Mumbli founder on a mission to make venues more sonically inclusive

Anna Mitchell finds out how London startup mumbli is addressing noise and acoustics in a bid to make venues more inclusive when she catches up with founder Marion Marincat.

By 2050 the WTO estimates that more than 900 million people will have disabling hearing loss. Some of the rise is down to a growing elderly population but hearing loss is becoming more prevalent in young people too. 

So when at age 26 Marion Marincat experienced an 80% reduction in his hearing over just six months, he was initially devastated, he was shocked, but he wasn’t alone. Marincat quickly realised two things. One, there was technology that could help him but it was surrounded by stigma and lack of understanding. Two, the world is not built to support people with hearing loss. 

Marincat’s response was to start an audiology company specifically targeting young people, talking about hearing protection and tackling the stigma attached to hearing aids. However, in starting to have these conversations and in raising these issues he met resistance from young people who acknowledged they had a problem but were opposed to addressing it. 

It dawned on Marincat that there was a wider issue. “We’re not designing for sound and we’re not educated to talk about hearing at all until we actually have a problem,” he argues.

Marincat founded mumbli in 2018 with an aim to do exactly that and started with wide ranging market research gathering the opinions of people with and without degrees of hearing loss. 

“Very quickly we realised that public spaces are very noisy,” he explains. “We started investigating how people find communicating in restaurants and bars and discovered that 60% of the population has some decreased sound tolerance, which manifests in some people more aggressively or more emotionally than others. But certainly, people take decisions not to go out or not to socialise because of noise. 

“We take the world as it is, and we take the social spaces as they are. But there is another way. There is a way of designing spaces for their acoustic performance.” 

Suddenly mumbli had a sharper focus and Marincat had found the best tool in persuading venues to take this seriously: an unequivocal link between customer choice and sound. 

The team at mumbli went on to develop an approach to test a space acoustically to provide insight about how it worked and there is a mumbli certification for venues that meet certain standards. However, Marincat emphasises that the company isn’t about slapping a pass/fail sticker on a venue and outlines a more nuanced and in-depth approach to the analysis. 

“The challenge that businesses have is that they don't know how to translate sound or atmosphere into a tangible tool or a tangible way of taking decisions around it,” he says. “We're building a device to give businesses a continuous tool to understand the atmosphere of their space, and to understand whether they can do anything to improve it immediately, or they need to change the materials, the design of the space. 

“We are trying to kind of move away from preaching about good design for people with hearing reduction, to helping businesses address the challenge of maintaining a preferred atmosphere in the space for anyone, not just for people with hearing challenges.”

Mumbli has initially focused on the Shoreditch district of London. It’s a vibrant area packed with an eclectic mix of bars and restaurants so a good place to start. The team had a goal of measuring sound in 300 venues and had managed 88 when Covid-19 hit, stopping the project in its tracks.

As hospitality begins to open up, mumbli has changed tack slightly and now has a plan to supply devices to measure sound atmosphere, initially in 10 venues, and have that data feed back to the mumbli platform. It gives a real-time indication of a venue’s atmosphere which will change throughout the day as music levels are adjusted or the amount of people in a venue changes, for example.

Venues that perform badly can be linked to acoustic engineering companies but Marincat is also hoping to prevent venues that create poor sonic environments ever being built as well. His strategy for this is to engage with architects. 

But the approach isn’t really about saying this is good, this is bad. People don’t react to noise in the same way and some personalities will be comfortable and even enjoy venues that deliver a buzzy, vibrant atmosphere, while others will find the same noise distracting. There are also some atmospheres that simply won’t work for anyone. But a lot of the approach is about understanding what you’re creating and the impact that will have on people rather than operating in the dark.

But even with the best measurement and interpretation, it’s very hard to convey this simply and effectively. Mumbli is tackling that with “auras”. The team worked with data scientists at Stanford University to design the system. Using words, colours and shapes (each relate to specific noise characteristics) mumbli can now visually convey a venue’s aura and start to explain to owners and managers what effect the space is having on the people in it including just how problematic, or helpful, it’s likely to be for someone with some sort of hearing reduction or impairment. 

And while venues have the tools to nail down their aura, people can also start to understand what aura suits them best. This is likely to change depending on your mood, why you’re going out, the time of year and so on. But it’s possible to see a future where customers – particularly those with some kind of hearing reduction – could see what auras venues were offering and plan their night out accordingly. 

The statistics point to the fact that the issues Marincat is raising, and in part addressing with mumbli, will become increasingly important as the number of people with hearing reduction grows. That increase might mean that social issues surrounding hearing aids decrease, and the drive to act on making the world a better place for people with hearing problems will gather pace. But with one in six adults in the UK currently affected by hearing loss you have to wonder how much more widespread it has to become before people start having more serious conversations. 

Marincat wants to see venues accommodate people with hearing reduction in the same way they’d provide wheelchair ramps and disabled access. It’s hard to argue against and I also don’t think anyone can say they haven’t experienced some kind of discomfort from distracting sound in a venue. In striving to make the world better for people with hearing loss, Marincat has demonstrated you make the world better for everyone.

Article Categories