We've been ignoring the power of sound for far too long

Graeme Harrison, Executive Vice President of Marketing for Biamp Systems, reports on the influence soundscapes can have on the health of individuals and the economy.

While reading the piece it may aid your concentration to listen to this sample from the Sound Agency...  

Since our earliest days, sound has helped us avoid predators and provided us with a depth of awareness about our surroundings that no other sense can match. However, it’s hard to argue that sound plays quite the same role in our lives that it once did – the buildings and structures that make up our cities and house us in our everyday lives are designed almost entirely using visual aesthetics, with sound coming in as an afterthought at best.

To some extent, this blindness (or deafness) to the impact that sound has on us has become even more serious in the modern day. As populations continue to expand we’re living in a world that is steadily becoming noisier. Research from the World Health Organisation has found that regular exposure to noise levels of just 50dB is enough to increase blood pressure, leading to a higher risk of heart attacks (as a point of reference average noise level in a busy office or classroom can exceed 65dB). Then, once you get to hospital, the battle continues as standard hospital wards are now being recorded with noise volumes as high as 92dB - nearly double the acceptable standard.

On the other hand, silence is not the solution. The complete absence of noise is just as unnatural. What you’re listening to now is a generative sound installation that Glasgow Airport trialled in its departures terminal – the scheme was put in place to try to sooth passengers in a potentially stressful environment. In this case researchers found that travellers admitted to feeling more relaxed, even in cases where they hadn’t realised the soundscape was playing. And perhaps more surprisingly, retailers noticed an uplift in sales during the trial, with some periods seeing an increase of nearly 10 per cent in passenger spending. 

The Glasgow case study is far from the only example of how sound can have a powerful effect on behaviour. Across the Atlantic, in the town of Lancaster, California, they experienced a 15 per cent drop in reported crime after the local mayor installed a birdsong-based soundscape in the downtown area. Organisations including the London Underground are following this lead expecting similar gains – when tube stations, including Brixton and Clapham North, noted decreased levels of violence following the introduction of classical music.

So what’s the secret to these experiences? And how far does the potential stretch? Sound may no longer as important for warning us of predators as in the past but, as the research suggests, risks still exist. It’s clear that taking control of local soundscapes can have a positive effect, avoiding the aggravation of uncontrolled noise and offering tangible benefits such as improved health and behaviour of those in the surrounding area. We need to begin constructing our sound environments as carefully as we would the façade and interiors of our buildings. Improving sound design isn’t about bringing home cinema to life, or turning amps up to 11, but is something that can be of real value to our society, health, and economy.

For more information, please see the whitepaper ‘Building in Sound’ which can be found here.

Glasgow Airport - where soundscapes led to an upturn in sales of 10 per cent. Photograph: Getty Images.

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.