In October 2003, the Lighting Research Center held “Bridges in Light: the First Continental Congress of Lighting” in historic Saratoga Springs, New York. It attracted a moderately sized audience of lighting industry leaders, dominated by major manufacturers. Among the many different conferences in lighting, this promised the most thoughtful, if not weighty, content in years. Only the U.S. Department of Energy's “Vision 2020” program has recently attempted to address topics of long-term importance to the industry as a whole, and 2020 was more technical than philosophical or financial. 

Not long into the opening presentation by Dr. Paul H. Schoemaker, chairman and CEO of Decision Strategies International, the theme of Bridges in Light became clear. Schoemaker, a business strategist and lecturer, told attendees what many of us have already realized: lighting is becoming “commoditized,” thereby causing a potential loss of opportunity and profits. To help address it, he described a modern approach to business strategy called “scenario planning,” in which the range of a current trend is evaluated against the range of uncertainties. He added many thought-provoking anecdotes to help understand related concepts and pointed to the important, but often ignored, “weak signals” of change. In short, he warned attendees that their industry needs to “reinvent” lighting to insure prosperity.  

After a break, architect and visionary-and green entrepreneur-William McDonough challenged the audience to consider the broad environmental implications of modern industry and its products. While he did not spend a lot of time on lighting (or daylighting), McDonough established at least one possible future in which the sustainable and environmental impacts of mankind's undertakings are thoughtfully evaluated. Following McDonough was Dr. Alfred Lewy of the Sleep Disorders Clinic at Oregon Health Sciences University. Lewy is a leader in the study of circadian rhythms, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and light, and he presented a clear, concise synopsis of how the human endocrine system works with respect to light and darkness. There followed a brief presentation by Ross Malone, CEO of RETX, a company in the load-management business. The morning finished with three distinguished speakers on LEDs: Shuji Nakamura, the inventor of the blue LED, George Crawfords of Lumileds, and Yoshi Ohno of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

After lunch, attendees broke into groups, each charged with discussing and developing scenario plans for one of four of lighting's major industries-residential, healthcare, commercial and outdoor. The results of a long afternoon of debate were presented, and in turn, summarized by the executive leaders of the conference using the scenario planning technique described by Schoemaker. In brief, a matrix two columns wide by two rows high is used to present the range of a major trend (“Y” axis) against the range of a major uncertainty (“X” axis). The result is four possible scenarios per matrix that describe the range of what “could” happen. The two primary matrices arrived at by the Bridges in Light attendees are illustrated in “Scenario Planning Matrices” on page 21. 

In other words, if it is to survive, the lighting industry must (a) work together to develop and produce a coordinated strategy and (b) make significant technological advances. To address the uncertainties, attendees agreed, the industry must expand the perceived value of lighting; a shift in social values towards sustainability will play a very significant role in this expansion. Other trends discussed included price competition, an aging population, growing awareness of light and health, the need to eliminate mercury from the environment, growing regulatory impacts, market globalization, global warming, electrical system capacity and personalization. Uncertainties included the economy, Asian competition, energy issues and business model differences.

I am a long-time admirer of the Lighting Research Center. The organization is unparalleled in its vision, reach and impact. So, in reading the Bridges in Light brochure, I suspected a program of profound significance, and overall, the program delivered. It helped to expose our most overriding trend-commoditization-and to point out that the customer's perception of value is probably our biggest uncertainty.

Attendees certainly benefited from the basic planning and analysis skills taught by Dr. Schoemaker, and his reminder to consider all scenarios when developing a successful business. Among the other presenters, Lewy was easily the most instructive, delivering the single best short lecture on human photobiology I have heard. But, while I enjoyed McDonough because of a personal interest in the environment, he was clearly giving the speech that goes with his new book, Cradle to Cradle. Malone's presentation about load management was the least applicable to the conference, resembling a marketing pitch rather than compelling commentary.

Then there was the LED trio. It seemed paradoxical, after Dr. Schoemaker had told us to listen for “weak signals,” to then be given three presentations on only one very, very strong signal. While there is no question that solid-state lighting will play a role in our future, I think there are major technical hurdles that stand between consumers and a house full of LED fixtures. At least the limitations of LEDs-including life, heat and color-were addressed with some honesty by the speakers. Instead of the presentation by Malone or two of the three LED presenters, it would have served the industry better to hear about solar energy, daylighting, fuel cells, induction lamps, dark skies, and other major trends directly related to lighting. For example, no one discussed the rapid movement of lighting manufacturing to China, Mexico and other places where costs are low and intellectual property is ignored, two key ingredients in commoditization. 

But by far the largest missing segment of the industry in the day's events was lighting design. The prosperity and “fun” of lighting comes in its application, and lighting designers in particular play a pivotal role in creating the perception of added value. The products and concepts lighting designers started using 20 or more years ago--attractive luminaires, accent lighting, dimming systems, themed design--have fueled our industry's development. It surprises me that the LRC would not turn to those who created the last wave of prosperity--lighting designers, as well as architects and interior designers--to help create the next wave. Without our passion, creativity and skills, lighting is indeed doomed to a future of commoditization from which the industry will never recover. Without design, the “value proposition” of lighting is a commodity, always was, always will be. 


Lighting Research Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Dr. Mark Rea, director of the Lighting Research Center

Professor Russell Leslie and members of the faculty and staff

Executive Leaders

Zia Eftekhar, president of Lightolier, director and vice president of the Genlyte Group

Kathleen Hogan, director of the Climate Protection Partnership Division of the US Environmental Protection Agency

Kerry Kuhlman, president and chief operating officer of Western Massachu-setts Electric Co.

Henny Peters, executive vice president and general manager of General Lighting at Osram Sylvania

Govi Rao, vice president of Business Creation at Philips Lighting

JF Simard, president and general manager of Lumec, Inc.

Peter Smith, acting president of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA)

James Benya is a professional lighting designer and principal of Benya Lighting Design, West Linn, Oregon. He also serves on the editorial advisory board of A|L.