Uncharted territory — Plotting a new course for the lighting industry

Aug. 18, 2021
Strategies in Light co-chair CLIFTON STANLEY LEMON offers a beam of light to navigate through the uncertainty of the current SSL business environment toward renewed connection and innovation.

Today public figures like CEOs, politicians, and journalists even your next-door neighbor, for that matter are apt to use the increasingly worn and tattered phrase “unprecedented times” in their mostly futile attempts to understand what’s going on in the world today. Yet how else can we describe them? We can’t talk about “normal” anymore. “Normal” is now a kind of permanent chaos, interrupted by even more chaos and disruption. Look at Haiti and Afghanistan for immediate examples, heaped on top of other terrifying ecological disasters all over the planet. And underlying everything, the pandemic.

The national mood in the US today stands in stark contrast to the pervasive underlying optimism of the era in which I grew up, the 1960s and 70s. In a recent New Yorker article, Louis Menand, exploring the steady and precipitous decline of our faith in government over the past several decades, points out that disposable personal income grew by 35% in the 1950s, and by 50% in the 1960s, and that the correlating fundamental faith in government was high. Today our correspondingly low faith has dramatically impacted one of the biggest wild cards history has dealt humanity in at least a century the pandemic as anti-vax sentiment fueled by some leaders has rapidly coalesced into a toxic political scrum, with consequences for everyone. Even the excellent scenario planning study published in March 2020 by Deloitte, “The world remade by COVID-19,” which I highly recommend, failed to foresee this development.

Perhaps “unprecedented times,” with its faintly eschatological undertone, is at least a grudging admission of a general inability to understand and learn from history. One of my favorite thinkers, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, sums it up well: “The illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future.” Silicon Valley techno-optimism, which has become increasingly sinister in its arrogance, is typified by Anthony Levandowsky, founder of Google’s self-driving car program: “You don’t need to know that history to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.” And Mark Twain had a different take on it when he said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

My Strategies in Light co-chair Robert Steele and I remain a bit more hopeful about learning from history, while trying to remain humble about our ability to fully understand and make predictions from it. But learning requires that you first find out what the history is, then look for useful patterns, uncovering the “rhyming” Mr. Twain was referring to, maybe. (I was never quite sure what he meant by that.) In our keynote address, we plan to cover a brief history of solid-state lighting (SSL) technology and how it transformed the lighting industry. It’s a magic tech story (complete with its own metric, Haitz’s Law) that was supposed to turn out like computers and the Internet, if we listened to the techno-optimists (we largely did). And SSL did accomplish amazing things, just not in the way many investors expected.

But we question whether the SSL revolution is over and if so, what’s replacing it? The techno-optimists have been promising us IoT-driven everything for at least a decade, but in the lighting industry, most of us still have no idea what that really means in daily life in regular buildings. Ultraviolet C-band (UV-C) disinfection and lighting for health, which Strategies in Light will cover as well, are certainly promising but have not provided the “game changing” applications we expect. Perhaps we’re expecting too much, or not understanding which game to change in the first place. But in our keynote, and throughout the conference, we will delineate new paths forward, filled with opportunities hiding in plain sight, drawing on (rhyming?) lessons from the history of technology, innovation, and design. So maybe we’re being a bit poetic; it can’t hurt!

Despite the chaos, we are surviving, and in many cases thriving. We’re in a very strange place right now because key economic indicators like the stock market are strong, but we are constantly challenged by fear and anxiety over a complex web of disaster that unfolds relentlessly on our newsfeeds every day. We’re learning (I hope) that the stock market is not the economy. Today lighting people are concerned about commoditization, creeping irrelevance, loss of innovation, loss of quality in light, instability in supply chains, domination of manufacturing by China and other countries, shortages of chips and fundamental materials, health impacts of light on humans and other species, and of course the almost completely unpredictable impacts of the pandemic on all of the above.

All these things are definitely worth losing sleep over. But we can chart a course in what seems to be uncharted territory. History does provide useful ideas. During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the same battles over mask mandates and school closures were fought. Cities that mandated these measures, holding firm even after successive waves of infection, ended up with much lower death rates. (So we didn’t exactly learn from that, did we? But at least we can be encouraged by the fact that the world kept on going then, and might in, what, a few years?). Around the same time, electrification was emerging, albeit unevenly, across the globe. The first grids were built for lighting, with the first application of the dazzling new technology, electricity. History can rhyme now, if we write the epic poem that makes it so, as lighting is in many ways leading the revolution in smart, healthy, decarbonized, grid-connected buildings. This macro development is loaded with opportunities. At the risk of over-predicting, I proclaim that this is the next revolution in lighting one that’s not driven by a single technology but by design and innovation.

Conferences and events have always been crucial in the development and evolution of business in our economy and culture. We are all frustrated at having our normal patterns of connection and exchange disrupted (and I mean disrupted in a bad way). The pandemic has forced us to innovate quickly in how we connect and collaborate, buy and sell, and get the increasingly important knowledge and learning we require. We’ve also realized that we relied previously on many practices and business models that are highly inefficient and not particularly productive. The consensus seems to be that future events will be a hybrid model of in-person and remote interaction. No one quite knows what this is yet, but we’ll eventually get out of the narrow confines of Zoomland and figure it out.

Strategies in Light has, like all conferences, struggled with the ravages of the pandemic upon the planning and execution of events, and we’re excited to be able to present the best minds in the industry reporting in on the latest in technology, design, and innovation in lighting.


Register now to join us for Strategies in Light, which will be held online from Aug. 24–25, 2021.

CLIFTON STANLEY LEMON is CEO of Clifton Lemon Associates, and Strategies in Light co-chair.

For up-to-the-minute LED and SSL updates, why not follow us on Twitter? You’ll find curated content and commentary, as well as information on industry events, webcasts, and surveys on our LinkedIn Company Page and our Facebook page.

About the Author

Clifton Stanley Lemon | Strategies in Light Conference Co-Chair

In addition to his roles as conference program director for LightSPEC West and LightSPEC Midwest events, Clifton is a contributor to LEDs Magazine and CEO of Clifton Lemon Associates, a consultancy providing strategy, marketing, and education services to the lighting and energy industries. He was formerly business development director for the California Energy Alliance; marketing communications manager for Soraa; director of business development at Integral Group; and founder and CEO of BrandSequence. An active writer and speaker and a past president of the Illuminating Engineering Society, San Francisco section, Clifton has extensive experience in curriculum development for professional training in lighting and energy efficiency. Along with Randall Whitehead, Clifton is the co-author of Beautiful Light: An Insider’s Guide to LED Lighting in Homes and Gardens (Taylor and Francis, 2021).