Lighting Design - Five things that will change lighting

Iain Macrae, an independent lighting consultant and former president of the Society of Light and Lighting, looks at what will have the most impact on lighting over the next five years.

Edited By Jill Entwistle

AS IN MANY other fields, the degree of disruption in lighting in the past 20-30 years has been transformative. Arguably it is now as much an electronics industry as it is about illumination. Technology has clearly provided much of the impetus for change – creating controllability, interactivity, programmability, miniaturisation – but the shift has also been driven by a greater understanding of the human relationship with light.

We now know there is such a thing as non-visual light that affects our body clocks and therefore our wellbeing. We know that dynamism and colour temperature are important factors in this respect. The influence of biophilia on design thinking feeds into this complex area of health and wellbeing.

We have probably always known, at least instinctively, that light also has a powerful psychological effect but have signally failed to apply it in many spaces, especially commercial ones, until recent years.

Could AR be used for glasses that would augment lighting in a space, allowing users to tailor it to their personal preferences or the specific needs of an event or activity?

Technology is still throwing up future possibilities – LiFi (now including the use of infrared), where lighting is used as a data conduit; potential alternative sources to the omnipotent LED (laser?) – and remains the bedrock for improved lighting quality and decreased energy use.

The following pages look at what we can expect to see in lighting design over the next five or so years: the impact of climate change, the possibilities offered by AI and AR, and the role of light and media not only to entertain and delight with interactive installations, but more profoundly – and potentially controversially – to affect and manipulate human behaviour.

IN MY CAREER I have always tried to have an eye on the future. Things that would change the market, the technology, or the application of light. I’m also a technophile, evidenced by my office, awash with gadgets, some of which even work. The following are some thoughts on the big things yet to come in lighting design. Some might sound obvious, but I wonder if everyone has fully considered the implications they will have on their career or business.

Let us start with the obvious one. Climate change is set to significantly influence lighting design. Lighting in cities alone accounts for more than 19% of the world’s energy use so there is an urgency to reduce its impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, there are other especially important factors apart from energy in lighting, but we should accept that climate change is a challenge and that designers and lighting designers will have to play a part in the solution.

While some parts of the world still burn carbon fuels to provide light, here in this developed nation a regular arrangement of luminaires producing 500 lux, wall to wall, should already have had its day. Yet most schemes today are still ignoring this fact and repeating this design mistake. The formula of ambient, task and accent lighting as set out in lighting guides is so easy to employ – and produces much better quality lit environments – yet commercial lighting schemes are dominated by regular array fit-outs.

Link light to the idea of renewable energy for a moment. Solar systems get more efficient each year. Batteries are going through their own revolution, including some pretty non-conventional types. With DC power being what is needed for LEDs, and DC power able to be generated on or close to most buildings, is it not time we seriously revamped building electrical design to incorporate low-carbon energy and lighting?

Office lighting designed using AI

Climate change offers other challenges too, especially ever more extreme weather events. External lighting will have to be more robust if it is going to survive. And we still cling to the feeling that more light means greater safety and the need to use urban spaces 24-7.

We also need to rely more on daylight, but it is still often overlooked in architecture and lighting design.

The issue of sustainability leads us to the second of my five impacts on lighting design: circularity. The circular economy emphasises resource efficiency and waste reduction, and is set to significantly affect lighting design and luminaire manufacture. But the buzz phrase of today must become more of a reality. The current standard of living insisted on by the leading nations means there are not enough resources for all, or even for us to continue for long. We all face a challenge to change the market mindset away from its focus on cost and towards design that also includes sustainability.

That means designers specifying circular products and it means manufacturers changing business models from mass manufacture to recycle and reuse. We must encourage the design of right-to-repair and resource-efficient lighting systems. This reduces energy consumption but also minimises the need for frequent replacements, thereby conserving resources.

The circular economy at the Senate House Steps, University of London: the pavilion reuses materials that would otherwise have been thrown away, including the LEDs. BDP asked suppliers for discontinued stock, eventually finding a linear exterior tape, which influenced the precise location of the horizontal beams and the upper apertures of the seats on the roof. Image Credit: Nick Caville

It will require another change in mindset. That change will be needed in clients who should expect circular products, specifiers and designers who will have to evaluate and support circularity, installers who will have to return or even repair products, and manufacturers who are, of course, key to the cause. Theirs will be the hardest battle of all, to move from a high-volume product lifecycle, to one of lower output and a more specialist repair and refurbishment business. Lighting as a service will be the norm, not the realm of a few. Competition on price needs to become a thing of the past. That is the real challenge.

Smart technology sits here too. Not just the controls to reduce energy, but those that monitor and predict, that report when a component might fail, or if it already has. There is a whole new avenue for controls companies to explore.

Playing a part in that preventative or predictive maintenance will be artificial intelligence. While my experience of AI suggests it is currently overrated, it is setting us on a path where learning from system behaviour will help predict the lifespan of products. AI could also optimise energy usage by learning patterns of light usage and adjusting lighting levels accordingly, reducing energy consumption and extending the lifespan of lighting fixtures.

On other fronts AI will replace repetitive tasks. I already use software to place luminaires in a room and to see the results. The design rules I apply to get there are not difficult. AI is perfectly placed to solve complex problems like this, using iterative techniques to select the ideal luminaire specification.

But AI might also enhance the aesthetic appeal of spaces. By analysing factors such as room size, colour scheme and furniture placement, it could suggest optimal lighting designs that enhance the visual appeal of a space. However, if AI learns only to design a scheme with just flat panel luminaires, I am going to be really underwhelmed…

In case you think lighting design is not on the radar for AI, search out a project by Vinci Energies, SDEL and Santerne. Together they are developing a tool called LAIghting, a generative design-driven solution that leverages data science methods to automate and optimise lighting layout design generation using particle swarm optimisation.

Certainly, I expect AI to minimise the time spent on repetitive and iterative design. We can see the start in design tools such as DIALux, which takes many hundreds of luminaires all at once and iterates to the most appropriate road lighting solution, for instance. Variables such as column height, elevation angles, pavement position, spacing envelope and so on allows the software to calculate and evaluate tens of thousands of variations in just a few seconds.

AI leads us nicely to my next prediction. It could be used to improve the health and wellbeing of occupants. Lighting can impact mood, productivity and circadian rhythms. AI could help us to adjust lighting based on time of day, weather and individual preferences to promote wellbeing.

Lighting for wellbeing has also been a buzz phrase for years. It is a great marketing story used to sell what is simply a variation in colour temperature and intensity through the day. But it could be so much more than that. Most of our interior spaces have static lighting. Yet we as a species, evolving under the mercurial nature of daylight, are adapted to deal with dynamic light. AI could help here, learning through feedback what works, what impacts absenteeism, what impacts team performance. If it all sounds Orwellian, it does not have to be. This is a project yet to be shaped.

Designers, however, need to be aware that they carry a legal duty of care to those using lighting systems. As we discover more about the impact of spectrum, intensity and duration of light on human health, that same light has health impacts, potentially long-term, if we get it wrong. We are only just discovering the first effects of light on our bodies. We already know of some of the more obvious negative impacts: UV and skin cancer, blue light and retinal damage, to pick on just two. The long-term repercussions of artificial light are not well understood.

The circular economy at the Senate House Steps, University of London: the pavilion reuses materials that would otherwise have been thrown away, including the LEDs. BDP asked suppliers for discontinued stock, eventually finding a linear exterior tape, which influenced the precise location of the horizontal beams and the upper apertures of the seats on the roof. Image Credit: Nick Caville

There is therefore still so much work and research to do here. The effect of lighting on seasonal affective disorder; the impact of colour and flicker on autism; infrared light and its effect on healing; light source size, spacing, colour and intensity and its impact on glare. Design for health is a growing challenge for designers. Perhaps designers will need some form of medical training in chronobiology or phototherapy, who knows?

Could there be different way? What if we did not light the space so much as the person. In fact, not really the person but their eye. What if, rather than placing light within architecture, we used sensors to map spaces and augmented reality to paint light on to surfaces in a way that each user experiences it individually.

Augmented reality could come to lighting too. In a DMI (drunken marketing initiative) some years back a colleague asked me what would change lighting for ever. I pointed to Mercedes sensor-based pedestrian collision detection, imaged on to a heads-up display. ‘If you have this,’ I said, ‘there is less need for road lights or headlights as sensors can scan the road ahead.’

Imagine taking that technology with us mounted on glasses and, like Geordi La Forge in Star Trek, augmenting light into a room rather than lighting the room itself. Users might adjust the position, intensity and colour of virtual light sources in an AR environment, tailoring the lighting to their personal preferences or specific needs of an event or activity.

There are, however, other less thought-stretching ideas of ways in which AR can help in design. It could aid in the education and training of lighting designers. Interactive AR applications can already simulate changing lighting conditions and their effects on a space. This has been explored by some visionaries by providing a hands-on learning experience to explain the concept of colour, reflection, intensity and so on.

Finally, AR could support the maintenance of lighting systems. By overlaying digital information on to physical light fixtures, it could guide technicians in identifying issues and performing repairs. There is a nice link here back to the circular economy too.

Even with these five impacts on lighting, there remains one big challenge for designers who need to understand all these things: the importance of user-centric design. We must be skilled in engaging with users to understand their needs and preferences, designing lighting solutions that put people first.

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