Can smart lighting save the planet? Two experts go head to head



Lighting can help bring us towards a carbon-neutral society, says Niels Carsten Bluhme

Niels Carsten Bluhme, director of city, environment and employment, Albertslund Municipality, Denmark

When the US set off to be the first country to put a man on the moon, that desire became a catalyst for an almost unimaginable speed of development of new technology, materials and products. In a similar way, Europe has set a list of ambitious targets to reduce its CO2 emissions. We’re facing a big climate problem and must accelerate the green conversion, and that is causing us to push for big technology developments that will have wide implications for the way society is run.

The idea of the internet of things is tightly connected to lighting. The latest example is smart houses, in which we connect luminaires in the ceiling with data cables instead of power cables. We’ll fill our ceilings with sensors that will register the chips in our mobile phones as we approach the building. And just like we’re creating smart cities, we’re creating smart houses where the dynamic of the buildings are controlled from a cloud.

That means we’ll have a lot of information that we can use to optimise our productivity, effectiveness and communication to produce more, which means it will end up saving resources. A range of new industries will emerge around smart technology, so there will be a direct correlation between green conversion and economic growth. I think there’s a good possibility that we can boost growth, employment and welfare at the same time as having a cleaner environment.

The main problem on a global level is whether we will have the ability to create public-private collaborations based on demand.

If lighting columns become the iPhones of the street, the cities that makes use of that technology will become more efficient"

Niels Carsten Bluhme

The reason the Scandinavian countries are so prosperous is that the public sector can take the initiative to work with the private sector on innovation. That will be important to the lighting industry as it continues to innovate and convert to green technology.

Stockholm, Copenhagen and Helsinki are interesting innovation hubs to watch. We’re aiming to make Greater Copenhagen an innovation hub where all municipalities act as test beds for new solutions. We’re seeing a large influx of large, global companies that are establishing themselves in Denmark, and we’re just as interesting as East London Tech City. These companies are starting to think in partnerships with demand-driven innovation and collaborations with cities.

If lighting columns become the iPhones of the street, creating data on movements and maintenance, that will optimise society. The cities that make use of that technology will become more efficient.

Lighting accounts for 20 per cent of our electricity use, but by making lighting technology more efficient, we have also created a starting point for a number of other smart things, including finding a better way to make use of power generated by wind turbines. Through micro networks we can redirect wind power to the central heating system or to charging electric cars. There are huge possibilities for optimisation, and with that comes huge potential for economic growth, which means we can create both a green and a black bottom line.

In short, there is no doubt that the photonics industry can accelerate a green conversion to a CO2-neutral society by using the digital and smart technologies facilitated by lighting.




If we're pinning our hopes on technology to save the environment, we need to face up to the environmental burden of those technologies themselves, says John Bullock

John Bullock, lighting designer

Can lighting technology save us from ourselves? Before I begin to answer, let's deconstruct the question.

'Lighting technology' - with the entire lighting business falling into the maw of the electronics industry, I suspect that this is all about having chips with everything.

'Save us' - why, are we going somewhere? Oh yes, we’re racing headlong towards the cliff-edge of environmental disaster.

'Ourselves' - and who might we be? How far do we spread our pernicious bonds; beyond our front door? Our national boundary? Our hegemonic boundaries? Far enough to embrace humanity in general?

We need to decide on answers to these questions before the original poser makes any sense.

One of the stumbling blocks of working out our ‘sustainable future’ comes from the limitations we place on what ‘sustainability’ means. Because, generally, ‘a sustainable future’ means ‘a sustainable future for us’. We choose not to see the whole picture and prefer to concentrate on the minutiae of our society. Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything calls it ‘looking away’. Someone points out the global effects of our daily behaviour and rather than looking at it and facing the problem, we prefer to busy ourselves with the latest generation of stuff that might reduce our energy consumption at home. But, and be sure about this, we won’t look for anything that might restrict our behaviour in any way, or anything that is to our detriment.

‘Smart products’ make me increasingly grumpy. Whether they be light fittings or a park bench that speaks your weight, they are examples of ‘looking away’ from the true scale of the environmental issues we face"

John Bullock

‘Smart products’ are making me increasingly grumpy. Whether they be light fittings or a park bench that speaks your weight, they are fine examples of ‘looking away’. ‘Smart’ devices seem such small incursions into our societal fabric. We know the impact that they’ve had on the way that we live, but we never question what’s going on behind the scenes. We choose not to see what lies behind the attractive, visual and tactile, design and – let’s face it – the fun that we have with these tiny critters. We might discuss the relative merits of visible light communication in pimping our retail experience, but we choose to ignore the real cost of wireless communication and cloud computing – because we don’t see it.

The Centre for Energy-Efficient Telecommunications estimates that the carbon footprint of wireless access technologies will have increased from six megatonnes of CO2 in 2012 to up to 30 megatonnes in 2015, the equivalent of adding 4.9 million cars to the roads.

And if we look at the continued exploitation of metals and minerals, we might wonder why a company such as Umicore expects to thrive in the field of recycling of specialist metals – to the extent that it actually offers a management programme on metals that includes a leasing arrangement. So you buy the metal for your product – then it goes back to Umicore’s metal bank once the product has done its work. And this matters because of the speed with which we’re taking material from the ground and not paying attention to what happens when the product is finished. Of course, the percentage of specialist metals taking this route-to-re-use is miniscule.

Perhaps the final nail in our collective coffin will be the continued demand for economic growth. Even here, we’ve attempted a sleight of hand by introducing concepts such as ‘eco-efficiency’. But that can never become a negative, we only slow the growth down. The Jevons paradox, or Rebound Effect, is alive and well. A hundred and fifty years ago, Williams Jevons showed how increased machine efficiency simply led to more goods being made. There was no incentive to reduce energy consumption or material exploitation. And that very thing is going on today in the world of electronics. No-one is looking.

I’ll come back to the original question: Can lighting technology save us from ourselves?

There is one way that lighting technology can save us. It requires a leap of faith – but it’s just the kind of blind leap of ignorance that we unfailingly fall for. We carry on as we’re doing, allowing all of the technology to connect itself together, and then send out the instruction to ‘save us from ourselves’. At which point, everything will shut down and we’ll have no access to anything technical, because the machine-mind will know better than we do.

So that’ll be OK then.