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Sustainable Consumption Institute

Light and sustainability: Concepts, practices, experiment

The SCI recently hosted the latest Light and sustainability: Concepts, practices, experiment seminar, read Cary Monreal Clark and Joanne Edwards.

The Sustainable Consumption Institute hosted and organised the fourth Configuring Light seminar held on 30 April. Configuring Light is an LSE and ESRC-funded research programme of social science interventions into the configuration of light. 

The research programme develops interlinked projects focused on the ways in which light is configured into built environments – and with what consequences – by using multidisciplinary and academic-practitioner collaborations. The theme for this event was light and sustainability, from concepts, to practices and experiments. The event did not set out to resolve any major sustainability issues but pose questions, raise issues and generally acknowledge the complexity of light vis-à-vis sustainability. Given that technical innovations in lighting have been held as successful examples of low-carbon transition, we wanted to use this seminar to temper this hubris and address additional concerns beyond the technological efficiency of lighting.

The first panel opened up what we might mean by sustainable lighting and explored various concepts and issues associated with it. Chris Lowe, Lighting Designer at consultants BDP, challenged us to think about light within a much broader historical and human evolutionary context and to consider the important role of darkness. He argued for a more holistic and human centred lighting design practice that moves beyond the metrics and numbers of lighting standards. He also encouraged lighting designers to appreciate darkness and natural rhythms of daylight when creating lighting master plans. Such changes in lighting design practice have the potential of significantly reducing energy-use of lighting while also creating more pleasurable environments within which to live and work.

Saska Petrova, Research Co-ordinator of the Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy spoke to issues of energy vulnerability and the place of light in homes. She outlined the usefulness of an emerging energy vulnerability framework that shifts the focus from the access or affordability of fuel to look instead at the complex relations between energy services and poverty. Saska’s paper drew on her research on homes in Greece to explore vulnerabilities associated with lighting.  It is clear that light has an important place in how people experience their home and lighting can be a social and cultural signifier of deprivation.. Calculations of energy cost sometimes have poignant consequences: Saska gave the example of a grandmother who turns the lights off to save money but worries for the safety of her grandchildren when they come to visit.

Tim Edensor, Reader of Human Geography, Manchester Metropolitan University challenged us to think critically about the sustainability agenda: to consider social patterns more and not simply and universally advocate ‘turning the lights off/down’. He focused his attention on aspects of social practice, like festive lights and Christmas lights, which, while not energy efficient, are important to maintaining particular social rituals and tastes. Rather than posing a uniform agenda of sustainability across the board, he argued that we need to respect different tastes and practices. We must accept the complexity of light in everyday life rather than try to standardize it.

The second panel concentrated on experiments and innovations in light and lighting and their implications for creating environmentally and socially sustainable societies and buildings. Martin Green, doctoral researcher in Sociology at Lancaster University, focused on the fascinating socio-political history of daylight saving in the post-war era. Daylight saving was introduced in the UK as an ‘experiment’ which continues to this day and Martin explored the various political discourses and the different stakeholders tied to this experiment. He demonstrated forcefully and clearly the socially constituted nature of our relationships with time and daylight and the implications these have for energy demand.

John Hindley, Head of Environmental Strategy at Manchester Metropolitan University spoke to the introduction of new lighting schemes around the campus of MMU and described how different lighting problems were resolved in both the buildings themselves and the surrounding external environment. The focus of his presentation was on the introduction of LED lighting systems and light sensors that have already significantly reduced energy-use, saved the University money and have received positive feedback from students and staff. The thrust of the presentation was that these changes in lighting at MMU constitute a successful experiment and one that must continue.

Rosa Urbano Gutiérrez, Lecturer (Assistant Professor), Liverpool School of Architecture showedvarious design-led initiatives using ceramics to demonstrate how this cheap and highly versatile material can be utilised to create more sustainable lighting environments in a range of different social spaces. Rosa drew primarily on her work in the Environmental Ceramics in Architecture Laboratory (ECAlab) and on the project ‘Illuminating through Ceramics’.

The event successfully brought together a range of speakers to share and discuss a broad set of ideas relating to the topic of light and sustainability. It was particularly encouraging to have a number of lighting designers and people from professional practices participate. The hope is that events like these can go some way to developing multidisciplinary and academic-practitioner projects in the future.

  • Dr. Cary Monreal Clark, Research Associate, Sustainable Consumption Institute
  • Dr Joanne Entwistle, Senior Lecturer, Culture and Creative Industries at Kings College. London