What will our future cities look like? How will urban lighting change over the next century? Although the future is far from certain, urban consultant Marco Bevolo set out to explore possible scenarios for our cities with lighting design specialist Tapio Rosenius. The results have been made into a fascinating book commissioned by Philips, entitled “Create the Livable City”. Marco talked to us in greater depth about these scenarios and their implications.
Philips commissioned you to write a book on the future of urban lighting, “Create the Livable City”. What did they expect in terms of foresight and future studies?
I could give you two different answers. Firstly at the level of the processes behind the book. This is the third publication commissioned by Philips using the same approach – the initial ground-breaking study was made in 1996 from which the first book was written. The latest version takes a specifically European perspective and is an intermediary publication as part of a wider global programme over the current decade.
Secondly, the findings are far more applied and applicable than in earlier editions. In the 1997 and 2007 city.people.light books, studies often used sketches to imagine lighting scenarios 10 or 15 years in the future. This book includes numerous mock-ups and is very photographic, so it is easier to imagine how the different outcomes would look like in real life. Concepts can be then filtered and selected as the basis for creating new and innovative products.
The publication is also intended to feed discussions and ideas about urban lighting – this interview is a perfect example. This is the spirit of the “multi-purpose strategy”, a concept defined in 1991 by Dr. Stefano Marzano, where a programme like “Create the Livable City” and its book were used the basis for innovation roadmaps, networking and stakeholder engagement and media dialogues with a wider public audience. This is why the city.people.light approach should be seen as an open platform for research, exchange and participation.
What exactly does your 16-element matrix approach involve?
The matrix was not created in this book, but rather refreshed and updated for Europe based on the global matrix adopted in 2006. The aim is to imagine our future society and how we can work with and develop cities. This version can be applied to European cities and the scenarios imagined are the outcome of dialogues between European experts.
These scenarios can then be applied to create visionary design concepts addressing specific and concrete situations. For example, in Wroclaw Poland, a series of very dark underpasses were converted into luminous area where children wanted to play using specific lighting solutions. In Dubrovnik, the history of the city was told through subtle scenographic projections on buildings that were minimalistic and respected the context. Finally, in Glasgow, “socialising bonfires” were created as a place for people to come together. This is an innovative way to transform the utilitarian function of public lighting to encourage physical gatherings as a counterbalance to digitalisation. There are more than 20 design concepts in the new book, representing contributions by 150 – 200 stakeholders who worked from the same urban futures matrix.
What are the key scenarios generated using this matrix?
These key socio-cultural scenarios describe vistas of preferable future cities, rather than focusing on individual concepts for design solutions – these are developed later in the workshops that take place in different cities. This is about storytelling and narrative that can be used to inspire architects, urbanists and designers. For example, we explored the theme of “Belonging” and the increasingly relevant desire to feel part of a group. This might translate into a standardised urbanism, as seen in wealthy suburbia all over the continent. To avoid perpetuating the construction of uniform “Disney-like” suburban areas, we proposed an active scenario, where architects and designers need the courage to suggest new eclectic hybrids.
What are the main possibilities for developing urban lighting?
This is a very open question and I’m going to give you a counterintuitive answer. I’m going to describe the kind of city and lighting that I don’t think has a long-term future. At the moment there is a trend to create “smart cities” that are driven by digital companies who provide hi-tech networks and infrastructures. They meet with administrators to discuss how to lower costs and come to the conclusion that digital connectivity reduces costs and improves quality of life. This is a pervasive discourse in today’s innovation and urban planning culture, which runs very deeply in Europe at this moment.
I am very sceptical about the future of technology-driven cities – in certain Asian countries, cities are very high-tech and sophisticated but empty and soulless with limited civic participation. Digital infrastructure becomes just another layer of technology like electricity in the early 20th century and the telephone more recently.
However, I firmly believe that we need to put citizens back into urban design processes and involve them in dialogues. They are not just customers for digital solutions, they are much more than this as they own the city. In this way, corporations can open up innovation by coming down from their ivory towers to bring citizens and communities into the conversation. “Create the Livable City” and city.people.light as a generic approach moves exactly in this direction following a tradition that combines over 20 years of factual experience in this kind of platform-thinking.
What will users gain in terms of well-being?
The gains will take various forms. Firstly, practical gains to improve our physical condition as seen in the “active stairs” design concept in Glasgow that encourage people to do more exercise. Secondly in terms of self-expression using digital applications. For example, in Bratislava active windows light up building fronts at night as an active medium for communicating with people outside.
Finally, in relation to sustainability. The theme of ecology was systematically raised at all our workshops and has clearly become a central issue. However, we have yet to move to basic functional ideas about lighting up gardens towards something more sophisticated. We are talking about creating art objects and subtle storytelling that takes the context into account. This might look like a set-back but it actually is very good news because it means that the message about the relevance of environmental sustainability is getting deeper into the texture of culture. Art and poetry will work their way in our culture and society to aggregate future demand for practical solutions.