Inspiration | What if we design for coexistence? An essay by Benz Roos

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

The technosphere and regenerative thinking

In a few years, 65,000 satellites will be orbiting our Earth. According to some astronomers, human-made elements will make up one in ten visible lights in the night sky. It marks another milestone in the Anthropocene, when humanity taints the darkest skies. Satellite swarms represent the ever-expanding influence of the technosphere on our society and planet, and are also orbiting symbols of growing inequality among people on Earth. The spaceships could become billboards in low orbit (01); we all watch the toys of billionaires in the night sky. However, if satellites really do provide adequate internet access to remote communities, it will help to equalise the quality of life of people around the world. That might justify the light pollution.

The satellite constellations illustrate the way humanity's Anthropocene is gradually making our planet unhealthy. The Anthropocene is still nature, manifested in a toxic nightmare (02). Humans are part of nature and therefore need a healthy ecosystem to survive. Fortunately, many people today dream of a much healthier planet. A world that allows all living organisms to coexist and co-evolve. 

In the 20th century, Bauhaus advocated that the human-centric experience ought to reside at the heart of all design. Even today, smartphones are using this design philosophy. However, this human-centric approach does not consider the broader consequences of design decisions, such as the impact on the environment. In the 21st century, designers ought to think regeneratively. Regenerative thinking takes inspiration from nature's complexity and views humans as part of this ecosystem. Economist Kate Raworth makes this inspiration clear; "Nature doesn't do zero – it's regenerative" (03). Nature uses a holistic process-oriented approach to continually evolve and revitalise its ecosystem, to make it a better place for all living organisms, including humans. 

Alongside the Anthropocene, humans have also introduced the technosphere to the planet. The Earth now sustains the technosphere alongside the cryosphere, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere and the biosphere. The amount of technology combined with artificial intelligence allows the technosphere to become an entity of its own. In the future, the technosphere will intertwine and merge with our biosphere. The integration of these two spheres could be catastrophic for humans. However, the fusion of biology and technology can also create opportunities to benefit humanity, all other species and the planet as a whole. Artificial intelligence is already one of the favourite technologies used in wildlife conservation. 

Technology is a tool and will not revitalise our world on its own. In the book Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation, Paul Hawken makes a case for humans. He writes, "The most complex, radical climate technologies on Earth are the human heart, head, and mind, not a solar panel" (04). On the other hand, Dutch artist and philosopher Koert van Mensvoort urges progress towards the next nature (05) to achieve regenerative goals. Van Mensvoort believes that the blending of the technosphere and biosphere will allow ecology to evolve in unexpected ways. He is not alone in his belief; MIT professor and designer Neri Oxman also imagines an era where the distinction between natural and artificial will fade away. She thinks; "In the future, we will adjudicate designers based on whether they are nature 'users' or 'abusers'. (06)

All living organisms influence and alter their environment in one way or another. Three billion years ago, cyanobacteria produced oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis. The microbes changed the biosphere on Earth to eventually sustain the human species. Today, genetic engineering tools like CRISPR could design the next nature. For example, engineered microbes could potentially eat the ocean's plastic waste, changing the marine environment for the better.

The evolution of the technosphere raises fundamental questions about what kind of ecosystem we create for ourselves and all other living organisms. Design cannot save the planet alone. However, designers can help imagine what a healthier world might look like by asking fundamental questions. For example, Tommy Campbell, design lead at Space10, suggests the following question; "your design may be good - but does it do good?" (07) These kinds of questions about consequences are crucial for regenerative thinking. These questions can open dialogues. They turn a self-centric approach into a holistic system. 

How can lighting design engage with regenerative thinking? More importantly, how can lighting designers create for the coexistence of living organisms? We ought to start by asking inspiring questions to start the dialogue. 

What if light-emitting microbes could feed on our food waste? 

A critical factor in a systematic design approach is to influence behaviour positively. Imagine if the residents' food waste powers the lighting in their street. Microbes in transparent tanks could replace columns and lanterns. Maybe one day, you’ll be able to feed the light-emitting microbes your dinner leftovers. This could be an incentive for people to separate food waste. It might change attitudes about waste and energy. 

What if luminaires could use salt as their power source?

Designers ought to contextualise and celebrate the uniqueness of each place on Earth. The catalyst of regenerative thinking, Dr Daniel Christian Wahl, suggests being careful with a copy-paste mindset that is insensitive to the bio-cultural identity of place (08). For example, creative agency Wunderman Thompson has developed a portable luminaire that can turn half a litre of saltwater into light, through ionisation (09). Their idea is to bring portable light and electricity to indigenous communities in La Guajira on the coast of Colombia. Imagine one day luminaires made from saltwater that provide the lighting for coastal areas, powered by their local natural resources. 

What if trees could control the intensity and colour of light? 

We should think much more about the consequences of lighting designs impact on the immediate environment of projects. Today plants and trees have no means to influence the amount of light they receive. In the future, trees might be able to control lighting schemes. Artificial intelligence can already detect the stress of plants by analysing the photosynthetic activity of their leaves. Imagine a future in which all living organisms control the nearby artificial light. The lighting schemes might create unexpected visual surprises for humans while doing less harm to the environment. 

What if communities could control their public lighting? 

Capturing different perspectives enriches lighting design. Residents of communities could control their public lighting via an app. The light levels would be the average of all the values entered into the app by the residents. Perhaps the app could give feedback on the improvements of ecology and indicate when there are interesting things to see in the night sky, such as particular constellations or the phases of the moon. Perhaps the town council could plant trees in the neighbourhood as a reward for energy savings? Or the app could send messages like, "The street lighting has been dimmed due to migrating birds" or "Consider switching off the streetlights at 9 pm to watch a particular celestial event." The app could engage people to reconnect with their local natural environment directly.

What if town councils could remove public lighting? 

The default in design is to 'add' rather than 'subtract'. However, focussing on subtraction could save materials and potentially improve the human experience. Imagine how much energy and materials cities could save if they removed all the public lighting equipment and infrastructure. Town councils could encourage people to use the torch on their smartphones. Most cyclists and runners already carry their lights, so why couldn’t pedestrians do the same? Perhaps this would enable a new creative use of the augmented reality function in smartphones. 

What if artificial light could become part of the ecosystem?

Writer Paul Hawken notes, "In the city, nature does not enter into the child's life except in the form of weather." (10) Perhaps, natural light and a few stars in the night sky are the other exceptions. Lighting design must help support thriving ecosystems. Natural environments are not only good for wildlife; they also promote the mental wellbeing of humans. Imagine bioengineered microbes or other living organisms that emit light according to the seasons. Imagine luminaires growing in summer, glowing in autumn, radiating in winter and becoming food for wildlife in spring. Light and its equipment will then be transient and part of the natural ecological cycle. 

What if equipment could embrace the spirit of kintsugi?      

Regenerative thinking is a holistic approach to design following circular economics and upcycling principles. The aim is to keep materials and lighting equipment in use and minimise (electronic) waste. There are opportunities in upcycling and mending equipment. In Japan, kintsugi is a metaphor for embracing imperfections. Imagine how repaired optics could create unexpected diffracted light patterns or shadows by embracing imperfections.

What if light became a costly commodity?

Thomas Edison engineered the lightbulb as a cost-effective commodity available to everyone. Artificial light has been an inexpensive commodity ever since. Cheap LEDs and equipment have flooded the world with artificial light. Imagine light as a very precious commodity. Every luminaire could become a jewel, fully part of the circular economy. Perhaps we should follow Dieter Rams' advice; 'Less, but better' (11) and use high-quality luminaires sparsely.

What if we could use bioengineered natural light sources?

According to Danish urban designer and architect Jan Gehl, "Monotony is what we saw in the modernistic times, and we came to hate it". (12) With the perfection of LEDs as a light source, artificial light seems to be becoming more and more monotone. There used to be multiple light sources with varying qualities; now there is just one: LED. In the future, LEDs might be accompanied by bioengineered light sources, whether they are glowing microbes, algae or plants that absorb and then slowly emit light. (13)

What if lighting design could actively create areas of darkness? 

In his book Half-Earth, the late biologist Dr. E.O. Wilson proposes that “Only by committing half of the planet's surface to nature can we hope to save the immensity of the life forms that compose it.” (14) Lighting design could take inspiration from this aim and actively generate darkness. Imagine an organism that opens in response to artificial light or in the absence of daylight. Living organisms could become shields to block artificial light from reaching eco-sensitive areas and 'generate' darkness.

What if we stop adding?

Switching off all the lights could be the best thing for our planet and coexistence. But that is not realistic; nor is it what regenerative thinking suggests. However, we have reached an extraordinary moment for lighting design. As designers, we create new schemes and add more (new) things to the world. The idea of constantly creating new things fits in perfectly with the economic model of endless growth. The addition of new buildings, objects and other things substantially contributes to the climate change problem. What if we stop adding and start thinking about whether we can do things differently and change paradigms? The questions above are an attempt to see how we could integrate design into transient ecological cycles. To quote science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, "I am not proposing a return to the Stone Age. My intent is not reactionary, nor even conservative, but simply subversive. It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth". (15) Design ought to help liberate the utopian imagination again. The exciting challenge for all design disciplines will be to imagine a different world. A world in which all living organisms coexist equally.

Finally, scenarios of doom and dread seem to predominate in the climate crisis press. However, while writing this article, I read many inspiring stories about progressive thinking writers, philosophers, architects, scientists, artists and designers, and I thought it helpful to share those resources with you. Not only is that good practice, but I also hope that you'll read one or two of those stories yourself to get motivated for an inspiring future ahead. One that could see us feeding light-emitting microbes with our waste.

Reference Notes

  1. Astronomers Want to Save Dark Skies from Satellite Swarms,, 2022
  2. Dark Ecology, Timothy Morton, Columbia University Press, 2016
  3. How bad design is driving the 'take-make-waste' economy,, 2021
  4. Ending the climate change in one generation, Paul Hawkin, Pinguin 2021
  5. Next Nature, Koert van Mensvoort, Maven Publishing, 2021
  6. Designs for different futures, Yale University Press, 2020
  7. Regenerative by Design,, 2021
  8. Sustainability is not enough: we need regenerative cultures, 2017
  9. Water light,, 2021
  10. Ending the climate change in one generation, Paul Hawkin, Penguin 2021
  11. Subtract: The untapped science of less, Leidy Klotz, St. Martins Press 2021
  12. The Ideal city exploring urban futures, Space 10, Gestalten 2021
  13. The next generation of glowing plants,, 2021
  14. Half-Earth: Our planets fight for life, Edward O. Wilson, Liveright 2016
  15. The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in the capitalist ruins, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Princeton University Press 2015