IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Lighting designer Carlijn Timmermans
Sustainable light development in off-grid areas
By: Jessica Merkens
Photo: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Without artificial light, it is challenging to conduct business or work after sunset
Lighting designer Carlijn Timmermans is fascinated by the impact of light. The Dutch lighting designer wrote her master’s thesis on Light Poverty and gave a lecture on this subject at the Professional Lighting Design Conference in Paris last year. “We live in a world where we can illuminate nearly everything. But what would living be like in an area with limited access to electricity?”
Lighting in off-grid areas
About 20 per cent of the world’s population doesn’t have access to a reliable electrical grid and electric light. “Communities in these so-called off-grid areas have to rely on inefficient and dangerous alternatives, such as kerosene lamps, candles, torches, flashlights and car batteries”, the lighting designer explains. Kerosene candles are the root cause for almost all fire incidents, burn injuries and an astounding 4.3 million deaths per year, according to UN-environment assembly reports. At the same time, with the use of kerosene candles, the air-quality also worsens.
The majority of people in off-grid areas are part of the so-called ‘Base of the Pyramid’, living in poverty, and without proper lighting. Because of the lack of a reliable electrical grid, people are limited in the ability to undertake numerous activities after sunset. Daily tasks such as cooking and cleaning can only be done during daytime or with the use of alternative light sources. This also holds true for income-generating opportunities.
Without artificial light, it is challenging to conduct business or work after sunset. Education and healthcare are also influenced by the lack of a reliable electrical grid. Researchers Esper, London and Kanchwala performed an extensive case study on clean lighting and its impact on children and state that ‘Without electricity, the poor cannot access modern hospital services, refrigeration for food and medicines, and after-school educational activities. For children, lack of lighting equates to the inability to read, study, and an increased risk when going outside after dark’.
Photo: Europe & Africa. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
I dare to state that light can contribute to accomplishing at least seven of the UN Sustainable Development Goals
Photo: Asia & Australia. NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Suomi NPP VIIRS data from Miguel Román, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Lighting and the UN Sustainable Development Goals
“I dare to state that light can contribute to accomplishing at least seven of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, either on the short term or in the long run”, says Timmermans. This collection of 17 global goals was formed by the UN in 2015 as a follow up on the Millennium Development Goals. The objectives were formulated with help from citizens, scientists, civil society organisations and companies from around the world, focusing on building a sustainable world. Each goal has specific targets that need to be achieved before 2030.
Next, to achieving affordable and clean energy, Timmermans thinks sustainable light development can contribute to ending poverty and hunger, improving health and education, achieving gender equality, building sustainable cities and communities and attenuating climate change.
When areas and roads are illuminated, it’s easier to find the way to your destination by sight and to detect and avoid dangerous situations. Artificial lighting can also support education and improve literacy by creating the opportunity to study and read after sundown. In addition, lighting can stimulate social activity. “Artificial light enables us to go out at night. Not only to find our way home or to have a night view of the city, but also to drive social activity”, the lighting designer explains.
The topic of sustainable light in off-grid areas is starting to grow in the industry, partly because of projects which have been done by artists such as Olafur Eliasson. The Scandinavian designer developed ‘Little Sun’, a solar charged light that fits in the palm of your hand. WakaWaka is another project that gained much attention with its wide range of sustainable solar charged lights, although the company was recently declared bankrupt.
But we should be aware of the fact that it can come with negative side effects as well
There are several initiatives regarding sustainable, solar-powered lighting in emerging countries, but Timmermans stresses that research and knowledge about the area and its inhabitants are essential in the process towards sustainable light development. “As the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association explains, ‘carefully designed programs and products are more promising than poorly designed or non-transparent initiatives’. Both an open and interdisciplinary market as well as transparency of initiatives are crucial in achieving the best solution for projects and products.”
Timmermans is not only interested in the impact of light, but also on how lighting is used in off-grid areas. “What happens to the product and user when a product’s lifetime passes, when it is broken or has defects?”. She believes that in-depth market research is crucial. As an example, Timmermans recalls a survey among users of solar charged lighting products from Lighting Africa. While they were very enthusiastic about the product, they were concerned about the ability to charge the battery during the wet season. Thus, questioning wheter the user will be convinced that the product is useful and valuable throughout the entire year.
Artificial lighting and the daily rhythm
Artificial lighting can enhance development and living whereas its lack seems unimaginable to many. But there’s a lot to learn from communities that lack access to electricity, Timmermans says. “With the introduction of artificial light, our circadian rhythm is also influenced. We are used to switching on lights and enjoy the benefits of it, but we should be aware of the fact that it can come with negative side effects as well.” Of course, being a lighting designer herself she greatly enjoys it. “Being a lighting designer is a privilege. As long as we are aware of the effects of light during the design process so that we can positively add something to the world and limit unnecessary use.”
At the moment, Timmermans is looking into the possibility of conducting a research project on this topic. “My presentation at PLD-C Paris last year lead to several worldwide connections. Some of the people who reached out to me are already working in the field, and some are just interested in the subject and willing to join forces to take this a step further. I am convinced that sustainable light development can contribute to reaching the sustainable development goals before 2030. The time is better than ever to take action."