The democratization of public lighting

Local communities and governments must regain control of public lighting, says Iris Dijkstra. The Rotterdam designer and owner of Atelier LEK sees a huge – still undiscovered – potential when it comes to illuminating our future smart cities from the bottom up. ‘In general there is a lack of vision.’

Master Plan NDSM Amsterdam

Since obtaining her Industrial Design Engineering degree in 2004, Iris Dijkstra has kept one thing in particular in mind. Always try to broaden what you are asked to do, she says. This has resulted in a small but highly productive lighting design studio, which is responsible for the creation of master plans for cities such as Tilburg, The Hague, Schiedam and Rotterdam. Dijkstra has just completed a first draft concerning the former NDSM shipyard in Amsterdam.

Her studio currently consists of three people, all of them being lighting experts. The size of the company ensures that LEK is far more flexible compared to other sector-active parties such as Signify, formerly Philips Lighting. ‘We stand close to both user and customer’, Dijkstra says. ‘Light is a means to us, not a goal. A means to direct the evening experience.’ Eventually, public lighting is something that residents and local communities must be able to arrange for themselves, she argues. For that reason alone, it is important that the final shape of our future (smart) cities is not determined exclusively by big tech companies.

Taking back control

According to the designer, this is of importance because it is less about selling light bulbs and fixtures these days. In the world of light, the harvesting, controlling and selling of data is becoming increasingly important. ‘Light is a wave’, Dijkstra explains. ‘This means it is possible to link data to it.’ As an example, she mentions the lights in supermarkets, which can simultaneously be used to monitor how customers move about the store. With services like this, combined with underlying technologies, companies like Signify are ever more trying to generate revenue.

‘Nowadays, you don’t just buy lamps and luminaries. You also purchase the intelligence and interface to control them’, says Dijkstra. ‘Doing so, municipalities and organizations create the technical infrastructure for what is to come next. They then are often condemned to that single large manufacturer.’ She still sees cities opting for this easy way out. ‘In general there’s a lack of vision’, Dijkstra argues. ‘Therefore the roles of citizens and governments must be developed more thoroughly.’ She firmly believes that we, as a society, have to get back into the ring and start making demands.

Master Plan Schiedam Lange Haven

Future of lighting

Tilburg turned to Atelier LEK in 2018 for a master plan to cover the whole city. It was the direct result of a white paper on the future of public lighting, which LEK wrote in collaboration with the Intermunicipal Public Lighting Counsel (IGOV). This is a platform where nearly two hundred Dutch municipalities and several other authorities are connected. In the years before, Dijkstra had mainly, and successfully, focused on lighting the interior and exterior of buildings, squares, public transport hubs and artworks. Her company’s portfolio consists of Rotterdam City Hall, Randstad HQ, Arnhem Central Station and Havenmuseum Rotterdam.

At a certain point, she wanted to add more value to her work, by not only linking light to the constructed environment, but as well to users, energy consumption, sustainability and socially desirable innovation. Dijkstra: ‘If you want to manage things on a local scale, such as generating energy via solar panels, you have to capture this early on in a vision.’ She immediately poses a few questions. ‘On which electricity grid are we going to plug a new generation of lamp posts, full of technology? Who in which streets own solar panels? Does the neighborhood have access to a battery? Who needs light, and when?’ Atelier LEK combines vision with execution. Ideally they also implement the panoramas they themselves have written.

Havenmuseum Rotterdam

Keep posing questions

Tilburg took the challenge head on. Last year Atelier LEK finished a vision document on the entire city, with a particular focus on the city centre. Different zones and usage types were identified. In some areas light may disappear completely, such as in parks and the surrounding nature. Industrial areas were also discussed. According to Dijkstra, they can perfectly manage their own electricity grids by installing solar fields on huge flat roofs and the jointly controlling purchase and maintenance of their lighting.

This is difficult stuff for cities, Dijkstra recalls from experience. ‘We present a lot of knowledge and information they’re not yet ready for.’ Fortunately, this doesn’t stop her. ‘If cities ask me to make a lighting plan, I reply with how are they going to embed it permanently? What are we going to do with the available data? Are we going to use it locally to realize social potential?’ This could be the next step for Tilburg.

Master Plan City of Tilburg

Bottom-up illumination

It soon becomes clear that Atelier LEK is much more than just a lighting design studio. They sometimes make fun of the fact that they are an agency for urban development, communications, trends and lighting, all at once. ‘But we have a communal starting point: we always talk about what users of a city experience at eye level when it gets dark.’

One of the things she’s hoping for is that lighting will again become something we learn to value. It’s an important reason why she wants to let city residents decide for themselves for how long the public lights stay on or how they are dimmed. At street level, there must also be insight into the largest energy consumers. That way people can also discuss how to save energy. ‘Everything is always cleaned up and provided for by our government,’ says Dijkstra. ‘City residents must learn to decide for themselves again.’

Spaces to pioneer

The entrepreneur hopes that Rotterdam will soon offer more physical space to pioneers. For instance, a light pole will be much more than just the carrier of a LED, she is convinced. In the near future it will also be the charging point of electric cars and bicycles, carrier of wifi, diffuser of light and a data hub. ‘It is interesting to investigate which concepts we can link to this.’ Dijkstra wants to explore the possibilities of new revenue models regarding light control systems and the underlying data. The revenue doesn’t always have to end up in the pockets of big corporates, she argues. ‘Local management will play an important role to future success.’

In addition, Dijkstra is collaborating with the Rotterdam City Astronauts (RASA) on future scenarios for urban nights. It’s her conviction that these may be a lot darker. ‘A better view of the stars also gives more insights into our earth’, she says. At this years’ international light conference PLDC, held in Rotterdam, the subject will be on the agenda.