Speaking up about sustainability in Rotterdam

The city of Rotterdam was founded in the 13th century when a dam was built across the river Rotte. As a city that lies below sea level, the people of Rotterdam are acutely aware of the detrimental effect of climate change and rising sea levels, and the general consensus is that time is exponentially running out.

Rotterdam The Maeslantkering Storm Surge Barrier Satellite Photos

Rotterdam in context and the Maeslantkering: a gigantic storm surge barrier that intersects Het Scheur river. Constructed in 1991 (and opened in 1997) as part of the Delta Works project to control flooding in the Netherlands, it’s been used twice as many times as originally estimated due to the effects of climate change.

This year’s PLDC reflected this state of mind, as we were brought back to earth (pun intended) and reminded that as a community we have a responsibility to design with more care for sustainability and to reduce C02 emissions. During Dutch Professor Dr Jan Rotmans’ keynote speech, he hit us with the staggering fact that 6% of global C02 emissions come from the lighting sector – the same percentage as tourism.

We were also reminded by the spectacular Artist Daan Roosegaarde (also Dutch), during his Language of Light talk, that the world needs to strive for Clean Water, Clean Air, Clean Energy and Clean Space. He spoke of his installation Waterlicht (which we experienced here in London’s King’s Cross a couple of years ago), which digitally represented submersion below sea level and the terrible potential power of flooding. He also spoke of his inspiring work Smog Free; a tower that filters polluted air of its contaminants and expels clean air. The project has been embraced in cities such as Beijing, Kraków and Rotterdam where air pollution is at a worrying all-time high. He claims his studio to be “pioneers for the liveability of our future landscapes” and he’s not wrong. The studio’s work proves that art and science can work together to educate and instigate activation and solutions.

Daan Roosegaarde Waterlicht PLDC Presentation 2019 Smog Free Tower

Images (Left & Right): Studio Roosegaarde

There was an interesting case study by Greta Smetoniute on Educating Retail Clients. It explored the embodied energy of commonly used tracklights and delved into what it would take to design and manufacture a truly sustainable tracklight for a retail environment. It was incredibly encouraging to see that with the support and encouragement of a dedicated, environmentally aware client (in this case, LUSH cosmetics) a well-researched, sustainable tracklight can be produced.

The topic of sustainability has been bandied around for many years now, but something about the discussions this time seemed a little more urgent. I think that whilst we as an industry have been working towards a sustainable future with efficient LED lighting and smart controls systems, it seems that that’s not quite enough anymore. This is sustainability round two, and it’s time to pick up speed.

What was also especially helpful as professionals in the industry was the chance to hear some detailed outcomes of studies being undertaken by researchers. One particular study that proved incredibly insightful and potentially directly applicable to our work as lighting designers was Dr Ellen Kathrine Hansen’s work into dynamic lighting in offices by looking at the ‘flow’ of light, which includes directionality of sunlight and changes in weather throughout the day. It was interesting to discover that directionality of spotlights and a mix of differing colour temperatures from fittings in the same space was actually incredibly vital to wellbeing and visual comfort in the workplace. The dynamism of the system stems from replicating natural lighting throughout the day in relation to changes in levels of cloud cover and intensity of light.

On the opposite side of what I would argue is kind of the same coin, with her harmony of art, careful research and calculations, we were inspired by Janet Echelman’s keynote talk about her processes, and her life journey to successful artist. We received a really detailed look into her inspirations, design process and execution of these incredibly impressive thread sculptures that envelop urban environments and change the way in which people interact with their city. Her bold and simultaneously ethereal use of light and movement is somehow very human, and it’s an essence that I think many of us strive to capture in our work.

Janet Echelman Earthtime Series 1.78 Beverly Hills

Image: Janet Echelman

While Janet Echelman raised the subject of changing behaviour in a public realm, Jennifer Tomkins’ talk taught us about the economics of attention with particular thought given to her home of London. She spoke about the role colour, light and advertising has in our urban environments and how the demand on our attention is rising as more and more brands try to fight for it. The over saturation of colourful, illuminated LED billboards drown each other out, and ultimately, drown out our experiences of cities – the same being true of our smartphones. She reminded us that in an instagrammable city that is being designed to demand our attention, if we can, we should redirect our attention and “reconnect with our roles as citizens”.

We were also reminded of the importance of community by Sharon Stammers, who spoke on behalf of the growing community of “Women in Lighting”, who are striving for equality in an industry where the gender split in the workplace does not represent the gender split in judging panels and conference speakers.

Later that night we were inspired by the many women sharing their inspiration and professional and personal stories at the Women in Lighting Pecha Kucha, which was very well attended by an encouragingly equal representation of the lighting community.

Women In Lighting PLDC 2019 Rotterdam Lighting Designers Nulty

I think to summarise the experience of the three-day conference, it can (conveniently) be done through the key points explored and made by the always entertaining Johnathan Rush in his talk: Are we still lighting designers?

We are not Lighting Designers; we are custodians of our planet.

We are not Lighting Designers; we manage people’s health and wellbeing.

We are not Lighting Designers; we are psychologists of light.

We are not Lighting Designers; we are collaborators and experience designers.

We are not Lighting Designers; we are researchers and innovators.


I can’t possibly document everything that I saw and experienced over the three days and nor would I want to try – these are only my experiences and where is the democracy in that? So I’d like to leave you with the thoughts of my three colleagues who attended with me, and some talks that inspired them in Rotterdam.

Matthew Allen–Olivar: Riccardo Marini – Why smart? Why not happy?

Riccardo Marini’s talk focused on our relationship with the places we reside and how we currently interact and more importantly “feel” within them. He questions whether or not through the constant quest of advancements, change and fundamentally approval, we have possibly lost our way and have become obsessed with fulfilling a vision of the world founded years ago.

“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.” – Albert Einstein

He asks us to look at design as not only an aesthetical aspiration but also an emotional aspiration. “A good city is like a good party. People don’t want to leave early.” – Jan Gehl

Martina Alagna: Thorsten Bauer – The fourth wall – The social dimension of lighting design in the today’s digital age

Thorsten Bauer is considered to be one of the pioneers of projection mapping and during PLDC he shared with us an in-depth analysis of digital and analogic blending conditions that are part of our time. The challenge, he said, is to integrate the media facade intervention within the urban space without creating “out of place” installations with potential conflicts with the surroundings. One of the key skills that Thorsten has learnt with his many years of experience is to approach the space with a multitude of experiments to lead into “ontological differences which appear to be inherent to space and moving images, and which essentially separate these counterparts from one other”.

Kael Gillam:

Dr Thomas Schielke – How Apple strives for the perfect sky and revives cities

Dr Schielke’s analysis of the design of the Apple stores over the last several decades was an incredible insight into the staying power of techniques pioneered by mid-century American designers. The use of large luminous surfaces and finely crafted daylight penetration methods were inspiring to understand on this new, deeper level.

Sangil Na – Lighting design for interplanetary environments

Though some dismissed this talk as a flight of fancy, Sangil’s analysis of designing for our ever-expanding universe was a fascinating study on trying to tackle the unknown. His research into the body’s deterioration during extended periods of time in zero gravity, and the design methodologies required to combat mental and physical fatigue, are certainly a good starting point in learning how we can design for our next home.

Blog post by Sophie O’Rourke