On a mission to illuminate London and connect the world

Illuminating London’s bridges is not only shedding light on energy efficiency, but also connecting people in the capital city and beyond

Mike Simpson has a mission. He says: “Sometimes I wish I had a giant switch with which I could turn off all the lights in the world in one go.”

It may seem an odd thing to say for someone who has dedicated the last four decades of his life to illuminating things, but as he elaborates, it starts to make sense. “People take the power of lighting for granted,” he says. “They don’t appreciate how powerful and complex lighting can be. I would love to be able to change that.”

We’ve all heard of cheesemongers and fishmongers, but Mr Simpson is a lightmonger. Arguably, he’s one of the most prolific. Two years ago, he served as master of the Worshipful Company of Lightmongers, a London livery company. He lectures on the subject and has helped light up landmarks such as London’s iconic St Paul’s Cathedral.

His expertise has helped bring several Olympic and Paralympic Games to life, but it’s through his work as global application lead at Signify that he’s really found himself at the forefront of a new paradigm of lighting innovation.

Signify, formerly known as Philips Lighting, has been a pioneer in the field of energy-efficient lighting for many years. Now, by leveraging the power of the internet of things, it is cementing its industry status, with Mr Simpson guiding the way.

In November 2018, a competition that attracted more than 105 submissions was won by American light artist Leo Villareal, best known for lighting up San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, in collaboration with London architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands.

It’s a project that’s about reconnecting and celebrating community and collaboration at a time when London needs it most

Then after a long tender process, Signify was awarded a contract by the Illuminated River Foundation to provide the technology and technical lighting design provided by Atelier 10 to light up to a 2.5-mile stretch of the Thames through LED installations on up to 15 of London’s bridges.

Their pitch by Mr Villareal impressed the prestigious jury for its commitment to respecting the natural environment and its promise to celebrate the unique architectural character as well as rich history of each bridge.

Unique and ambitious, the project will showcase technology which can simultaneously stand for both aesthetically striking form and cutting-edge function, where neither compromises the other. “It’s completely one of a kind,” says Mr Simpson, adding that it will “make a huge difference to the riverscape through London for many years to come”.

The first phase of the project, which is funded by the Rothschild Foundation, Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, and the Blavatnik Family Foundation, will see lights on four bridges being switched on in the summer.

Around 22,000 colour kinetics LED light points will eventually cover all 15 bridges and Signify has committed to providing life-cycle services to monitor and manage the connected bridge lighting remotely for the next decade, using its Interact Landmark System.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to refocus our attention on the bridges across the Thames that we are familiar with, but perhaps do not notice any more,” says curator Sarah Gaventa, director of the Illuminated River Foundation, who is leading the project.

“We want people who cross them every day to stop, stand and really appreciate them. We want them to take a moment out of their busy commutes after dark and to even perhaps share a moment with someone else who is enjoying the artwork. It’s a project that’s about reconnecting and celebrating community and collaboration at a time when London needs it most.”

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Connected future

The capital’s bridges project will no doubt attract attention for its uniqueness and accessibility as a piece of public art when around 200 million bridge crossings are made every year.

But Mike Simpson, global application lead at Signify, says it will also teach us about lighting’s ability to make cities more dynamic, economic and liveable, thanks to emerging technologies such as those pioneered by Signify, formerly Philips Lighting.

The company’s low-energy LED technology and Interact Landmark monitoring system are being rolled out across workplaces, industrial facilities, retail and hospitality spaces, and urban landscapes.

At a basic level, installing lights in certain parts of cities can improve safety by reducing crime rates, but it can also form part of the internet of things, sending and receiving nuggets of data to make cities greener, more secure, easier to navigate and therefore more efficient.

In 2014, Signify launched an indoor positioning system that uses the beams of LED light to create a highly accurate positioning grid for creating a sort of indoor GPS. The system delivers location-based services, such as way-finding and asset-tracking, in workplaces, shops, industrial facilities, offices and other indoor locations

Retailers can use the technology to collect data on shopper and staff traffic flows, for example, enabling them to optimise store layout and operations accordingly. Workspace managers can use it to monitor occupancy in open-plan office spaces and conference rooms, monitor lighting and energy usage, and optimise operations and reduce costs.

Staff can manage lighting with an app that configures, groups and schedules lighting while also receiving alerts. Signify’s technology further enables businesses to monitor lighting and energy usage, either across a single store or a whole chain of outlets, providing analytics to optimise operations and reduce costs.

Also, horticultural lighting experts have created “LED light recipes” tailored to the specific requirements of particular plants and vegetables, enabling growers to improve quality, taste and yield of produce, while saving operating costs.

And Signify’s use of Light Fidelity, or LiFi, provides broadband data connections through light waves. With an increasing number of devices being connected everyday, the radio spectrum is becoming congested and can be overloaded. In some cases, conventional wireless is  simply no longer suitable.

LiFi, unlike wireless technologies which use radio waves, uses the broader spectrum of light waves to transmit and receive data wirelessly. Signify’s LiFi-enabled luminaires provide a stable and fast two-way broadband connection of 30 megabits per second, which is enough to make a video call and download, and play two high-definition movies simultaneously. And faster systems are expected in the future.

The common denominator with all these case studies, is the controllability factor translates directly into energy savings and therefore cost savings. Mr Simpson says being able to adjust light levels centrally, at the touch of a button, is a game-changer. The London bridges, for example, are most likely to be lit at around 50 per cent of capacity most of the time and will be switched off completely at some point during the night, when the
last of the late-night city revellers have left.

Just like the bridges over the Thames, lighting connects, and as Signify leverages the power of the internet of things, it’s exemplifying this in perhaps the most innovative way. Far from just being able to illuminate a dark place, it’s helping to create a world that is cleaner, greener and, as urbanisation continues to gain momentum, more pleasant for future generations, wherever they live.

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