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Seeing LED

LED lighting bears all of the hallmarks of a disruptive innovation, offering clear advantages for producers, consumers and the environment. However when I wrote this in late 2015, originally as a report for my Master’s degree, the outlook for the home environment was not entirely rosy owing to flaws in the emotional quality of the light. Things are gradually improving for the general consumer, but will continue to do so only if somebody lobbys for the interests of the end-user. I argue this is a job for designers.

(with thanks to Richard Hall for precious industry insights!)

Since its humble beginnings over half a century ago as a simple red indicator light, LED technology has risen to a dominant position in the lighting industry, where it is the focus of considerable investment. The US Department of Energy (DOE) predicts that by 2030 84% of lighting will come from LED sources. However, the development process has not been without its teething problems, and good quality LED lighting for the home is still hard to find on the market. Meanwhile, moves to integrate LED technology into a wider package of building services promise exciting innovations but also pose new social and ethical challenges that require an inclusive debate involving regulators, producers, designers and consumers.

The light emitting diode (LED) first appeared as a commercial product in 1962. The technology at the time emitted only a small quantity of red light, limiting its application to electronic devices, and some decades of research and development passed before LED

could generate sufficient quantities of light, with a broad enough colour spectrum, for the illumination of our habitable spaces.

Because LED light sources differ physically from their predecessors - they are often smaller, flatter and cooler than the bulbs and tubes we are familiar with – there is an incentive for designers and architects to develop new lighting product typologies and use them to redefine our experience of light in space. The scale of this opportunity for innovation is similar to that presented by the ’machine-age’ to the Modernist movement nearly a century ago. The Modernists had new manufacturing processes to experiment with and used them to address the pressing social problems of the time; today’s lighting designers have a new means to

make light and a chance to make genuine improvements to many areas of our lives with it.

LED began to interest practitioners in the lighting industry in the 1990s as a potentially sustainable replacement for existing indoor and outdoor light sources, including incandescent, halogen, fluorescent and metal halide, all of which presented drawbacks in terms of product lifetime, heat loss, energy consumption and disposability after expiry. LED saves energy by converting most of what it consumes into light, wasting very little on heat. Should LED achieve the envisaged adoption rate, the US Department of Energy predicts lighting energy savings of at least 40% by 2030, amounting to a 10% reduction in overall electrical energy


LED technology has had a disruptive impact on the lighting industry. It has turned existing business models on their heads and has allowed small, flexible newcomers to enter the field and undercut the large familiar brand names. Innovation-driven producers, such as US based

Cree and Xicato, supply high quality light sources to the professional sector, but the market has also been flooded with cheap low-quality products aimed at the consumer market. In terms of process, the familiar division between light bulb (the interchangeable part we all kept in the spares drawer) and luminaire (the decorative or functional housing) begins to disappear in certain scenarios, giving rise to a new integrated product typology. Out goes the familiar division between light source producer and luminaire producer. The consumer’s relationship with the product is also altered: it costs more to purchase but less to run. For large purchases, such as for public spaces and factories, leasing arrangements are now possible where the producer retains ownership and responsibility for the product and its maintenance. Not a corner of the producing and consuming environment pertaining to lighting has been left unaffected by LED.

From the early 2000s a flurry of R&D activity began to generate new LED patents at an exponential rate. The year 2000 saw about 100 new inventions, while 2009 ushered in a

staggering 1600. The effect has been both exciting and confusing to the industry. Light manufacturers are faced with over 100 technical innovations per month, any one of which

might enhance their product, or render it obsolete in an instant. This makes investing in new product development a risky business.

There have been two principle drivers behind the transition to LED: Firstly, the well-known corporate players in lighting, including Philips, Osram and GE, are by their nature culturally open to innovation – they see market advantage in innovation and can afford to invest in it. In LED they saw exactly that potential advantage, and by entering the game first they could invent the new rules. In fact LED ended up altering the market and the production landscape for lighting more than these companies had imagined, and they have subsequently struggled to maintain their positions in the business.

LED also presented an opportunity to be seen to adopt a more socially and environmentally responsible business model. In the early 2000s the big producers collaborated with

international governments to introduce new sustainability regulation to the lighting sector, in particular to phase out high consumption bulbs. By moving early to fulfill corporate social responsibility aims, the corporations could set the future market agenda to their own advantage and displayed ‘enlightened leadership’ by aligning market competitiveness with a wider range of stakeholder interests. The campaigner for sustainable innovation John Thackara suggests that “when limits set by regulators, or by consumer pressure, are

embraced, the quality and profitability of products is often found to improve.” While there is no doubt that the market has been graced with a new energy saving product

typology, just as long-held concerns about global resource consumption enter the mainstream, LED still presents quality problems, especially for the private consumer, who has

been forced to accept an alternative to the ubiquitous and friendly glass bulb that does not deliver the same aesthetic experience. For the moment at least, Thackara’s prediction has not been completely fulfilled, and state regulation has not led to improved product quality in all respects. Unfortunately for many consumers the arrival of LED has represented a compromise in the quality of light, and for this reason many remain skeptical of the technology despite the offer of a reduced monthly utility bill. Many homeowners elect, understandably, to retain the traditional luminaire typology – perhaps a family heirloom or a modern design classic, both of which will have a traditional screw fixing for bulbs - and it is important for the industry to develop a new generation of retro-fit LED bulbs for these existing products that replicates the color rendering, and consequently the mood, previously achieved by incandescent and halogen lamps. This is achieved when the light source generates a broad light spectrum comprising a comprehensive range of light wave-lengths. LEDs currently miss certain wavelengths. Even the best quality sources for the professional market fall between 5% and 10% short of the color rendition of halogen lamps. Light quality is key to our perception of space, materials and images, and to our emotional interpretations of them, so the challenge for architects and designers is to lobby for improved quality, by engaging with technicians, keeping the emotional prerogative on the agenda and curating a process of improvement that lets us enjoy our built spaces, whether in colorful splendor or in subtle shades of grey.

An active community of LED based innovators thrives on the excitement generated by advanced technical performance, but many innovative products are noticeably lacking in

design sensibility. Spectacular is not necessarily subtle, so while the new technology undoubtedly creates an enriched palette for light shows, there is a need to consider the

quieter art of mood creation. Some design-led brands, such as Flos of Italy, have succeeded in introducing interesting, relevant and elegant LED based luminaires to the consumer

market. Consider Konstantin Grcic’s re-interpretation of the classic Parentesi model from 1971 (designed by Achille Castiglioni and Pio Manzu) in the form of OK in 2014, with its

wafer-thin LED powered plate replacing the voluminous, albeit expressive, incandescent spot bulb. In addition to the existing problem of quality lies another important challenge concerning the implications of smart service design. In a move to overcome the difficulty of the LED business

model, even for large established producers, GE announced in October 2015 a radical brand reshuffle that will integrate lighting into a wider systems management service portfolio that includes sensors and data capture for the purpose of managing spaces and connecting with users of spaces. This shift in priorities from the product to the data-based service, also known as the Internet of Things, is an important indicator about where tomorrow’s design challenges lie, and how spaces will become smarter in future. Suzanne Labarre recently wrote in the business magazine FastCompany that “Design has matured from a largely stylistic endeavor to a field tasked with solving thorny technological and social problems.” In this context, the designing community has two tasks:

• Firstly to campaign for public spaces, including offices and commercial environments, to be managed for the benefit not only of their proprietors (for whom smart systems

can generate profit), but also of the employees and consumers frequenting the space, whose needs and rights as private citizens must be respected.

• Secondly, to work with producers to devise attractive smart home service packages for the market, to ensure widespread adoption of systems that manage our homes more effectively, both in terms of performance and energy consumption.

Hamburg based statistics analysts Statista report a number of cultural barriers to consumer adoption of smart home management in Europe, beginning with cost and ending with

concerns about intrusion into privacy. Both the quality problem and the debate around smart service represent challenges to be addressed by those architects and designers described by Gabriella Lojacono, associate

professor at Milan’s Bocconi University, as ‘cultural antennae’. Their role is to listen out for the cultural signals from society and interpret them for producers, ensuring that people’s hopes, dreams and needs are met in the consumer goods and services they buy. This, according to Lojacono, has been the contribution made by French designer Philip Starck, and it would explain why his designs have continued for three decades to represent the spirit of the age and have enjoyed commercial success. Even if by his own admission he is primarily concerned with appearances, Starck’s approach is to look beyond mere stylistic considerations, to industrial process, to the product in its environmental context and to end-user benefit.

Today’s cultural antennae, in lobbying on behalf of the consumer for quality of experience, must consider environmental and ethical side-effects as they work to change processes and culture within the lighting industry. The specific problem, for instance, of lobbying for improved

light output from LEDs would require agreement between normally quite separate supply chain entities to prioritize the problem. Designers with a holistic understanding of industrial

processes and of brand and consumer cultures, who can speak the respective languages of the diverse stakeholders in the complex chain of events that brings a technological product into our daily lives, have a unique overview and are well placed to campaign for improved quality of experience in our lit spaces.

To conclude, LED technology has established itself as the principle light source for built environments in the foreseeable future, because of a number of advantages it presents to producers and consumers, in particular with regard to sustainability and innovative service applications, the potential of which has yet to be fully explored. In the immediate term, LED is offering the advantages of reduced energy consumption and extended product lifetime. The challenge at this point lies in developing new products around the new technology and lobbying for improved quality, affordability and availability of LED light sources (including retro-fit) for the mainstream consumer, so that a trip to the local hardware store need not result in disappointment. The prospect of bundling lighting into smart service packages for the management of our built spaces, domestic and public, represents a great opportunity for lighting producers to compete in the market place, and in doing so to improve our experience of the built environment and to reduce our impact on the natural environment. However, the prospect of linking lighting to data capture and management services brings social and ethical issues to the fore. The consumer requires an advocate who can lobby industry to ensure that innovation generates profit without exploiting the citizen in ways considered detrimental to dignity and privacy. As the lighting industry expands the scope of its product offering to include sophisticated,

interactive services, it must also embrace a deeper responsibility towards society and culture and it must therefore engage with a wider community of intellectual and creative influencers – the ‘cultural antennae’ who can provide the insights needed for addressing the complexities of tomorrow. We know that technological advancement is inevitable and that ultimately it is beneficial to quality of life – most of the longevity and leisure we enjoy today must effectively be credited to technology, even the simple pleasures. So, as industry operators embrace exciting new technologies, they must remember that to profit from their endeavours in the long run they should keep the quality of the end-user experience firmly factored into the business model.

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