Configuring Light Infrastructure


Light is one important dimension of the ‘disconnected infrastructures’ that constitute the urban fabric and it is through our previous research under the rubric of ‘Configuring Light’ that we became involved in this British Academy project. We are two sociologists at London School of Economics (Don) and King’s College, London (Jo) and our primary focus is on public realm lighting (see Don’s first blog post here).

(c) Configuring Light

Through a host of different projects we have followed the actors involved in the design, planning and installation of lighting on housing estates and cities. Our work is always in collaboration with practitioners (lighting designers, architects, planners) and we are interested in both understanding their professional knowledges and exploring the contribution of social science knowledge to their practice, exploring stakeholders and users’ practices and uses of social space. The connection to light and safety is clearly significant in this respect, but our research points to complex ways in which this plays out, as I will come on to discuss. While our focus is on light, this is not to be analysed in isolation from other infrastructures. Indeed, it provides us with just one way into analysis of public space more broadly. Our projects always, inevitably, end up being about something else which light throws into sharp relief. To date, our projects have focused attention on social inequalities, hierarchies of professional knowledge and practice, and the devaluing of night-time design over day-time design, while at the same time exploring light as a material practice.

A second contribution to this project, besides our substantive interest in light, is methodological. One dimension of this is our software ethnography of SafetiPin (explained in Don’s first blog post here). The other dimension is our sociological background in qualitative research methodology and, in particular, our experience working with professional practice and connecting up professional and lay knowledges. This angle has meant that we advocate for better, more socially informed approaches to the design of public space based upon qualitative social research on users’ experiences of these spaces.

These two dimensions of our work – on light as material practice and our methodological approach – can be explored in a little more depth.

Light as material practice

Our starting premise is that light is a material, it is infrastructural material that is configured into urban fabric through various forms of expertise, technologies and social and professional practices. Many different professionals and practitioners – designers and planners and manufacturers – contribute knowledge and practice to making up public lighting. But it also includes people going about their business and making sense of light as part of their daily routines and movements. Indeed, we all configure light as part of everyday activities and we all use and make sense of public lighting in different ways. More on this in a moment.

Light is clearly one significant component of urban life that contributes to the sense of safety in public at night. Before systematic public lighting, urban space was dangerous to navigate at night and most people would not have ventured forth into the urban night. This pre-modern experience of darkness, before the advent of civic lighting technologies, is captured eloquently in stories about the pre-modern city and its dangers as told to us by historians (see, for example, Beaumont). A number of histories of public lighting technologies take us through the transformations of public space lit by oil then gaslight, to electric and now digital (LED) lighting, charting the ways in which different political and economic battles around this infrastructure developed alongside evolving infrastructural technologies (see Cubbitt). However, while safety is clearly a major concern, the rise of artificial lighting and the ability to light the night has more profound implications on the patterns of urban life. For one thing, correlations of lighting with safety need to be carefully examined so that it does not simply and reductively reinforce a simple equation that ‘more’ lighting makes for ‘more safety’. In fact, our research in other projects has shown how more lighting can often inadvertently create a problem with high contrast, which conversely makes an area feel less safe. Much of our research is drawn from working alongside lighting designers whose understandings of light as a material provide for much richer language of light that allows for consideration of many more parameters that focus on brightness alone.

Whitecross Estate (c) Catarina Heeckt

If we analyse a space in terms of more or less lighting this also impoverishes our understanding of light as a material with more properties and potentialities. From our perspective, light allows us a way into understanding how people use social space at night;  it provides a lens through which we can explore a whole range of social questions such as social inequalities – access and mobilities through urban space – social life and well-being after dark – urban planning and designer – and now ‘smart’ cities.  Thus, analysis of public lighting needs to consider the nuanced ways in which lighting shapes how different people make sense of and move around public space at night. Our concerns with this BA project then will be to explore the routine practices and movements of women through public space at night, sensitive to what role it plays in perceptions of safety, but not as an independent variable. This returns me to the point above. Everyday understandings of public light, and the ways we make sense of it involve us all in configuring light. Indeed, SafetiPin recognises the importance of light as one of the parameters in the safety audit. However, how women value light, make sense of it, use it as information about how to read and use a space, features as part of their daily configurations and uses of space in relation to other infrastructural information. This BA project will allow us to explore these understandings of space through qualitative analysis of users’ experience of the night both with and without the Saftetipin App. This brings me to our second contribution to this project.

light pic
(c) Joanne Entwistle

Approaches and methodologies

Our previous projects examining light in a number of different places (London, Derby, Cartagena (Colombia), Paris, Brisbane, to name just a few), have allowed us to build up a pragmatic methodological approach to analysing the ways in which people make sense of and move through urban space at night. We have drawn upon a broadly ‘actor-network-theory’ approach (or ANT) to follow actors through their everyday practices and see how they make sense of lighting as an infrastructure. This approach means working with many different actors to see how they all configure light, from lighting designers, urban planners, architects, stakeholders in cities (marketing, tourism, retail and businesses), to users (consumers, workers, passersby). Our approach is broadly observational, and we draw on walkabouts, interviews and mapping as ways of gathering evidence on people’s understandings of their practice and their movements. This methodological expertise will be employed in this BA project alongside GIS mapping and story making to allow us to collect rich stories and accounts of women’s experience of public space that extends the ‘big data’ already generated by Safetipin. The qualitative dimension of this project will provide a deep and rich qualitative data as to the nocturnal movements and practices of women users in Kerala, and demonstrate the ways in which the App might be used as part of women’s calculations of safety.

We work collaboratively with design professionals employing our expertise in social research alongside professional knowledges. We see our work as promoting engagement between social research and design and planning to develop a dialogue between social research and professional knowledges and practices. The end result should be lighting that is based on more knowledgable engagement with social life and social space. By ‘social’ then we are arguing two things. First that lighting is a major social intervention into the material fabric that people live in. Secondly, we advocate for lighting design that is based on sound social knowledge and research. We don’t seek to produce social facts but to develop understanding of social spaces to feed into the design and planning of spaces and provide a more socially informed knowledge as the basis for better lighting design.

Our understanding of public space is that it is diverse and complex. Lighting as infrastructure fits into a world of difference, inequalities, conflict. Two different sorts of lighting here tell their own story of social inequalities – council housing with ugly, ‘functional’ lighting versus an affluent street in Westminster. The qualities of these different lighting schemes speak to how the space is valued or not valued. Thus, council estate lighting is typically about functionality in terms of ‘safety’ and ‘security’, which translates into brightly lit spaces that mark the area as a ‘problem’ social space with potential crime. The Westminster street is lit by original gas lights and is full of atmosphere and character.  These images show clearly how light can reproduce social inequalities. Conversely, in our view, good lighting design can play a part in constructing more equal and inclusive cities.

configuring light
(c) Joanne Entwistle

The same can be said of other infrastructures such as roads, transport, water and sanitation. These systems can enable and support vibrant cities but only if they work and only if they work for everyone.  Digital data, such as the data collected from Safetipin, can allow us a way of seeing how these infrastructures, as one important component of the cityscape, impact the mobility and access patterns of different users. We are therefore really looking forward to working with Safetipin as part of this British Academy grant and will be visiting Delhi in December to begin our initial analysis.

By Dr Joanne Entwistle, Project Co-Investigator & Reader of Cultural & Creative Industries, Department of Culture, Media & Creative Industries, King’s College London

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