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An uncertain future for lighting

Tue, 10/22/2013 - 1:14pm
Clifton Lemon, Marketing Communications Manager, Soraa

All of us in the lighting industry today face daily decisions—allocating resources, making specifications, calculating ROI, planning product roadmaps, and a host of other things—that rely on our best judgment about an increasingly uncertain future. “Uncertain” means in ways both bad and good, for we all know some kind of shakeout is pending, that there will be clear winners and losers, but we just don’t quite know (or can’t quite imagine) the extent or timing of it and cannot afford to wait to find out which camp we’ll be in when the music stops.

One of the most prevalent of the current debates about the state of the evolving disruption involves the expected life of the “replacement lamp” cycle. While it’s quite practical to assume that existing sockets can and should be filled by LED lamps that are roughly equivalent to their incandescent or fluorescent predecessors—but consume only 20% of their power—two glaring facts make this single scenario potentially difficult to sustain for too long: 1) many LED products are not yet up to the performance level of older technologies, and exhibit low quality light that makes them poor candidates for rapid widespread adoption; 2) the entire installed infrastructure designed for legacy technologies is sometimes incompatible with LEDs. Plus, this infrastructure is so deeply inefficient on so many levels that simply replacing light sources will not fully capture the potential energy savings and improved light quality possible with LEDs—the entire power distribution system should be reimagined and reconfigured. And I won’t even go into the added complexity of the situation with the controls industry.

Another challenge in our current situation is simply the overwhelming number of possibilities inherent in the new LED technology—many of us can begin to suffer from complexity threshold overload, or “choice paralysis.” This is a real problem affecting consumers today (think of choosing yogurt in the grocery store) that can also affect specifiers, manufacturers and especially product developers with innovative, brilliant engineers and designers on staff who keep discovering amazing new things they can do with this new technology.

There is a way to get a handle on overwhelming complexity and uncertainty about the future that can help us to hedge our bets and create plans that we can adjust when faced with unexpected events or consequences—it’s called scenario planning. Originally developed by the US military during the Cold War as a way to manage mutual escalation of nuclear weapons, it has evolved into a useful strategic planning tool for business—used to great advantage most notably by Royal Dutch Shell before the oil crises of the 1970s. In short, scenario planning does not mean predicting the future, but rather carefully developing a small number of distinct and plausible possible futures in order to be prepared for the one that actually unfolds.

What I’d love to see is organizations like IALD, IES, AIA, USGBC, and DOE (for starters) somehow join forces to create “open source” scenarios postulating some potential futures for the evolution of solid state lighting. This could be done by tapping into the expertise of historians, key manufacturers, lighting designers, architects, regulatory agencies, utilities—a wide range of agents and experts—and developing some good plausible scenarios we can use to give a framework to our critical decision making. This may be a pipe dream, perhaps not — with the correct orchestration, it can easily be achieved. In the meantime, we can all certainly use the technique within our own organizations in order to manage the challenge of making better light for the built environment.

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