I recently spoke at LightShow West with Chris Brown on the primary topic of interest in the lighting industry – the future. Lighting seems to be permanently "disrupted" and we’re abidingly anxious about it. This talk was meant to say: "OK things are in chaos, now what?" I started with Chris’s "Illumigeddon/Illumitunity" meme (the end of the lighting industry as we know it/the promise of progress), wove in my pet theory of convergence, and identified some "Illumitunities" and ways to take advantage of them.
Several years ago, Chris, as the CEO of Wiedenbach Brown, a prominent national lighting distributer, saw apocalyptic change looming in the lighting industry. With a lucrative, entrenched business based largely on replacing lightbulbs, distributors had become vulnerable to new LED products with their long lifetimes. Chris saw Illumigeddon coming and rang the alarm. Now that LEDs have ushered in massive disintermediation and destroyed the old MRO (maintenance, repair and operations) business model, distributors must reinvent themselves or be factored out of the equation. Illumigeddon says, adapt or die. Its flip side, Illumitunity, says, lighting is exciting and chaos equals opportunity.
Enter the convergence model, which says that transformation is driven by many factors converging, not a single invention created by a heroic crazy genius winning the zero-sum game of disruption. At the turn of the 20th century, the convergence of railroads, steam power, telegraph, time zones and electricity drove a global economic transformation far more profound than what we’re experiencing today with the internet. Today, a massive change is happening in electrical infrastructure, powered by the convergence of renewable energy, distributed generation, advanced storage and intelligent networks. Unlike disruption, convergence is a non–zero-sum game, it’s win-win – not always, but winning and losing are distributed equally.
What are the Illumitunities today for the lighting industry? Where can we find them? And how does reality measure up against the hype?
IoT in lighting is mostly hype, largely because the narrative is driven by tech companies, not lighting companies. Because most of the applications envisioned so far live on the lighting infrastructure but don’t relate to lighting, most specifiers don’t understand or care much about IoT yet. Despite some encouraging developments, the Smart City idea remains mostly fantasy, hampered by cost, government inertia and communications infrastructure problems.
One of the underlying problems with incorporating new learning about biological processes into lighting is that lighting people are mostly trained as engineers or architects, not in life sciences. They can’t be expected to have a deep understanding of, say, neurobiology. Not that they’re not trying! I applaud them for their efforts. But the waters have been muddied for some time by mostly groundless fears of damage coming from blue light. It’s useful to see this in a historical context: new lighting technology has always been met by widespread fear, then eventual acceptance.
If the value chain of the past had too many players and was ripe for disintermediation, then one appropriate response is to provide new service offerings and products. With a potentially confusing proliferation of new products and systems, representative agencies and distributors are now offering new services including full project management and in some cases design and specification services. So instead of being taken out of the equation, smart companies are figuring out how to use their past position to best advantage.
The electrical grid needs rebuilding as parts of it fail. Low-voltage DC power at the grid edge is a development with great promise, and it provides a way for the current grid to relieve load balancing problems and adapt to the rapid growth of renewable energy sources that are radically transforming the economics of power generation and distribution. In this area, lighting leads some of the most important applications, as it did with the first wave of electrification a century ago.
I offer several "mindsets" – diverse points of view that can inform decisions about which Illumitunities bear pursuing.
Behavior of "occupants," a.k.a. humans, is frequently not taken fully into consideration in building design. This represents a fertile area for exploration, especially with the use of approaches like "nudges" – positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions that influence decisions and behavior. A great example of a behavioral nudge is to revise default settings in lighting controls – most people are perfectly happy with lighting levels that are 40–50% lower than the design condition – thus improving lighting and saving energy.
While technology wants to proliferate and become more complex, most inventions never see the light of day. New lighting technology today, especially controls, must become easier to understand, implement, use and maintain. In my mind this needs to become a new movement, with a cool new alliterative mantra.
According to my colleague Jim Benya, efficiency is no longer the driving factor for lighting. LEDs represent an average 80% energy savings, so the incentive structure and the funding for efficiency projects has eroded. This leaves us with the more important goal of focusing on lighting quality, which of course ultimately drives energy efficiency at scale. It won’t happen if the public thinks it’s forced to choose between efficiency and poor-quality lighting.
If we’re hardwired for paranoia and fear, we’re also hardwired for hope and optimism. Illumitunity is the flip side of apocalyptic collapse and looks to convergence for a non–zero-sum approach to adapting to change. One thing we share with many other species on the planet is the intrinsic conflict between these two impulses – mortal fear and optimism. In making crucial decisions about the future, we need to learn to step back from our initial emotional reactions and think things through a bit more coolly. But we face some intrinsic resistance from our own minds. Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman said, "We think, each of us, that we’re much more rational than we are. And we think that we make our decisions because we have good reasons to make them. Even when it’s the other way around. We believe in the reasons, because we’ve already made the decision."
- Lightbulbs, Luminaires, and Lifetime - September 16, 2019
- The Illumitunity Convergence - January 15, 2019
- Yellow to Blue: the Recent History of Lighting and Color - December 7, 2015
- The Net-Zero Nonzero City - October 19, 2015
- Stores That Feel You - July 27, 2015
- The United States of Light - June 29, 2015
- Light People! - June 15, 2015
- Visual Comfort and Buildings that Feel - June 1, 2015
- Building for Light: Collaboration Between Architects and Lighting Designers - May 18, 2015