Innovative city lights. The cultural construction of the LED-technology (Dissertation project)


The development of high-tech novelties usually takes place behind closed doors in research laboratories and factories, sometimes even garages. Before a new product has its public debut, it has been tested and approved in various ways. These steps are often followed by a first trial of application. Yet, what happens when a new technology meets with the daily routines of its users? What problems occur and according to which criteria are advantages and drawbacks evaluated, and with what consequences for the technology and its further development? These are the questions I ask in my dissertation project “innovative city light”. Looking at the current example of a new lighting technology, the Light Emitting Diode (LED), I explore how public experiments with technology relate to innovation activities.

The LED forms an illustrious object for this research — in the double sense of the word. The market maturity of the small diodes in the area of public lighting has caused quite a stir in the lighting industry as the new light source is based on semi-conductor technology and requires special competences from manufacturers, such as in the field of electronics. Numerous new competitors are pushing their way into the market for luminaires and illuminants and thus putting traditional manufacturers under pressure.

But the radiant chips also offer new opportunities for designing night-time cities. For the examined field of public urban lighting, LEDs are considered most suitable for digital, dimmable and interactive solutions such as “intelligent lighting”. Furthermore, the new technology promises energy savings and a good quality of light thanks to its optimised colour rendering. Nevertheless, decision makers often hesitate to implement the LED in their public lighting schemes. It is not only expensive and unfamiliar but also largely untested on site. Cities neither want to take the risk of the early adopter alone, nor do they wish to lag behind the technological development.

Cities therefore increasingly test LEDs for public lighting by installing them selectively in single streets or public spaces where metrics can be checked over time, as well as the public reaction. Yet not all responses to and insights from these public experiments are taken into account in the course of further technology developments. Especially site specific experiences or ways of using night-time public spaces are not significantly being taken into consideration. Meanwhile, studies on science, technology and society show that technological development does not end at the gates of research labs. Instead, technical artefacts are specified, charged with meaning and sometimes modified when being used.

Against this background, I focus on the interaction among experts, local lay people and technology taking into account the site-specificity of situations of early LED-adoption. Two ethnographic case studies are planned, the first in Lyon. The French city is known as an outstanding example of urban lighting policy and light planning. Where if not here will lighting practices, ways of perception and local light culture have an impact on the course of public LED-experiments and their evaluation?

The projects builds on my observations in the context of the study “Showcases of the new – innovative lighting technologies in fairs and festivals".