Light for Public Space: A Framework for People's Engagement with Light

 

Lighting has the power to engage citizens and create meaningful and lasting connections between them and their cities. Contemporary lighting technologies enable a spectrum of public engagement, ranging from designs that subtly support urban life to fully interactive installations.

In a collaborative effort by Susanne Seitinger, Senior Technologist for Advanced Applications at Philips Color Kinetics, and Antonia Weiss, Strategic Designer at Philips Design Lighting, “Light for PublicSpace” is a book that explores diverse lighting projects that use contemporary lighting technologies push the boundaries of what’s possible with public lighting.

Part two, “A Framework for People’s Engagement with Light,” explores ways in which lighting designers can activate the urban realm in new, enriching ways by using LED lighting to create welcoming, safe, and attractive cities.
 

In the second of three question and answer sessions, Seitinger and Weiss weigh in on the future of lighting for public spaces and preview the second part of the book.
 

A Framework for People’s Engagement with Light
 

In the second part of your book, you discuss the different levels of public engagement that can be achieved by light: ambient, dynamic, responsive and interactive lighting. As a technologist, designer, or architect, how do these tiers help you think about creating lasting connections between cities and their citizens?
 

Susanne Seitinger: First of all, I don’t think of these categories as mutually exclusive. In studying diverse projects around the world, we observed installations which mixed all four levels of engagement. In some cases, there is ambient illumination that is also interactive at certain times of the evening. As a technologist, I think of the tiers as qualitative jumps in the underlying infrastructure. An ambient installation does not need digital sensors or additional connectivity. It works fine as a standalone network. When you start to move towards responsive systems or especially interactive installations, a system requires a much more sophisticated network infrastructure and potentially additional sensors and input devices. Designers also need to curate the interactive design of the entire experience over time.
 

Antonia Weiss: There’s an assumption that it all has to be interactive lighting, but that’s incorrect. We tried to find examples for the spectrum of possibilities, and sometimes the lines between them are not clear. As an architect, it shouldn’t force you to have to only use interactive technologies. You can connect the different types of lighting to the particular ways of using them. Some are more suited to bring out the qualities of a place, the rhythm of people or seasons, or how a space is used. We tried to tie each point in the spectrum to a particular meaning that light can have.
 

Light enables these different levels of engagement thanks to an increasing ease of integration with other digital systems. What are some of the characteristics that controls need to have moving forward?
 

SS: Speaking broadly, control systems need to be digital, networked, scalable, and resilient. In order to support a diverse set of requirements from simple scheduling to actual content management, control systems are becoming much more sophisticated and diverse to accommodate different needs. Groups like the Center for Infrastructure Based Safety Systems (CIBSS) at Virginia Tech are studying how dynamic lighting might be implemented on roadways. For truly interactive installation, it is still challenging to implement many systems since maintenance concerns and other challenges, like providing fresh content, are a constant concern.

University of Arts, The Light Tab
In our previous discussion we talked about the importance of citizens advocating for advancements in public lighting. How can citizens benefit from interacting and engaging with light?

SS:
Unlike many other infrastructures, light affects people’s experience directly. Even though they may take it for granted, citizens consciously or unconsciously navigate the nighttime city in response to how it is lit. The more people develop a language of light the more they will be able to articulate the qualities of the nighttime city. Creating uniquely engaging environments allows people to experience the diverse possibilities of light, and over time, begin to appreciate and differentiate between spaces they feel comfortable in and spaces they do not find inspiring.

AW: People don’t see lighting as something they can have influence on - even some designers and architects still think in that way. By making lighting engaging and interactive for the public, it can raise consciousness about how lighting affects us. Lighting really affects how people move in the space and it is this amazing thing that has the potential to add a lot of value, such as in safety or orientation.

How do engaging lighting solutions contribute to the design of smarter and more resilient cities?

SS:
The most important thing about urban design and technology is how they contribute to the well-being of citizens. Smart technologies should always support the activities and patterns of daily life – sometimes city life can also be a little messy. Since lighting infrastructure is nearly ubiquitous, it has great potential to connect disparate districts. It also contributes to resilience in that lighting can contribute to the diverse use of spaces. Its qualities can transform the same public plaza from a market place to a concert venue. In my mind, the more layers and mixes of uses a place supports, the more resilient it is.

AW: My takeaway from our research is that there is danger in the smart city discourse when everything becomes too much about the technology and not about the benefits it has for people. Whenever we use technology, it has to be a solution that caters to a particular problem. Lighting solutions definitely contribute to the move towards smarter cities. But it is important to make sure that lighting is something that people can understand and connect to and not simply makes cities more efficient.

Moving forward, how will urban design change to accommodate new lighting systems?

SS:
I think urban design will benefit from integrating creative lighting systems from the beginning of a project. Rather than leaving lighting considerations to the very end, new projects will incorporate lighting ideas earlier. Designing places for 24-hour occupation really necessitates thoughtful approaches to the nighttime environment, which often depend on lighting.

AW: There is currently a prevailing attitude about lighting that it comes from above and from traditional street lamps. We tried to show in the book that light can be everywhere around you if you want it to be.

There’s a huge potential for lighting and it’s about experimenting with how to make lighting an integral part of the nighttime experience, as cities run for 24 hours.Is there one example that best captures the benefits of an engaging lighting system?

SS:
One of my favorite recent examples is Claudia Paz’s three-dimensional interactive façade for the Banco del Credito in Lima, Peru. She has created a truly monumental yet subtle installation. For certain hours in the early evening anyone can step up to an interactive podium and create different natural scenes like sand or rain. The experience is accompanied by a custom soundtrack Paz created with her collaborators. The interaction is intuitive and poetic at the same time.

Banco del Credito, Lima, Peru, Claudia Paz Lighting Studio, Photo credit: 2014 Paz & Cheung

Do cities face any challenges in implementing these progressive lighting installations?

SS:
Not necessarily. It really depends on the type of installation we’re talking about. Basic controls systems have really evolved to become user friendly and easier to integrate with the work flows of street lighting or public works departments. When we start talking about more complex, interactive systems, maintenance concerns and additional software skills may present a challenge. It is important that design teams consider how the system will be operated over the long haul.


AW: With everything that is new, there is always the worry of maintenance or what the performance will be in the future. Technologies can be very quickly outdated. Lighting designers and municipal leaders need to be aware of this when implementing new lighting technologies. It has to be done in a way that can be easily updated with time.
 

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Read the Q&A for part one of the Light for Public Space Series.
Watch the corresponding webinar here.

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