From a widespread network to make cities smart (and safer) to a tool for sanitizing surfaces. The new frontiers of light

From the street lamp under which we take refuge in the late evening to the LED flashlight of the smartphone we are constantly subjected to light stimuli. Artificial light conditions and accompanies our daily activities without making noise and is acquiring an increasingly central role in the development of cities. Not only from an aesthetic point of view but also from an environmental, biological and social point of view.

When it comes to public lighting, the visual factor has always occupied a fundamental theme in terms of design. “The lamp we see on the street is nothing more than the archetype of the light on the other. Like a little sun”, say Carlo D’Alesio and Piero Santoro. Founders of the Carlo D’Alesio e Piero Santoro. Founders of the D’Alesio&Santoro studio, they operate in Milan in the lighting design sector, but also in the photobiology sector under the name of Meg Science,  a company born from the intense collaboration Design Group Italia.

Beauty understood as visual comfort and the enhancement of the built environment rightfully enter the list of functions that light must satisfy. “In 2020 it is no longer a ‘nice to have’ but a very important value on a social, economic and sometimes even political level. Just think of the Hong Kong or Macao waterfront”, continues D’Alesio. “In these cases, the light becomes the spokesman for an economic power, for the technological advancement of the nation”. A powerful sign that unwittingly becomes part of the collective imagination, helping to build the statement of a city.

In this sense it is important that those who manage the lighting project act with knowledge of the facts. Knowing how to properly illuminate an environment, a monument or a square is not a game. Even today, there is a lack of an overall vision of the problems in the lighting design. “Lighting design is often entrusted to specialized professionals such as engineers or even to distributors or to the companies themselves, who have a partial vision”, says D'Alesio. “The ability to understand the problem of light from many points of view, knowing how to combine the regulatory, engineering, economic and aesthetic aspects is the key to obtaining a good project”.

In the lighting sector, the great turning point was marked by the introduction of the LED which “changed the way of developing and producing lamps and lighting bodies as well as the way of designing light in spaces”.

In fact, from the invention of the light bulb up to that precise historical moment, there have not been many advances with respect to the lighting project. “The real change took place in terms of professionalism, approach, formal, technological and economic aspects, with solid state lighting which, in addition to these innovations, has brought the issue of immediate electronic control”.

Thus, to change the state of light (on/off, dimmed, change color) an unprecedented unit of time and mechanical dimensions are required. “Light today has a speed of interaction with the human being never seen before” concludes D'Alesio. With the diffusion of solid lighting, the number of light sources also exploded. At home, in the office, on the streets and in our pockets: “All these light points when they become intelligent create a very dense network” adds Santoro. “For this reason, when we talk about smart cities, it often happens to refer to light and light infrastructures as the first step towards having a connected city. For every bright spot we see, there is also an electric cable to which we can connect other functions, such as a wi-fi repeater, a camera or sensors, equipping it with intelligence and creating the network. What is happening with smart lighting is nothing more than an addition of services and technologies to an existing and widespread infrastructure”.

Thanks to intelligent lighting, a range of possibilities opens up, especially oriented towards customization. According to Santoro, “the real strength of this technology can be summed up in a key word: adaptivity, or the ability of light to adapt to any need and context”. And there are many application examples. “Not only is the light able to switch off and on when someone arrives, but also to simulate the circadian cycle of the day, making the experience more pleasant for those who spend a lot of time in a dimly lit environment, such as the supermarket cashier" . While in future scenarios “the use of the super-reactivity of these technologies may serve to track the movements of consumers or to guide the choice of a product, improving or worsening perception”. This adaptability of connected lighting is also an advantage from the point of view of sustainable development. “Beyond using or choosing a source that is more energy efficient, the true value of smart lighting in terms of efficiency and energy saving is linked to the systematic and dynamic management of the source”.

However, we are still a long way from creating a real smart city. There is a lot of confusion in the market. “We are seeing lighting manufacturers who go to great lengths to add IoT functions to their lamps and vice versa, those involved in technology do not care about the lighting aspect. The truth is that on a mass level, we are still in the early adopting phase”.

In the face of the pandemic, in this latest period, in addition to smart lighting systems, the recent experiments on sanitization through UV technology from a management and prevention perspective have been talked about a lot. “This is a technology that has been used for decades especially in the industrial sector and in particular in the agri-food sector for the sanitization of packaging and production lines but which today, with the pandemic in progress, is moving towards mass use” Santoro says. “Obviously with the pros and cons that follow because it is a very particular technology that presents high risks for humans. It must be managed with full knowledge of the facts”.

Unfortunately, there are still no regulations that regulate all related aspects, so much so that “many companies improvise by selling ineffective solutions and the internet is already full of low-cost products that promise great performance. It's a real far west”.

Despite these problems, sanctification through UV rays is currently one of the most valuable tools to combat the pandemic. “Compared to other chemical solutions, it has much less impact on the environment because no residue is released, but occurs as a physical action using light radiation”, continues Santoro. “There is a lot to do on this issue and for us who also work in photobiology it was almost natural to allocate our knowledge and experience in this area”. In fact, the uses can be many. “We have tried to contextualize this technology for application in medical offices where there is a strong need to sanitize between one patient and another to try to increase the protection threshold. And we are also working with a robotics company for a sanitizing robot in particular contexts”. A hot and very delicate topic that in the near future is destined to be increasingly present. 

Cover photo and in the article some works by Marco Dapino, part of photographic project Ore di Città (2011-2014) which tells the story of light and the consequent chromatic transformations of Milan through the variation of the urban landscape during twilight, the passage of lighting from tungsten to LED and monochromatic environments illuminated by LEDs.