Land of context confusion (MAGAZINE)

April 22, 2014
Return on experience, says Derry Berrigan, may be more important than return on investment when we apply SSL to the built environment with a focus on the people that will use the space.

Return on experience, says DERRY BERRIGAN, may be more important than return on investment when we apply SSL to the built environment with a focus on the people that will use the space.

Education about light is more crucial now than ever. Leading education efforts with students over the last two years, and collaborating with lighting companies and commercial clients over the last two decades, I realized that we are deep in the land of context confusion (with a nod to Phil Collins and Genesis' song, for those who wondered how they knew the phrase).

What I call "context confusion" starts with a lack of shared definitions. I say lamp, you say bulb. Most people think that lighting design is only luminaire design, that controls relate only to occupancy sensors, and that investment in lighting is only about energy savings. These examples apply to both customers and to the industry as a whole. Confusion. Everyone has different definitions because there are so many different contexts. Who is a lighting designer and who is a specifier? What is "quality of light"? What is the value of light? I was at a smart lighting summit and saw firsthand every speaker espouse a different definition of what "smart lighting" is. If we, the industry, cannot agree on definitions amongst ourselves, how do we expect our customers to understand what we are talking about and navigate the landscape of lighting?

Education about light, lighting, lighting professionals, energy use, and comfort in buildings is critical now for many reasons: rethinking return on investment (ROI), understanding application context, defining and managing the smart lighting revolution, and expanding and growing market opportunity and technology transitions.

Louis Sullivan issued the modernist dictum "Form ever follows function." For years I pondered this philosophical tenet, always feeling that something was missing. Finally, I figured it out: People were missing! After all, the built environment is created for people — therefore the light and everything else within a space should serve their needs.

The number one thing people want to feel is comfort, and the level and type of comfort is totally dependent on the context. For instance, when dining in an Italian restaurant, we experience a totally different comfort than when working in an office. So, I have added on to Sullivan's statement, "Form follows function and comfort follows context."

When talking about lighting and the built environment, confusion arises when context is generalized and people are removed from the picture. People don't experience light in terms of foot candles, but this is the way most lighting is marketed, designed, and specified. We need to educate the industry and markets, and develop products and designs based upon people's real experiential context. When we do, we not only deeply enrich experiences for people and enhance interaction with products and environments but we propel the engines of prosperity forward. Example, Apple. Need I say more?

Another expanse of land in context confusion is the term ROI. I have had so many clients with so many different definitions of ROI, not just in terms of payback period but what factors could be included within the definition.

The biggest problem today in adopting new technologies and sustainable practices is the traditional mindset of ROI: We persist in perpetuating the value of light as an energy story only, and more fundamentally, we characterize the return only in financial terms. It's difficult for most to understand that when people have a better experience in the built environment, the returns (and often unexpected collateral benefits) are far greater for the bottom line. Although we may think that these returns are more difficult to measure at the moment, the problem is the way we characterize the return, how we measure it, what we value as an industry, and how we communicate those values to our customers. In lighting today, we need to educate more about ROE (return on experience) than about ROI.

There is no better building than Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum with Richard Kelly's lighting design that illustrates "Form follows function and comfort follows context." This building was and continues to be my inspiration for architectural lighting design.

Smart lighting is the future, but ask five people to define "smart lighting" and you'll get five different answers. Is it all about occupancy sensors, dimming, spectral tuning, data collection, wireless networks, energy efficiency, sensors, or all of the above? Like most technology revolutions, it's all a moving target. We are evolving in what we want, technology is evolving in its capabilities, and the industry…well, we need to evolve our definitions to communicate effectively with customers and with each other while we bring new technologies and products to market.

There's a pervasive tendency to either oversimplify or technologize lighting without consideration for how real people will implement and benefit by emerging technologies or combinations of them. We transition from one generation of technology to the next with little self-awareness. I get concerned that the majority of designers, specifiers, electricians, and facility managers that I have interacted with over the last several years haven't yet mastered the design and installation of the first generation of smart lighting (definition: whole building activity and/or time-based lighting controls that select zones of luminaires to dim, turn on or off). But we're already heading into the next generation of smart lighting with data collection.

I look to the important work of Bob Karlicek and the Smart Lighting ERC (Engineering Research Center) to help guide our industry in not only developing the foundational technologies for the next generation of smart lighting but also in collaborating with different stakeholders on education for industry and customers alike. Education is needed to bring things into balance.

There is much more to explore in the land of context confusion…more to come in the next issue of LEDs Magazine. This is the beginning of a dialogue with you, for you and me to define context and clarify what we mean so we can construct meaningful messages and educational content for our customers, for the next generation of industry professionals and customers, and for ourselves. And most importantly, to begin to collaborate to create experiential lighting products and designs that deliver lighting experiences that will deeply enrich people's lives.

DERRY BERRIGAN is a lighting anthropologist, experiential designer, and educator. She can be reached at [email protected].