentally decompress in a busy urban environment, even within the confines of your own home.

But in the same way that sensitively designed buildings can have a positive impact on mental and physical health, so too can creatively designed green spaces. However, putting in a pocket park isn’t enough. Different natural, or green, spaces have different impacts on cognitive and emotional functions so generic green spaces don’t work especially well. What’s required instead are modular spaces that address differing needs. Moreover, while just five minutes of ‘green exercise’ can have a benefit, people need to be encouraged to linger longer in natural spaces if they are to reap the full rewards.

The benefits of ‘forest bathing’ — taking in the atmosphere of a forest — are increasingly well known, but while not impossible to do in a city, urban forests are somewhat impractical for this purpose. Putting in areas of flat grass and a few trees is better than nothing, but what’s really needed are spaces that are biologically diverse. People require different sights, sounds and smells from a mixture of plants and animals, which create an immersive multi-sensory environment that improves memory, concentration, and creative thought.

Given what we now know about how green spaces can positively influence feelings of calm and wellbeing, as well as decrease agitation and aggression, how long will it be before a daily walk on the wild side becomes compulsory at work, one wonders?

Ref: Foreground (Aus) 29.09.17, ‘Linger longer: it’s better for your mental health’ by Z. Myers. Also, The Conversation (Aus) 31.07.17, Planners know depressingly little about a city’s impact on our mental health’ by J. Byrne.

Walking in the future

With all the discussion about autonomous cars, electric scooters and city-bike schemes it’s easy to forget the fact that most people around the world still travel by foot. Even in big cities like London and Tokyo, people still walk. So what, if anything, is likely to change in the future when it comes to walking?

First, let’s consider the footpath. At the moment, footpaths are what might be termed “dumb”. They are made of asphalt, concrete, brick, or paving stones. They are used by pedestrians and crossed by delivery people accessing shops and offices. At the edge of the footpath, or sidewalk, there’s generally a stone curb separating the path from the road and various kinds of traffic. But this may change, especially as parking private vehicles becomes less common. A company called Grid is developing a system to book kerb space for loading and deliveries, which is something else we are likely to see more of.

Another development is splitting paths and roadways into additional lanes for the likes of bikes or robots. In the future, we may see kinetic pavements too, which harvest the vibration energy of walkers (or robots) in areas with heavy volumes of pedestrian traffic. And let’s not forget climate. In regions with more sun, shade from trees will become more important, while areas receiving more rain may see investment in porous surfaces that drain water more easily to the trees.

As for people themselves, expect more wearable devices and self-tracking, including computerised and energy harvesting clothes.

Ref: Foreground (Aus), no date, ‘What will the footpath of the future look like?’ by David Levinson.

Why smart homes and smart toys might not be a smart idea

The clear theme of the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas was internet connected devices, especially smart devices. For tech optimists, this clearly foreshadows a future in which connected tech will make our lives easier and more convenient, freeing up time to do what we really what to do, which may, or may not, include spending time with family and friends. Elderly people can turn on their lights using voice commands, for instance.

But patent applications from the likes of Google point to a more dystopian future, with smart homes monitoring the emotional state of a home’s occupants or even chastising children. More likely, such devices will simply gather data in order that advertisers can target us more accurately. The security of such data continues to be a concern too, with some reports citing GCHQ, the UK spy agency, as saying that smart energy meters could be hacked, either to shut down utilities or to intercept payments.

A greater concern, perhaps, is how the increasing ubiquity of smart devices — especially voice activated devices such as toys and digital assistants — are impacting children. A study by the University of Washington (US), for instance, found that young children treat such machines as human and therefore trust them with their innermost thoughts and feelings, which again can be hacked. However, the real fear here is not data security or privacy, but what happens when people, especially young children, start to trust machines as much as or more than each other. Could machines one day even replace friends or parents altogether for instance?

Ref: The Times (UK) 12.01.19, ‘Buy a ticket to tomorrow and see the future taking shape’ by M. Bridge and T. Knowles. See also The Times (UK) 16.07.18, ‘Alexa, be my friend: parents fear children fall for digital assistants’ by K. Carlson, The Times (UK) 22.12.18, ‘Smart toys spying on children’ by M. Bridge, A, Lombardi and S. Joiner and 19.12.15, ‘Internet-connected toys threaten to replace imaginary friends – and parents. They’re inevitable, but we can fight’ by Jason Boog.