Introducing Shelley James and the Age of Light

I first came across Dr. Shelley James during the early days of lockdown last year. Phos were early out of the traps with their ‘Light Tribe’ series of Zoom webinars. It was the topics that caught the imagination: ‘Light on Earth’; ‘Colour and Optical Illusions’; ‘Light and Learning’. With the entire industry shut away at its home desk, these were the kind of topics that everyone could buy into, whether as a designer, a manufacturer or even a client!

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Dr. Shelley James

So who is this Shelley James who came bursting onto the scene in such a dramatic fashion?

The first thing we find is that Shelley isn’t ‘one of us’. She certainly knows more about Light and the power it has over us than many industry insiders, but she brings a fresh attitude to what we do. Shelley cares about making changes, rather than finding reasons why things can’t change, which is – let’s face it – a common industry position. ‘Its too difficult‘; ‘we tried that‘; ‘you can’t put a quantitative value on that‘ . . . etc.

Shelley is fronting the Age of Light Innovation Group. And to emphasise that this isn’t the usual easy ride of human-centricism and melanopic luxism, Shelley opens her website with this simple challenge:

When did you last think about light?

Now, I don’t care if Light is the thing that pays the mortgage and puts food on the table, that’s a great starting point. Because – when did you last think about Light. . . no, REALLY THINK about Light? . . . exactly. Me, too.

Shelley and I have been having long conversations about where the Age of Light Innovation Group is headed. Eventually I asked her to draft something in the way of a Manifesto that we could all get behind when we take to the streets, demanding that our Light Health is respected.  This is what she said: 

A little Context:

We spend 90% of our lives under artificial lights. And 80% of those lighting products are bought and sold by people with little or no formal training in lighting. The horticulture sector invests in high quality lighting for high-value projects because there is a compelling financial case for doing so: improved taste and resistance to disease, for example. There is growing evidence that humans perform better with high quality lighting too. Improved staff retention, improved attendance, improved learning outcomes, improved recovery times, reduced absence from sickness.

The list goes on.

In that context, it is no surprise that the principles of ‘human-centric’ lighting are central  to the WELL standard. Major engineering firms such as Arup have been quick to realise the commercial benefit of designing buildings to a premium specification and have committed to achieving the Gold standard for all future projects. But a multiplication of parameters, claims and counter-claims by manufacturers and scientists alike has led to widespread confusion and mistrust of that ‘human-centric’ term.

With the best of intentions, debates rage in specialist circles about fractions of a wavelength. And while we talk amongst ourselves, the vast majority of decisions about the light that shapes every aspect of our lives are made with little or no reference to basic principles of human physiology or psychology – let alone intangible aspirations such as the experience of wonder or connection with the natural world.

Those charged with delivering on a budget naturally negotiate each line item on price. The original specification is pared down to ‘equal and approved’ products that meet minimum legal standards. And, so, the capital expenditure imperative is met. But the principles – and the benefits – of good-quality lighting are lost in the process.

The operational side of the balance sheet along with the value of the Estate and other assets including the human capital and brand are likely to suffer. We believe that it is time to bring together the commercial and strategic interests of all those who design and manufacture, deliver and maintain the lighting in our homes, schools and hospitals.

We have two broad aims:

  • To raise awareness among non-specialist professionals who purchase lighting of the impact on performance and profitability.
  •  To  clarify how luminaries are specified so that an ‘equal and approved’ substitution is no longer an option. The world does not need another platform or talking shop – and it’s great to see  new initiatives such as Arup’s ‘Luminaire Broker’, the Spektd and the Luox platforms being available.

Next steps . . . to create and deliver a communication campaign in two broad stages:

Research and connect:

  • Build a coalition  across and beyond the lighting community to engage with this powerful 80% of professional buyers who have little or no training in lighting and have a healthy mistrust of the lighting sector’s much-hyped ‘human-centric’ lighting claims. If we really want these busy, budget-conscious businesswomen and men to make different decisions, we must first understand what drives their current choices. We need to ask them directly what they currently believe, who they trust, what evidence they need and which platforms are best-suited to deliver that to them. Only then do we stand a chance of building a coherent and convincing case for lighting that goes beyond the numbers to deliver healthy, beautiful and sustainable spaces that are good for the bottom line.  And ultimately, creating the demand in our sector for the high-quality, truly human centred lighting that we know we are capable of.
  • To do this we will host conversations with leaders in the global property development, engineering, design-build, human resources, facilities and operations management sectors. We will also record case studies with leaders in the technology, education and healthcare sectors to hear directly how they made the business case for high-performance lighting. Finally, we will record brief interviews with leading scientists to explain the evidence that underpins the key visual and non-visual lighting criteria covered by the WELL standard

Develop and test – deliver and promote

  • We build on these insights and the success of the LunaTM campaign to create, test and deliver a series of short, online assets – podcasts, webinars and edu-mercials for example.
  • We will build on the relationships created in the initial research phase to share the information as widely as possible. We will work with successful existing initiatives such as the  Supply Chain Sustainability School and the Build Back Better Awards.
  • Covid permitting, we have a long-term plan to host in-person events to continue the conversation and showcase best practice. As we all know, like a fine wine, the art of lighting needs to be a first-hand experience.

Here’s a Call to Action

As I read this draft of a manifesto for the first time, I felt that here we have the opportunity for the lighting industry to stand to one side and ask ‘how can we help you’ rather than stand front and centre, pretending that we all know the way to a glorious healthful future.

Shelley’s position as an outsider gives her unusual scope to shake things up a bit. She has already built an impressive list of sponsors and partners for the project. But there is room on the team for people who really want to put their heads above the parapet to ask the difficult questions and look for ways to make a difference in an imperfect world.

Do get in touch with Shelley directly if you’d like to find out more.

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