Inspiration | Back to the Future, an essay by Mark Major

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This article was first published in Lightecture's 'New Ways of Thinking', the edition guest edited by Mark Major.

Fast forward…

On 21st September 1964, the science-fiction writer and futurologist Arthur C. Clarke was interviewed by the BBC as part of a new science series called ‘Horizon’. During the show he reflected:

“Trying to predict the future is a discouraging, hazardous occupation, because the prophet invariably falls between two schools: If his predictions sound at all reasonable, you can be quite sure that in 20, or at most 50 years, the progress of science and technology has made him seem ridiculously conservative. On the other hand, if by some miracle a prophet could describe the future exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched that everybody would laugh him to scorn.”

This revered creator of incredible, imagined worlds warns us that looking to the future is often a dangerous pursuit. At the same time, the fact that ‘science fiction’ often becomes ‘science fact’, tells us that only looking to the past may not be enough.

Whatever we may believe about 'future-gazing’ however, every so often it does us good to do a bit of ‘blue sky thinking’, despite the near certainty that we will fall well short of making accurate predictions. In doing so we may at least help inform our direction of travel or trigger new ways of thinking.

So that is what this opinion piece is about: More of a glimpse towards the future of lighting rather than an attempt to stare it directly in the face. A search for the questions we may need to ask to help move us forward rather than bold assertions of what is most likely to happen.

But it is not intended to be a radical vision in the way science fiction writers might have it. I guess ‘radical’ might be to suggest that we bio-engineer our eyes so we all have night-vision or eliminate electric light altogether, going back to a pre-electric world. Somehow neither sounds that attractive. It is about how we might think about light and lighting in the future… in some cases building on the past and in others visualising the small incremental moves that we might make, particularly in a world that is threatened by the existential crisis that is climate change, and to which lighting makes a contribution.

Problems, problems…

Before we start thinking about lighting tomorrow it is perhaps worth considering some of the problems we need to solve today. After all, if nothing needs changing, we need not look for new solutions.

We can already create more artificial light than we need, at a relatively low cost and to a quality that is sufficiently close to the daylight that the two can become almost indistinguishable. We can also distribute and control that light at an exceedingly fine level of detail, fully integrating it into both the external and internal environment. This is a far cry from where mankind started out with a few basic burning torches! So, what is the problem?

Despite the amazing social and economic benefits that artificial lighting brings to our society, we have come to realise that using it comes with some serious consequences. All of these are well-known and are largely environmental and ecological issues such as energy use, light pollution, adverse impacts on both human health and ecology, and the excessive creation of waste. All of this adds up to the fact that this wonderful medium we work with ultimately harms our planet and its ecosystems and in so doing harms us. Ordinarily this would be sufficient cause for concern but in a world that now acknowledges a climate emergency, these are things we simply can’t ignore. For if the future is about anything at all it must be about how we can modify our current behaviour to safeguard the planet for future generations. Not to do so would be unforgivable.

The fact that as lighting designers we may be engaged in causing harm should come as no great surprise. Whilst during the 20th century ‘designers’ developed objects and systems to meet a wide variety of needs, many now see that what we helped to create, and the global consumerism that we supported, sometimes makes our profession part of the problem rather than the solution.

I say ‘sometimes’ as many of the most essential technologies and services that we use would not exist without design, whether that is medical appliances, public transport systems, refrigerators, computers, smart phones - or even basic garments. Lighting is no exception. It is invaluable– and needs to be ‘designed’. What is being increasingly rejected in some quarters are commercially led choices that produce non-essential outcomes that in turn use precious resources and lead to excessive waste. Many forms of both exterior and interior lighting tick that box. Never has the future needed us to follow the famous maxim ‘less is more’.

If the future is about anything at all it must be about how we can modify our current behaviour to safeguard the planet for future generations.”

Room for improvement…

In trying to improve things in the future our starting point should always be to explore the opportunities created by natural light. Not only is it a free and sustainable source of light energy, but it also supports our well-being. Whilst the presumption may be that is what we do already, in my opinion we are currently going backwards: In our cities and towns pressure on space combined with development economics seems to dictate that we must rely on increasingly deep plan buildings, layers of sub-basements and underground connections to accommodate our changing needs. Where space is at a premium daylight inevitably gives way and artificial light can be found burning all day as well as throughout the night. Whilst as lighting designers we might argue that improving daylighting within buildings is so bound up with the design of the architecture it is difficult for us to tackle, we must not only continue to campaign for better access to daylight as a precursor to the inclusion of artificial light, but work hard to explore new forms and materials that reflect, refract and transmit daylight and sunlight into interiors in innovative, creative and imaginative ways.

But when we do have to use artificial light, whether that is in the support of daylight or to fully illuminate our world after dark, what are the things we need to change?

We have always needed lighting. From the flickering firelight of the Neolithic to the bright glare of LED today, our requirements have generally been satisfied by whatever technology existed at the time. For centuries this was naked flame, and whilst the choice of fuel varied from tallow to bees’ wax, from whale oil to paraffin, it was only when we learned to industrialise illumination through gas and then electricity that we appeared to finally emancipate ourselves from the darkness. This changed our society for ever. Indeed, along with the wheel, the printing press and the telephone, the invention of the humble light bulb consistently features as one of the great ‘game-changers’ of all time. Freed from our reliance on the sun, electric light has enabled us to continue to work, rest and play after dark, moving us from a largely diurnally based society to a twenty-four-hour, seven-day-a-week culture. And whilst there are still parts of the developing world where access to electric light is limited, holding up everything from economic progression to education - what we call ‘light poverty’ - one only needs to view our planet from space to appreciate the extent to which artificial light now supports our common existence.

It is perhaps this constant preoccupation with technology within the field of lighting that has sometimes stopped us asking other, deeper questions about our relationship with artificial light. The fact that ‘we could’ meant that ‘we did’ – and for many decades this has seemed enough. 

And here it is difficult to define what came first? Did we develop lighting technologies to meet our needs and then figure out how to apply them, or did we define the parameters and precisely deliver the solutions? It was probably a bit of both. And whilst I am sure the pioneers of electricity and lighting such as Edison, Swann and Tesla could not have reasonably envisaged the downsides of their marvellous inventions any more than Tim-Berners-Lee, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg set out to create some of the issues that arise from the development of the internet, smart phones and social media respectively, we have certainly now reached a tipping point with artificial light where many have begun to ask searching questions about the seemingly un-checked, unregulated and un-ceasing expansion of the artificially lit world.

Such lines of enquiry are not confined to key issues such as the role of darkness, the qualities of the night, the benefits and impacts on human health and ecology and what it means for the future of our planet – not just in terms of the depletion of precious natural resources, our carbon footprint and the resulting toxic electronic waste - but also in terms of function and aesthetics from the role of standards to the seemingly uncontrolled use of coloured light and illuminated media in the public realm.

So, in looking to the future and how we may improve things we need to ask ourselves ‘what are the things we might consider beyond technology alone?’

Less can be more…

The most basic thing we can ask about the future of lighting is just how much light do we need, where and when?

As far as I am aware no creature on the planet needs artificial light other than human beings – though that may be down to my own ignorance! Indeed, we know that for many species we share the planet with the presence of artificial light creates serious issues of health, even survival. And if our use of electric light is twofold – for both our vision and our senses – how do we deliver on both going forward?

In terms of ‘vision’ we know that as diurnal animals our eyes have evolved over millennia to be able to adapt to a wide range of lighting values. The healthy human eye can comfortably see in conditions ranging from starlight to sunlight. To that end we might question why we would illuminate any external or internal space brighter than the minimum we need. Whilst we have been taught that it depends on the visual task that pre-supposes that our eyes are all the same, whereas we know that our vision varies greatly depending on our physical make up, age and other factors. If you are a surgeon carrying out a heart by-pass it does not seem unreasonable that you require very bright and uniform lighting, whereas if you are enjoying a romantic dinner for two the low and intimate glow of candlelight is enough. To that end the decision about how much light we need at any given time has long been determined by two things: ‘standards’ that have evolved to guide us as to average and minimum levels of illumination for different given situations, and ‘preference’ for different types of light to create varying emotional responses.

The latter may be more important than we appreciate: It is perhaps not our physical needs that should be the starting point for lighting design in the future but our psychological requirements. Not our vision, but perception. Afterall if we feel that the amount of light and the ambience it creates is acceptable - what matters? And here lies the problem. It is all about the individual. If we are only designing lighting for one person at a time then it may be relatively straight forward to create the right conditions, especially if they have control over their lit environment. But how do we suit a wider range of people of different ages, sexes, physical attributes, and cultural preferences without leaning towards ‘average’ conditions. The simple answer is that we can’t - but we can improve things.

Firstly, we can at least agree that where there is no human activity there doesn’t need to be any artificial light. This is not only to address the millions of square meters of empty office buildings and car parks that remain lit after dark across the world each night, but also the kilometres of highways, streets and footpaths that likewise remain illuminated despite the fact that nobody is using them. And this is not something we need to wait to tackle: The solutions to solving such problems have been with us for as long as presence detectors and timeclocks have existed. Whilst it sounds obvious, if we just get this one issue resolved we can not only save tonnes of CO2 associated with wasted light but also extend the lives of millions of LED fixtures.

Secondly, is there a more intelligent way of designing through which we might better analyse each problem we are trying to solve in more detail, particularly the exact amount of light that we need to use and how it is distributed and controlled? I am questioning whether the ‘one-size-fits all’ approach to standards of illumination that we have often adopted over the decades now has to come to an end.

So, the way forward in the future should be to completely re-examine the standards and codes that we commonly employ and get more used to living with less light than we do. In saying this I am not suggesting that we go back to the levels of illumination people would have been used to in the pre-electric world. History shows us these would be very low indeed by modern standards, potentially creating issues around everything from safety to convenience. The genie is also somewhat out of the bottle in terms of instantly obtainable, affordable, and deliverable artificial light. But given that under two centuries ago people still coped with the limitations of candlelight, could we imagine a society that uses less light as being progressive rather than backward?

Either way, we should be questioning how we apply standards and practices that have ultimately led to the current range of environmental problems that we are now experiencing, and worse still perpetuating those same standards in the developing world. The lighting design profession is a highly international community that is well connected. We have the opportunity in our grasp to change the message that whilst artificial light can bring huge benefits that we need to safeguard against environmental damage, particularly in those areas which still retain their natural darkness. But we need to speed up: The sooner we put our own house in order the quicker things will change.

Regulation wear…

Which brings me neatly onto the thorny issue of regulation. I realise it is not an exciting sounding subject in an article dedicated to thinking about future trends.

I have always generally been against the idea of regulation in lighting for two reasons: A lack of rules can provide more creative freedom, and a genuine concern as to who might be setting the parameters by which we work.

I say that as the lighting industry does not necessarily have a great track record when it comes to developing its own guidance. At the same time, it is going to be better to ask those that are experienced in working with light to set the pace than allow politicians or bureaucrats with little understanding to do it for us. Perhaps the most attractive idea is for us to become self-regulating as a community through redefining ‘best practice’?

Whatever the answer is I think it is fair to say that if we are to try and overcome the environmental issues we face that some sort of regulation is probably going to be required in the future.

Initially this might come through three areas: The first is through the setting of even more ambitious energy targets to help reduce operational carbon. The second is through the adoption of ordinances and controls around obtrusive light and light pollution, and which include the issue of light spilling from interior schemes, particularly from highly glazed buildings. The last is through a raft of laws, codes, and guidance around the need for recycling, circularity of design and the reduction of waste in the lighting industry that helps tackle embodied carbon. Whilst all three measures have been under way in most developed countries for some time now, we need to go further and faster.

I say that as at this time, despite some initiatives such as the European WEEE Directive, any form of limitation is still largely down to the conscience and knowledge of those designing and delivering lighting schemes working within developing sets of codes governing the design, development, manufacturing, distribution, installation and disposal of lighting rather than through legal obligation.

We should also bear in mind that the majority of lighting installations that contribute to environmental impact are rarely designed by lighting professionals. Whilst a lot comes down to education and training, a better future calls for an increasing move towards lighting only being designed by properly trained and licensed designers and engineers equipped with the knowledge to take a more creative, holistic and rigorous technical approach. 

Of course, another way that light may end up being ‘regulated’ in the future is through taxation. This is not a move that I am actively promoting as we all pay enough tax - but there will surely be the temptation to do this in the future! After all, pretty much every commodity we use in the modern, industrial world is taxed, and whilst light is no exception in that it is realised through revenues generated against the cost of electricity, there remains a question as to whether in a world capable of gathering data on everything, understanding how much light people are using in terms of ‘lux per hour’, or the light output ratios of buildings and landscapes, may one day become a target for the authorities. Whilst I can certainly think of no quicker way to reduce the amount of light that is used, it is one future reality I earnestly hope we can avoid!

But whatever one thinks of such ideas about ‘regulation’ there is a clear message: In the future we should be treating light as a much more precious commodity. Not only as a beautiful material that we should use sparingly and with purpose, but as a medium that has a definable and measurable ‘value’. Does ‘the lumen’ cease to be simply a measure and acquire actual worth, becoming something we don’t take for granted and easily waste? Either way we must get the message out there to use as little light as possible to create the maximum outcome. And as part of this way of thinking we also need to value darkness and shadow more than we do; to convey that a lack of light is not a negative thing.

An educated guess…

And so, to conclude with that train of thought: About the need to get the message out there: that comes down to one of the most vital points about the future of lighting, and that is education.

Something that is very interesting about being a lighting designer is what happens when you describe what you do. It often takes a while for the message to sink in, for once it does people, even those who have no formal training in any aspect of environmental design or architecture, quickly grasp the importance and significance of good lighting. Also, whilst conversation at such moments used to be about technology or the importance of ambience (or both) it is interesting how these days environmental issues quickly come into focus. The public at large is now much more conscious of two things around light and lighting: safety and environmental impact. And here lies the paradox. Our association with artificial light is often that it keeps us safe and helps us do things after dark that we otherwise couldn’t - and therefore we should use more of it. Whereas when we get onto conversations about energy use and light pollution there is a clear understanding that we should use less of it.

Getting the balance right between these two positions in the future is ultimately going to be a matter of education. Not just of lighting designers themselves, but we need to somehow introduce the topic of light and lighting into national curricula, preferably at primary and secondary level. And not only as a science but also as an art. 

Most importantly future generations need to be brought up to value light in the same way as they are gradually being encouraged to do with other commodities such as the use of water or eating meat. But how do we do this when the further education of lighting designers themselves is so pitiful across the world? Very few universities, schools of engineering, design, architecture, and art provide high quality degrees or post-graduate courses in lighting design and engineering. If we can’t properly educate the lighting designers and engineers of tomorrow ourselves, how do we expect to improve wider understanding amongst the general public? So, perhaps one of our imagined futures might be a world in which education about light and lighting becomes much higher priority. That and recognition that we need to learn from, and collaborate with, a much wider range of other disciplines including biologists, sociologists, psychologists, ecologists…the list goes on…alongside our more traditional creative partners such as architects, interior designers, landscape designers, design engineers and artists.

The good news is such partnerships are not only growing but thriving with many practicing designers and academics from other disciplines actively engaging with the field of lighting in positive co-operations than even a decade ago.

But right now, we need to go faster if we are to approach the future with real optimism, and particularly with research that can support evidence-based design. The list of topics that need to be covered is so vast it can make your head spin. The main limitation is therefore not so much formulating an agenda for what we need to investigate but more how the required knowledge base is to be co-ordinated, disseminated, shared, constantly updated, and of course properly funded such that access to valuable information about light and lighting can be shared by all those that need it.

Back to the future…

In starting this piece about the future with a quote from a science-fiction writer I may have created the anticipation of an article that would be all about a technologically driven revolution where lighting schemes designed by artificial intelligence, the 3-D printing of light fittings from recycled organic matter, and the use of satellite mapping to reduce light pollution (all happening today)rapidly gives way to night-vision contact lenses, saltwater sources and bioluminescence (also available now). But rather than be about technology I see the future of light and lighting drawing on our understanding of the past, our common sense, and humanity to make choices about using less, caring more, regulating our actions, and improving our collective education. In so doing I believe I that I have avoided the pitfall that Arthur C. Clarke warns us about and followed a more tangible and realisable route to the future. But if there is one clear message that I want to get across it is this: That we need a much greater sense of urgency. Whilst change is taking place, it is not fast enough. Whilst we broadly understand the issues, we need more research. Whilst best practice is important, it may not be good enough. We therefore need to re-double our efforts as a design community and work together for a better tomorrow. For as the political theorist, John H Schaar reminds us: “The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”