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Can engineers un-engineer loneliness?

Life on social media vs real lifeDon’t look now, but there’s a giant irony crouching in the corner. It goes something like this: with over 24 billion devices to connect us to one another worldwide, we are somehow lonelier than ever. We’ve grown our average pool of friends on Facebook to 338, but one-quarter of Americans lack a single confidant in whom they feel safe and vulnerable enough to share the ‘important matters’.

On one hand, the possibilities for self-expression and community-building through digital connectivity are boundless and wonderful. On the other hand, surveys like the 2017 Royal Society for Public Health in Britain find the detrimental effects of social media a cancer on the rise. With a severe increase in anxiety and depression, cyberbullying and FOMO-based fear, it’s as if the cyber spaces we fill with conversation are making us hollow on the inside. We are connected, but all the more isolated.

And this phenomenon is not only an ideological one. Research shows that millennials are the generation most likely to stay put rather than to leave their home to socialise. Everything from door to door pizza, to gaming, to Friday night movies, is readily available at home with a click, nullifying the need to buy those overpriced drinks, or take off those comfy slippers after a long week. There’s the fantastic benefit to so much convenience at your fingertips. But there’s also the reality that we’re starting to expect more from technology and less from one another ‒ a reality that chips away at the fundamental human need for social interaction and leads to all sorts of psychological downward spirals.

Little by little, the social and physical design of our digitally-driven worlds is shifting to accommodate this paradoxical reality. The question is what role must we play as the future’s architects and engineers to ensure our worlds do humans well?

Imagine if we, the designers and innovators of tomorrow, assumed responsibility for incorporating these wider social issues into the way we design and build our spaces. Through intelligent design, perhaps we could bring the balance ‒ expecting just as much, if not more, from one another than from the technology we have come to rely on.

A rising pandemic

We were wired for one another. And that’s not just some cute Hallmark cliche; it’s deeply empirical. In a study a few years ago on the effect of social isolation, researchers at Brigham Young University found that mortality risks rise by a shocking 30% ‒ some estimates suggesting as high as 60% ‒ when people are relationally disconnected from one another.

A baby using a smartphoneThis bears obvious implications for people groups such as the elderly who live in physical isolation. But, it also comes as a warning to a younger generation who find the messy, gritty process of relationship building to be too ‘unedited’ and too demanding. Subtly, the more fundamental skills and values necessary for healthy human interaction are being stripped and substituted by a virtual world that invites you to edit your best self and delete what you don’t like of others.

And, all of it is making us lonelier. So much so that the U.K. has recently appointed a Minister of Loneliness to understand and address this new epidemic of socially disconnected people. It’s a bizarre concept that with more humans in the world than ever before, people are struggling to have meaningful conversations with each other. Spare time is spent scrolling through highlight reels of other people’s lives, making individuals feel anxious and unfulfilled themselves.

Yet, as more research confirms that technology is making us more disconnected, could the solution be found in our surroundings?

Engineering interaction

Could this phenomenon one day lead to a reduction in designing individual homes and apartments and move instead towards communal living?

Some cities are already changing the built environment in an effort to address these concerns, providing a mix of private space and communal spaces to encourage human interaction. Communal living is becoming popular in the United States, United Kingdom, and some European cities. Often, instead of one person renting a three-bedroom apartment, people are invited to rent just one room, and share the communal space with ‘suitemates‘.

In some blocks, it is encouraged to cook and eat together in the apartment every night to stimulate social intercourse. Other buildings give you the privacy of a small apartment room with a bathroom and kitchenette, with a shared living area on the bottom floor where you are welcome to work, connect, eat, and hang out.

Of course, the number of millennials still living with Mom has increased, rising from 13.5% in 2005 to nearly 23% today. The primary reason is pegged on high housing costs – but it’s plausible that the psychological benefits of familiarity and the comfort of home are equally attractive drivers to that life choice, grounding this generation in a relational reality that is desperately needed.

Universities are also looking at ways to design their campuses to lure students out of their residences to come to class. With lectures available online, less students are turning up to class because they simply don’t need to. The Queensland University of Technology’s new building Creative Industries Precinct 2, for example, is designed to increase human activity on ground floors to encourage a sense of community and vitality when students mingle between solo studies. With the continual increase in the use of technology in our everyday lives, we must discuss, prioritise, and address these issues to combat the negative impact it might have on life as we know it.

Real world can still win

And, at the end of the day, the research still shows, we are most creative and innovative when we are grounded in a 5-sense reality that cannot be paused or deleted. Good, clean design makes people more productive. So, if that is the case, how can we build spaces that are worth the morning drive through traffic, when we can technically get just as much done in the comfort of our homes? What kind of buildings must we design to inspire and delight and ultimately draw our people together?

Instead of people leaving the busy, noisy office to rush home to lose themselves in a bright screen of anonymity, they might be willing to escape the digital and virtual worlds back to the real world in the office the next day. The draw of the calm, inspiring and quietly energised working space, with aspects of nature incorporated in the building, might be enough to spark a promising conversation with another laughing human who can provide the endorphins a digital device simply cannot. Building from timber and wood – the new ‘supermaterials’ – instead of concrete brings people in an office closer to nature, and is proving to have calming effects such as reducing stress and anxiety.

Creating these meaningful spaces and enriching physical social interaction without rejecting the advancement of technology would help put us in a positive mindset. Biophilia design focuses on the human desire to be connected with nature, and argues that we should incorporate plants, water, outdoor spaces and airflow, as well as carefully select tone and texture of walls in an office.

Designers of workplaces are moving away from choosing between traditional separate offices and modern open-plan cubicles after studies show that people need fluid, multidimensional environments to best perform. Understanding how the built environment affects productivity of workers is being articulated in new designs that incorporate both ‘types’ of office. Informal ‘think’ spaces, standing areas and discussion rooms are popular new dimensions. The need for privacy and quiet, as well as energy and teamwork, are addressed under one roof ‒ both introverts and extroverts can thrive with different approaches to learning and working.

Balancing our desire for and reliance on technology with our innate need to disconnect from the virtual world we have created, and reconnect with the real people behind the devices, is essential for maintaining our mental health and reinforcing the collaborative bond of the human race. Finding this equilibrium relies on engineers creating distinctive, purpose-built infrastructure that offers far more than any digital reality ever can.

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6 replies »

  1. Interesting to see increase in loneliness while the global population is increasing from 6 billion at the start of century to 9 billion by mid/end of century. Melbourne population has increased by approx. 50% in last than 20 yrs and would nearly double in next 35 years.
    Again, the world is increasingly flexible including breaking down on racism, increasing acceptance of LGTBI, flexible work hours, more areas of communication etc. and yet we are witnessing increase in loneliness.
    Things have changed in last 30-40 years however people are still in the old belief system. E.g. people’s age has drastically increased with working life too, but general perception has still remained as used to be. Cities are tearing away with commuting times exceeding 2hrs/day.
    Further studies and investigations are required to understand and laws/protocols need to be implemented to eradicate loneliness. And this requires people involvement from various spheres including psychiatrist, doctors, engineers, entertainers, politicians, law-makers etc.

  2. …there’s a lot to be said for a pizza and pyjama party on a Friday night. Complete with comfy slippers (organised over social media, of course).

  3. Thanks for sharing this one Evelyn! It’s a topic very close to my heart. I went to a talk last night that spoke to the role of humans being the centre of technology. The speaker used Tony Robbin’s identification of six core human needs that serve as an update to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, namely: significance, variety, certainty, love & connection, growth and contribution – showing how these are the needs to be met of the future.

    On a slightly more fun note, I recently discovered an intervention that has been designed to try and address loneliness: https://yuujou.world/. It’s a travel experiment to send 5 people selected from around the world to take 100 days to travel from Berlin to Japan staying only with friends and friends of friends, so they can link the world by one big circle of friendship.

  4. Robert Putnam wrote a fantastic book about this topic in 2000, Bowling Alone, where he discusses how our social capital has plummeted. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women’s roles and other factors have contributed to this decline. His work was published well before mobile phones took such a prominent place in our lives, so it is interesting to see how the decline in social capital has continued in the digital age.

  5. Great article Evelyn! It really makes you think of the irony behind our technology advancements and the decline of real social interactions.

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