Roman Mars(RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars
Anton Willis (AW): Well I think, for a lot of people, sustainability is an abstract thing, and as such it’s hard to sort of engage on it on the emotional level that’s really needed to push things forward. We want to inspire people rather than creating guilt trips or making them look at numbers.
AW: Sustainability is something that can be powerful and experiential and tied to your life.
AW:My name is Anton Willis. I’m a designer and part of a studio called Civil Twilight.
RM: Civil Twilight’s flagship project is lunar-resonant streetlights.
AW: These are streetlights that sense and respond to ambient moonlight.
RM: So they dim and brighten in response to the lunar cycle.
AW: When the moon is full they dim down to save energy. It’s both a way of saving energy and creating a new urban connection to the cycle of the moon.
RM: The project won the 2007 Metropolis Next Generation Design Competition, partly because it took this huge design challenge of trying to curb energy use, and added a bit of the poetic. A design that saves energy but also inspires and reconnects urban dwellers with one of the fundamental cycles of nature.
AW: In most cities today, the level of light pollution is so high that we’re really not aware of the stars or moonlight at all. No one knows what phase of the moon it is on any given day. So we’re looking for a way to really reconnect people with those kinds of cycles.
RM: Each individual light has a very sensitive photo sensor that picks up moonlight, cloud cover, atmospheric conditions.
AW: So on the scale of a city, you could actually have really interesting phenomenon. If a cloud passed over the moon, you could sort of see a shimmering across the city, reflecting the cloud shadow. We see it as a pretty amazing way to make cities as a whole more responsive and sort of more dynamic and more alive.
AW: Turns out that in the early years of street lighting, both gas and electic, gas and electricity was really expensive, so they only turned them on when they needed to. And they typically would not turn them on on full moonlit nights when it was clear out. People just had the understanding that that was enough light to see by in cities and it was a waste of energy to light on top of that.
RM: And that really changed with the national grid electrification in the 1930s.
AW: When they actually needed a way to burn of excess energy at night when no one was using electricity in their homes. And the streetlight grid actually began as a way to do that as much as a way to illuminate cities.
RM: And since then, almost every city has to be illuminated, very brightly, 24 hours a day.
AW: The standards for lighting that are in place come out of that period.
RM: So this is an effort to make a beautiful, energy efficient version of a thing designed and used historically to burn energy on purpose.
AW: I think we’ve gotten used to talking about sustainability in terms of a lot of metrics and numbers and less about people’s direct experience of it. So we’re looking at ways to really bring it to a tanglible, personal, experiential level.
AW: We see ourselves as part of a strong directon, that the whole sustainability movement will go, we believe, in the coming years.
RM: So where’s my friendly neighborhood moon-responsive streelight? Well, so far it only exists as a prototype. So far. MIT labs are also protyping a similar-in-spirit indoor adaptive lighting system as a massive energy-saving technology, but also as a way to make our working environments more comfortable, productive, and pleasing through using more natural and responsive light.
AW: I think a lot of the current design discussion is about how to make design more relevant, how to make it part of these processes that really shape the world, the economics, the governement. All of the sort of processes that we don’t think of as being designed or having a relationship to design. Climate change is a design problem, you know? The national debt is a design problem. All of these things are design problems in different ways if you expand the scope of how you think about it a little bit. Our challenge, as designers, is really to expand that scope and to become part of bigger discussions.
RM: 99% Invisible is produced by me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar. It’s a project of KALW, the American Insitute of Architects San Francisco, and The Center For Architecture and Design. Find out more at 99percentinvisible.org