Lux's Person of The Year 2014: ‘Here’s how the UK can harness smart lighting’

Meet the lighting industry’s person of the year. Tony Howells, senior policy adviser at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, won this coveted accolade at the 2014 Lux Awards.

He forms an important bridge between the government and the lighting industry and was pivotal in launching the first ever UK Lighting Sector Strategy last year.

Since then, Howells has been contacted by several other government departments who want to learn from his success helping the lighting industry become more sustainable and competitive.

Here he shares some of his thoughts on how the public sector can work with lighting companies to make public spaces more connected.

 

What do you think the lighting industry is really good at, and where does it struggle?

It seems to me that the industry is very good at satisfying customers’ needs. It does some great designs. But I’m not really convinced that it’s getting its message across about how efficient light sources are to end users.

What’s going to happen in the next five years?

The lighting industry has spent the last five years replacing a light source that was inefficient. I think the next five years are going to be about how we connect all the information out there, together with the data capability and app capability, to be able to do things that the lighting industry is not even thinking of doing with lighting yet.

Can you give us an example?

In an office, there are all sorts of sensors set up in the roof for occupancy detection but there are also infrared sensors for the fire detection system. If you were to connect the lighting system to the fire detection system and use the data the infrared system is producing, you would be able to see exactly which desks are occupied and where people are still left in the building in the event of a fire.

You could also detect the temperature around a building and see whether the air-conditioning is working by having the lighting system connected to the air-conditioning. There is a lot of information being gathered that we’re not using.

What would you like to see the lighting industry achieve in the near future?

I’d like to see the UK lighting industry get together with some of the high-value sectors such as retail and construction, the people who need lighting services and maybe some app developers and chip developers.

Get them in the same room and see if we can develop a ‘Google’ of lighting, if you will. Or several Googles. That would make it very difficult for other countries to break into a marketplace because you’re producing a holistic model – you’re not just producing a cheap light source anymore.

What would such a holistic model contain?

Imagine the capability of your mobile phone now – if you were to stuff that into a light, behind the light source on a chip, what could you do with it? You could measure earthquakes, the weather, have a camera in there for security - the list goes on. The world market in mobile phones is stagnated at the minute because everybody’s got two in their pocket, we don’t need three. But there are millions of light sources that don’t have any intelligence in them whatsoever.

So moving on from where we are now to having a truly intuitive, intelligent lighting system, made up of small companies that work together to produce the solution, would be a very powerful way of developing the lighting industry.

How can the private and public sectors work together to make Britain’s lighting more energy efficient?

You only have to look at places with big lumps of real estate - if you put intelligence into the streetlights, could you book your car parking space through it? As you get close to the barrier it will recognise you because it knows your number plate. As you go by the barrier you just swipe your mobile phone to pay for the parking space. If you stay a bit longer, it would charge a bit more. If you went earlier, it would charge you less.

Alternatively, if you look out at the streets now with double yellow lines, bus stops, parking spaces – all of that could be managed by the intelligent light. So if you pull up on a double yellow line, instead of sending you a fine, if you’re only there for a minute dropping something off it would charge you a pound. If you stay there for five minutes, it would charge you £10. Just think of the revenue stream that you would open up to local government.

The service would not only be cheaper to run, it would also make more money; think of the advertising opportunities and the services that could be accommodated in the system.

How can the lighting industry develop such public-private relationships?

The way public-private partnerships should work is that companies should be providing solutions to councils and public bodies, such as hospitals, so that the system does what it needs to do at a reduced cost.

You also need to think about how to make your idea serviceable – a council could pay for the service of having streetlights with a monthly fee, without having to worry about the lights being put up or changed or repaired.

Then you could integrate that with bus stops, signage, payment models and public Wi-Fi – it’s about thinking in a much more holistic way about any service, because councils don’t have the people to do it anymore and they don’t have the capability.

Do you think government recognises the potential of lighting to reduce the UK’s energy use?

They’re certainly starting to recognise it – it’s been hard coming and there are still bits of government that don’t, but it’s overwhelming how many parts of government that have been in touch with me since the lighting strategy was published and said, ‘Can we work together on this?’

At the moment, public procurement is all about energy savings – we still haven’t talked about how we produce services better. That’s where I think the biggest savings will come through.

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