The World Around Us

Nature has arguably been the most consistent source of inspiration for the human imagination, sparking curiosity and wonder. It also inspires us to think about the digital environment that now exists, although not necessarily considered natural, it is becoming more and more integrated into our daily lives and decisions. How can we use the environment, whether natural or digital, to improve our health? And what are we putting into the environment that is negatively impacting our health? This week’s Speaker Spotlight will focus on Speakers and Hive Innovators who have creatively thought about these questions, from biophilic buildings to how noise could be the next public health crisis. Regardless of their answer, each one has found creative ways to think about the input and output of humans’ complex relationship with our environment.

Would you be surprised if we told you that something as simple as having a window with a view of nature in your office can increase job satisfaction and decrease job stress? Award-winning architect Amanda Sturgeon designs with this concept in mind: the more we create a symbiotic relationship between buildings and nature, the happier and healthier humans will be. At the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), Amanda and her team focus on biophilic buildings: structures that utilize and celebrate biophilia (love of connecting with life and nature). She worries that the gap between humans and nature is growing too wide and believes that the relationship needs to be repaired to support healthier lives. By incorporating living elements into her designs, as well as infrastructure that more closely resembles what we would find in natural settings, Amanda strives to provide a way to design not just a building, but the relationship between people and nature.

Road traffic, sporting events, concerts, construction sites, airplanes. Sound or noise? Noise is defined as “unwanted sound”, not merely a volume, so it’s more a matter of perspective. However, the impact that noise has on our health is profoundly different than sound in general. Some consider noise as the next great public health crisis, and TEDMED Speaker Mathias Basner will tell us why. As an Associate Professor of Sleep and Chronobiology in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and the President of the International Commission of Biological Effects of Noise, he has spent much of his career exploring the effects of noise on our health, and particularly our sleep. With one of his studies focused on how traffic noise impacts sleep, his team broke down the difference of sleep disruption from road, rail, and air traffic noise. In order to support further research of the impact of disrupted sleep on psychomotor functioning, he worked on improving the validity of the tools used to measure impact. In addition to studying the relationship between noise and humans functioning on the ground, Mathias has also spent time studying sleep in space, and how to best prepare astronauts for a mission to Mars. He’s asking tough questions about how our circadian rhythm is impacted by prolonged microgravity and confinement. Mathias is pushing the boundaries of understanding how our biological rhythms interact with nature.

The CDC’s Most Unwanted List of threats is steadily growing with deadly superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics, making it more and more urgent that we develop new medicines to battle infectious bacterias. When many researchers continue to look for synthetic solutions to this natural phenomenon, Hive Innovator Sean Brady and his team at Lodo Therapeutics are digging in the dirt for answers. They seek new therapeutics to tackle drug-resistant microbial infections and cancers – some of humanity’s greatest dangers. To do so, the team at Lodo is using a gene sequencing technique to extract and sequence microbial DNA from soil. Recently, they discovered a cure for MRSA in rats, an antibiotic-resistant disease that also causes complications in humans ranging from skin infections and sepsis to pneumonia to bloodstream infections. Now working to improve the drug’s effectiveness in hopes of developing a treatment for humans, Sean and his team at Lodo are turning to nature for solutions to life-threatening problems.

Lodo’s Lab

What if our environment, and the devices that monitor us and our surroundings, could feed life-saving information to emergency response services? Michael Martin asked this question, and the answer is his work at RapidSOS. Using data collected by Internet of Things (IoT) devices and companies ranging from biometric sensors and cell phones to automobiles and home security systems, RapidSOS bolsters our nation’s outdated 9-1-1 platform with rich, dynamic information that can help first responders save lives. They’re building partnerships with a wide range of organizations to collect data from multiple sources and are already able to deliver a more exact location of people in need, speeding first responders to their aid. Their goal is to arm EMS with as much information as is possible and relevant to save lives and even contact emergency contacts to activate an extended support network. RapidSOS puts our digital environment to work to provide the best possible care in our times of crisis.

As we design more technology to manipulate our environment, it becomes clearer that we must not lose sight of incorporating natural elements as well. Whether it’s building biophilic buildings that integrate the synthetic with nature or measuring the impact of human-made noise on sleep deprivation and thus cognition, the relationship between what’s natural and synthetic has become more enmeshed, creating the hybrid world we live in. It’s using this hybrid environment for good, such as our personal data being fed to first responders, and digging in the dirt for antimicrobial organisms, that allows us to progress forward, hand in hand with nature instead of fighting it.