Go back to article: Light as material/lighting as practice: urban lighting and energy


Light, as material, is complex stuff which is perhaps less easily manipulated and designed than other materials, yet it is also a material routinely shaped and configured in ways that blend a multitude of social practices by lighting professionals and by all of us non-professionals. There is, in fact, more overlap between public and private, professional and non-professional, when it comes to light than one would expect. Discourses around public lighting, especially concerning headline-grabbing issues around energy consumption, light pollution and sustainability, have a predictable pattern to them, referencing the potential of technocratic solutions, new ‘smart’ lighting, LED technology, to ‘solve’ energy problems and manage use and consumption. However, as we’ve discussed and illustrated through our empirical examples, until the particular qualities of light as material are acknowledged, and lighting is understood as embedded within a wider analysis of social practices, such top-down, technocratic solutions are unsatisfactory. They fail to understand the ways in which light behaves in space and how its unruliness cannot be planned away; they are also potentially damaging to the social life they seek to illuminate if they impose a set of universal standards, generated from algorithmic protocols, that diminish or destroy the nocturnal life that happens on the street; plans can and do ‘screw it up’.

In the sociological perspective we’ve developed in the Configuring Light programme, the aim is to return to the social world that is being lit in order to understand how lighting is used, and how it facilitates practices, and our concern is both with everyday, non-professional users and the practices of lighting designers. What we try to bring to the table are social research methods that attempt to capture the everyday social practices in space to ensure that lighting designers understand and design for them. Energy use and consumption clearly form part of this overall picture but are not the sole focus of attention; by helping designers to understanding social space better, and by working with communities and stakeholders to help them understand light better, we aim to promote a wider conversation on light and lighting that takes energy use and consumption as part and parcel of materials in practice.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180906/002