Around this time every year I pause to contemplate the character of our country and to reflect on our underlying organizational principles, our “operating system” to use a tech term. Last year, while attending a 4th of July parade in a small town, followed by the eating of much watermelon, backyard barbecue, and fireworks, I decided to hold forth on the idea that light is like liberty and the pursuit of happiness – precisely the kind of thing that we believe our American values should protect.
Light has a very tangible public impact and while not always at the forefront of citizens’ minds in the past, it’s becoming more so now, especially in the UK. Simon Nicholas, a British mechanical engineer, has been waging a one-man campaign against the indiscriminate use of high-blue component LED streetlights in English councils over the past several years. We don’t quite have his counterpart in the U.S., but there are those here who are less than thrilled at the prospect of melatonin suppressing blue light at night being imposed upon them with no regard for aesthetics, health, and “light trespass.” The City of Davis, California may be typical in its LED streetlight replacement program, and last year citizens rose up and complained about the LED lights that had been installed recently. Fortunately, the city listened to the citizens, came up with a new specification for warmer color, less glary lights and ended up saving more energy than originally forecast.
We keep hearing about how the planet is becoming increasingly urbanized and that we have to adapt or perish (all too true) yet we continue to visualize the future either as an ecological catastrophe – drowning polar bears, global wars over water and oil, receding coastlines (often in the most densely populated cities), and increasingly unpredictable weather – or as a tech utopia like the Jetsons, with gleaming glass and steel city hives humming with personal spaceships. But both visions are pretty much useless for all practical purposes. “Ecopalypse” has mostly not motivated us to make the significant changes we need to make quickly enough to head off extinction, and the Jetsons future is patently ridiculous, basically the opposite of “sustainable,” and better suited to Cold War propaganda than any real purpose today.
In the meantime, most technology, especially including lighting and controls, is changing so rapidly that most of us have fundamental cognitive problems apprehending the rate and the extent of the changes. Maybe we should give up predicting the future and concentrate on how all the new technology can be combined, in the present, to improve our lives without ruining our environment – including, especially, the built environment, our real natural habitat. One of the ways in which technology is making some very dramatic impacts is in the area of participatory government. It may seem like a stretch, but lighting has a lot to do with that, hence the purpose behind my seemingly far flung ruminations. Not everyone agrees on this, as evidenced by a lively contrast of opinions in this recent piece in Lux Review.
With the recent change in fundamental light sources from incandescent, fluorescent, and otherwise to SSL has come a renewed focus on lighting. What’s different this time around is that other rapid advances in many other technologies, like telecommunications, mobile computing, cloud computing, nanotech, GIS, and dozens of others, are combining with SSL streetlight networks to provide a public data infrastructure that will dramatically alter the way we govern ourselves, particularly at the local level. Not only can we now have much better lighting much more efficiently and affordably, we can enable participatory government in a way never before possible. I believe this is entirely consistent with the way the framers of the Constitution envisioned the “operating system”- as one that enabled innovation, reinvention, and adaptation. In some real sense, this operating system shows its genius by surviving technological, social, and economic upheavals utterly unimaginable to its authors, while also facilitating them.
We’re in a very exciting era for lighting, technology, and government. Cities like San Francisco, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, London, and many others are beginning to envision and build true smart cities that fully engage citizens in their ongoing modeling, visualization and adaptation. Much of this is being built on public lighting networks. In a recent conversation with Barbara Hale, Assistant General Manager for Power at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, my partner in LightPlace Advisors, Steve Lawton and I learned the extent of some of the initiatives underway by San Francisco to take leadership in Smart City innovation. For starters, San Francisco has a very well developed streetlighting program adapted for LED conversion and featuring 3000K color temperature options. The City recently celebrated the centennial of City Hall with the installation of fully controllable LED lighting. And Lightrail, the world’s first subway-responsive light sculpture, will combine public art with helpful functionality on Market Street, the most heavily pedestrian street on the West Coast.
So when you’re allowing your retinas to be tickled at this year’s fireworks display – real or virtual – contemplate the socially cohesive impact of shared lighting experiences and have faith that the future can be one in which we can find new ways to connect, organize and prosper, and that you as a Person of Light can play a role. To start making it happen, all we need to do is visualize it. Happy Independence Day!
- 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