The sound of silence: Technology and society: Designers are paying more attention to devising products that make less noise, which can save energy and boost sales

The sound of silence: Technology and society: Designers are paying more attention to devising products that make less noise, which can save energy and boost sales

Sep 7th 2013 |From the print edition

EFFORTS to regulate the nuisance of distracting noise date back at least as far as the 6th century BC, when the Greek colony of Sybaris decreed that, along with roosters, tinsmiths and potters had to live outside the city because of the noise they made. Some 25 centuries later Charles Babbage, an English mathematician who is remembered as one of the forefathers of computing, waged a series of campaigns against organ grinders and other forms of street music. Both would surely approve of the way in which designers have lately started paying more attention to devising products that make less noise.Steve Jobs of Apple was a pioneer in this regard. He insisted that the original Macintosh computer, launched in 1984, should not have an internal cooling fan, but rely instead on convection cooling to keep it quiet. (This made it silent but prone to overheating, and fans were added to later models.) Yet with computers, as with anything else, quietness tends not to be a quality that buyers regard as terribly important. Surveys show that only about 25% of people consider how noisy a product will be when buying it, according to Mike Goldsmith, a former head of acoustics at Britain’s National Physical Laboratory. But many of them come to regret this, and half of such disgruntled shoppers say they would pay as much as 50% extra for a product that makes half as much noise.

Last year Quiet Mark, a British not-for-profit company, was launched to encourage manufacturers to make quieter products. It was founded by Poppy Elliott, the granddaughter of John Connell, who founded the Noise Abatement Society in 1959. Ms Elliott believes that a quiet environment is necessary to enable people to fulfil their intellectual and creative potential. She points to a report on the health effects of noise published by the World Health Organisation in 2011, which found that in western Europe, excessive noise was second only to air pollution as a cause of environmental ill-health. Quiet Mark campaigns for quieter products and awards a stamp of approval to products or schemes that minimise noise, including kettles, blenders, hairdryers and washing machines—and even hotels and silent musical instruments.

Quietness makes economic sense because excessive noise is usually a sign of waste and inefficiency. Quieter products may cost more, but they generally consume less energy, which makes them cheaper to run. Boeing claims that its fuel-efficient 787 airliner, for example, is also the quietest aircraft in its class. Less noisy aircraft are welcomed by people living near airports and flight paths, but they also make flying less stressful for passengers travelling in them.

That is why NASA, America’s space agency, pays close attention to the noise levels experienced by astronauts. It carefully measures and models the sound output of the equipment it sends into space, on the basis that a quieter working environment increases concentration and reduces fatigue. It applies the same attention to detail on Earth, with stringent noise standards in its ground facilities, and introduced a “buy quiet” procurement scheme in 2009. A report on the programme from 2012 points out that reducing noise in the workplace makes financial sense because as well as boosting productivity, it avoids compensation claims and medical costs. NASA says this is best done by buying low-noise products, even though they typically cost 5-10% more, because retrofitting noise-reduction systems after purchase can cost 10-15 times as much.

Things can sometimes be too quiet, however. Electric cars can be difficult to hear at low speeds, which makes them dangerous to pedestrians and blind people. In Chinese cities the danger comes not from electric or hybrid cars, but from popular (and almost silent) electric bicycles, says Jan Chipchase of Frog Design, an innovation consultancy. Earlier this year America’s Department of Transportation proposed new minimum sound requirements for electric and hybrid cars, which may require sound generators to be added to some vehicles. (The proposed rules prohibit users from using personalised, downloadable “vroomtones”, alas.) Already the Renault Zoe, an electric car, has a sound generator for use at low speeds, and the Lexus IS 300h hybrid has an “active sound control” system designed to give its four-cylinder engine the sound of a V6, even when cruising on electric power. A well-engineered “noise signature” improves the driving experience, says Tomas Keppens, a noise and vibration specialist at the Japanese carmaker.

The addition of sound generators to cars is a good example of how sound can provide vital cues in some products (the artificial camera-shutter sound made by digital cameras) or may be carefully designed to convey quality (the sound made when closing the door of an expensive car). The aim, then, should not be “no sound” but “the right sort of sound”. By and large, though, that will usually mean making less rather than more noise.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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