Lighting Industry, Products + Technology

Lighting and Innovation – Part One Of A Four-Part Series

Image: Clifton Stanley Lemon

By Clifton Stanley Lemon

Series Description

In the lighting industry, we suffer from a collective lapse of imagination – where are the real innovations driven by the most compelling capabilities of SSL? We’re still chasing energy efficiency even though lighting long ago became by far the most energy-efficient of all building systems. We have a very difficult time thinking in whole systems or whole buildings in an industry dominated by component thinking. Many recent trends and narratives about the future of lighting have proven to be impractical, irrelevant to users, or resistant to scale. We have trouble designing for operations and maintenance, not only in lighting but in all building systems. Underlying all these conditions is a fundamental misunderstanding of innovation. But there are a few signs that true innovation is still alive and well, but perhaps hidden in plain sight and, as it often does, coming from unexpected places.

Part 1 of this series examines the current constellation of narratives driving our understanding of the lighting industry; Part 2 explores the current state of innovation in lighting; Part 3 describes a promising new platform approach to luminaire system design and manufacturing, and Part 4 examines emerging narratives, offering perspectives on various directions for the future of innovation in lighting.

Lighting and Innovation Part 1: Operating Narratives

For the past decade or so, the discourse has been breathless about the good kind of disruption precipitated by SSL, and wistful and fearful about the bad kind: for instance, how lighting as we know it is dying or dead, software is eating the world, and AI will eat your job any minute now. These kinds of beliefs and mindsets are encapsulated into specific narratives – stories that simplify complex situations and help us make difficult choices, even (or perhaps especially) when they’re inaccurate or overly simplified. In what we perceive as our overly complex world, viral narratives are usually all we have to go on.

What Makes a Narrative?

A narrative is a story that describes complex or confusing situations or events in a simple way and impacts decisions or actions. A narrative has a certain kind of salience that can be encapsulated in a word or very short phrase (like “supply side economics,” for instance) allowing it in a somewhat unpredictable way to achieve critical mass and go viral, turbocharged by social media and especially by celebrities. Many narratives evolve and languish for months or years, until they’re revived and appropriated by well-known thought leaders. Nobel Prize-winning author Robert J. Shiller, in his 2007 book Narrative Economics, describes the dynamics of narratives behind the behavior and choices of all players in an economy, and which are largely unexamined by classical economics. Single narratives can be identified and analyzed, but Shiller shows that they evolve and act in deeply intertwined constellations.

Our narratives about lighting and the role of innovation shape our everyday decisions, often unconsciously. Yet we don’t really understand innovation as well as we think we do, and we consistently reduce the complex and messy past to a more easily understood series of narratives, heroic, tragic or both.

What are the narratives that shape our choices and decisions in lighting today, and how can we examine them, learn from them, and improve them? In Parts 2, 3, and 4 of this series, I’ll examine emerging narratives. Here, I examine a few past and current ones.

 Next Big Tech

This overarching narrative is not limited to the lighting industry at all, but has definitely impacted it. It assumes a permanent condition of “disruption” by single, spectacularly transformative technologies – salient examples like the iPhone, LED, transistor, PC and others are easily at hand to support many constantly evolving narratives and their variations. Recent tech-only narratives in lighting tend to be incremental and focused on things like tunable light, UV, circadian, and horticultural lighting, none of which have scaled or met broad market needs in general lighting. Non-tech narratives like Lighting as a Service (LaaS) seemed promising but haven’t really taken off, for a number of reasons. Next, Big Tech fails, especially where it focuses on separate technologies rather than non-technology innovation or tech stacks. It’s the driving force behind the Silicon Valley model of casino hyper-capitalism, where financialization and greed can have outsized and corrosive impacts on innovation. As a careful assessment of history shows, the reality of innovations catching on and being applied widely is far more nuanced and depends on combinations of non-technology innovations, and more importantly, real market needs.

 Software Eats the World, AI Eats Your Job

In the 2010s, leading lighting pundits confidently forecast that the lighting industry would become part of the software industry, largely because Marc Andreessen proclaimed in 2011 that “software eats the world.” This has not happened – software has of course had a huge impact on all industries, including lighting, but physical objects and systems that must be designed, built, and incorporated into physical buildings are still our main focus – it’s impossible to ignore the underlying physical infrastructure of our world. By buying into this narrative without questioning it, we risk losing touch with the physical things that make software and AI even possible. Innovation in this narrative is seen as exclusively technological. Lighting products are part of the construction industry, not the consumer electronics industry, which is largely where software-centric narratives evolved. Software was complex enough for most people to deal with but now we have AI currently going viral and widely available, so if you’re inclined to be scared, there’s now even more (much more!) to be afraid of. The ultimate end game of all of this is the supremely crackpot sci-fi narrative of the Singularity, whereby machines, biological and otherwise eat everything. I’ll deal with AI more extensively in Part 4, where I look at emerging narratives and future trajectories.

Faster Rate of Change

This narrative is related to Next Big Tech and Software Eats the World and is not new atall. According to David Edgerton in his book The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900, “There are new things under the sun, and the world is indeed changing radically, but this way of thinking is not among them…this kind of futurology has been with us a long time”. Faster Change is really a perennially recycled narrative that addresses our fear of technology disruption. Known as the Red Queen Effect, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the narrative dictates that we must at all costs stay on the treadmill of Progress, moving faster all the time simply to stand still and avoid being washed backwards in time.

Overwhelming Complexity

Joined at the hip to Faster Rate of Change, this narrative can lead one to feel utterly dependent upon technology we have no hope of ever comprehending, let alone creating or repairing. Modern life is a slow progression away from the means of production. While previous generations could “hack” cars, radios, TVs, computers, or appliances, it’s becoming increasingly untenable to do so for most of the machines and systems we depend on for life. Most consumer electronics products can now be completely replaced at a cost far lower than the cost to repair. Contributing mightily to this narrative is the vast number of choices we must navigate now simply because communications technology has made information so widely available as such low cost. This has created a real problem, described by the Decision Paralysis narrative. In lighting today, manufacturers are deeply challenged to provide more and more information for products; manage a ballooning number of SKUs and combinations of components; and differentiate products in a global economy where dozens of substitutions exist for most general lighting products.


This Chicken Little narrative evolved around the time LEDs were becoming commercialized, and held, more or less, that SSL would permanently change the lighting industry in the most disruptive way; many firms would fail to adapt and therefore die; disintermediation would run rampant; and large tech companies would take over lighting. Although many complex changes did occur, the future as described by this narrative played out in a completely different way. One of the problems of this narrative was that it didn’t provide any predictive utility in suggesting coping strategies or new business models. But it had an impact and left a certain lingering, defeatist malaise which is connected to Software Eats the World.


Bob Johnstone’s excellent book Brilliant!: Shuji Nakamura and the revolution in Lighting Technology  portrays Dr. Nakamura as being motivated by energy efficiency in his quest to create the blue LED, thus ushering in the era of solid state lighting. This is truly a heroic David and Goliath story of a spiritual quest by an almost mythical figure (Shuji was wildly famous in Japan as someone who had successfully challenged the monolithic keiretsu Nichia in court and won). SSL has always been closely tied to efficiency, and rightly so. In addition to Shuji, the contributions of several individuals, including Roland Haitz, Nick Holonyak, and James Broderick (to mention a few key ones) resulted in a dramatic, widespread, and enduring global reduction in energy use in this single technology. While efficiency as a narrative served its purpose to establish SSL as a viable technology and allow it to displace earlier less efficient lighting technologies, the technology transformation is largely complete and the scope of further potential efficiency gains in general lighting has diminished significantly. Yet efficiency remains a strong driving narrative because it’s demonstrable with quantitative measurements, while all the other wonderful benefits of SSL, like controllability, miniaturization, wide color range, and flexibility, are a good deal less so, despite mighty efforts by researchers, standards bodies, and professional organizations. Policies and programs that focus primarily on energy efficiency at the expense of quality, design and aesthetics in lighting basically amount to what Jim Benya refers to as “micromanaging milliwatts.”

 lluminating Engineering

The rapid growth of the electrical grid following the introduction of electric lighting necessitated a new class of professionals – electrical engineers. In Electrifying America, Social Meanings of a New Technology, David E. Nye explains how the concept of engineering soon became deeply embedded in the culture of corporations, as managers applied engineering principles to optimizing the output of workers as well as machines. Our understanding of engineering today is largely technical, and lighting is still seen as primarily an engineering practice rather than a design one. Is engineering a design practice, or vice versa? David Edgarton argues that the origins of engineering practice are deeply connected to maintenance, as early engineers both built and maintained…engines. Today many lighting designers are not much concerned with things like maintenance or controls, and a common term for lighting professionals is “specifiers” or choosers of electrical equipment. And in the words of the inimitable Kevin Wilmorth, the lighting industry “has been for some time an industry filled with engineers with product ideas, looking for a market.” Engineering is typically not seen as the place for innovation, where design is.

The engineer/designer schism is reflected in the names of the industry’s largest professional organizations: the Illuminating Engineering Society, and the International Association of Lighting Designers. “Specifier” is a term that keeps this narrative alive: in this article Thomas Paterson and I argue for dropping the term in general use. UK lighting designer John Bullock says, “good lighting comes from an aesthetic appreciation of what’s needed combined with an understanding of the technical attributes of products and application.” My definition of design includes engineering and is user focused. Most leading practitioners in lighting design understand technology, aesthetics, and user needs and don’t artificially divide these into different parts of the craft nor keep them in different areas of their brains.

 Human Centric

None of us like the name of this narrative, but it’s already firmly lodged in the global discourse, with no suitable replacement in sight despite many well-meaning attempts. It seems to be a cri de coeur against the dehumanization of, well, everything, but especially lighting. It’s a confusing term, for many reasons, including the fact that dehumanization itself is inherently…human. Underneath the ungainly label is probably a desire to include squishy stuff like aesthetics and feelings into the practice of lighting design, which is not a bad thing. But it begs the question why we need to do that in the first place. Don’t we lighting people venerate the “art and science of lighting?” In practice, we mostly do not, per the Illuminating Engineering narrative.

Smart Lighting

This narrative started perhaps a decade ago and spawned a considerable load of breathless hype about lighting and IoT, largely generated by non-lighting tech companies who saw SSL as a springboard to disrupt and devour yet another industry. A related narrative is Connected Lighting, but this narrative has caught on only partially: as simply being connected in a control network topology doesn’t render the luminaire or the system “smart.” Smart controls and IoT were first hyped as being symbiotic upon lighting systems and delivering benefits like asset tracking and advanced sensors that had nothing to do with value for users of lighting systems. Today most lighting people still have no clue what smart lighting actually is and don’t know or care much about things like data architecture, AI, and integrated controls. We have made many important advancements in lighting controls, but for most lighting designer controls just keep getting more onerous: complex, overregulated, and obstructing what they see as their real job – providing beautiful, healthy lighting. In all building and construction disciplines “smart” is not yet well understood – Jay Wratten of WSP likes to say “smart is not something you install.” But this may be changing gradually, especially in larger projects that have the need and resources to devote to true smart building systems, and there are many important opportunities for lighting people to take leadership here. Buildings That Think or Sentient Buildings are narratives that more accurately describe the important emerging developments.


A closer look at the history and process of innovation quickly shows that it’s nowhere near as simple, linear, or rational as the deeply embedded Lightbulb Moment narrative would have us believe. Like DNA, every new development is built upon hundreds of untold or forgotten previous technologies and ideas. Narratives can go viral quickly, sometimes long after their original appearance, or gradually, lingering over decades or longer. We live in a fluid world of uncertainty, but humans always have. We’re just more aware of more narratives now because of the increased speed of “viralness.” Some of our old narrative mindsets are fading and no longer useful, and new ones are emerging. It’s much easier to analyze past and current narratives and innovations than trending or future ones.

For the lighting industry, it’s crucial to recognize, articulate, and promote narratives that focus on non-technological, user-based, design innovations. We are utterly overwhelmed with technology, it’s hard to imagine needing more when we can’t innovate with the vast majority of what we have on tap today. Innovations happen, usually accidentally, with the right combination of technologies or business models. The internal combustion engine plus the assembly line is a good example of a technology innovation combined with a social or organizational one. The Apple app ecosystem combined with the iPhone is another.

Both the Silicon Valley casino economy narrative and VC investment behavior bias us to groundbreaking disruptive single technologies and dismiss incremental ones. This mindset ignores the complex and highly interdependent nature of innovation, and there’s a huge sliding scale between incremental and groundbreaking, just as there is between invention and innovation. With SSL fully mature and integrated into the lighting infrastructure, we can’t simply wait for the next big disruptive tech innovation without looking at more important and useful approaches.

At this point, we also shouldn’t expect much higher order innovation to come from within the lighting industry itself anytime soon, and that’s probably a very good thing. Funding for fundamental research in lighting has long dried up. VCs and investors largely stopped paying attention to fundamental lighting technology several years ago. But more incremental innovations are and have been proceeding apace, as pointed out in this recent LightNOW blog post. That’s fine for end users, even if it doesn’t necessarily get the VCs riled up.

What should we be looking for in lighting? I think the most interesting opportunities are in smart buildings and system integration – more on that later in Part 3 of this series. Next, in Part 2, I examine how innovation has historically taken place in the context not only of narrative “constellations” but what today we might call “tech stacks” or combinations of technologies and non-technology innovations.

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