February 9, 2023
In this series, TaskHer is in conversation with Ström, a lighting design company that focuses on responsible sourcing and other aspects of sustainability.
Emilio Hernandez works alongside his co-founder and partner Anna to design large-scale lighting schemes for hotels, retailers, and offices across the world. Stella McCartney, Selfridges, and Google are just a few of the companies they have collectively worked with.
Technology has infiltrated every area of our lives, so it is no surprise that the lighting industry is evolving to reflect the demands of the modern era. Smart home lighting devices, which seem to be the perfect solution for people who want to save energy and automate their home lives, dominate the market. But are modern homeowners moving with the times or investing in a growing number of unsustainable closed-protocol products?
Before the advent of Alexa and Google Home smart devices, lights had a simple, minimalistic function in the home. They were far more adjacent to soft furnishings than TVs or laptops. Homeowners used strategically placed lamps, dim lights, and translucent lampshades to create snug spaces for relaxation.
Now, modern technology has imbued our light fixtures with intelligence. Modern ceiling lights can be personalised to suit your mood at the touch of a button, much like a gadget. Lights are more than pieces of hot wire that glow, they are carefully considered parts of creating the perfect space for your family.
Smart home lighting systems have made this all possible. WiFi and Bluetooth have become a means of communication by which you can connect with your light switch. From the outside, it seems as if home lighting has become more advanced. What could possibly go wrong?
The future of lighting is exciting, especially for designers like myself. Smart speakers make the possibilities even more engaging. You will be familiar with Amazon Echo, one of the first smart speaker devices ever released. It hit the US market in 2014, and was an instant success, giving rise to well-known devices like Alexa and Google Home.
In 2022, a UK study found that 29% of adults own a smart home device for electricity and lighting, including smart plugs and connected light bulbs. 35% of all respondents own smart speakers (like Amazon Echo) that have integrated virtual assistants. Only 14% of people don’t own any smart devices at all.
All the evidence points in one direction: smart home lighting is here to stay. The flexibility and control are unparalleled. Smart home systems are marketed as the ideal way for homeowners to save money, and not just on lighting. With devices like Google Home, homeowners can set their heating to coincide with their morning alarm and set it to turn off overnight. Integrated technology allows individuals to take control of their blinds, TVs, heating, lights, and more.
For someone like me who tries to stay on the cusp of the latest lighting innovation, smart devices for homes are a no-brainer. But as entrepreneurs and manufacturers rush to react to the demand for more advanced systems, are we all blissfully unaware of the consequences?
I’m sitting at my dining room table, typing away, talking to you. But it would be better if the lights were a bit brighter. Alexa, turn up the lights… nothing. This leads to the first problem of smart lights for homes.
Smart devices work, until they don’t. When it comes to tech, the scale is wide and varied. Issues might be as small as your Alexa not understanding a command, or as large as a replacement component being obsolete. This is one of the biggest problems that I have with smart devices and more specifically closed-protocol devices.
The advent of smart home technology has allowed closed-protocol products to flood the market. Remember, manufacturers use simple, accessible technology to pair these devices to your home. Startups are taking advantage of the relative ease and workability of WiFi and Bluetooth to create exclusive smart home lighting systems that are not compatible with other products. Another problem arises when smart products are designed with other purposes in mind such as heating and music, with lighting being an afterthought.
Google Home and Alexa smart home devices are well-known examples of closed-protocol products. The exclusivity of these devices is far-reaching. On the surface level, it might mean that you have to buy a specific light bulb. If we dig a bit deeper, we find that closed-protocol products inherently eliminate the chance of repairs and replacements from other manufacturers. They only work with the products and parts that the original manufacturer produces.
In a nutshell, open-protocol products are the opposite. Open-protocol smart home devices are made with integration in mind. They can be paired with products (such as modern ceiling light bulbs) from other manufacturers, are backwards compatible with older product generations, and can even be repaired with fittings that are produced by different manufacturers.
So, what’s the big deal? If homeowners are enamoured enough with Alexa to have one device on every counter in their home, surely it is not a stretch to buy compatible light bulbs?
Like all startups, startups in the technology industry have a 1 in 5 chance of failing in their first year. Smart device startups are likely to go bust and leave a trail of poorly-sourced closed-protocol products in their wake. Further down the line, these products are not supported by software updates and can’t be reused or repurposed, which adds to the already overwhelming 2 million tonnes of WEEE items that householders and companies in the UK discard every year.
Given how easy it is for ambitious tech heads to create smart devices for homes, is it unreasonable to assume that we are heading for a crash?
Going bust isn’t the only problem; the neverending appetite for new technology means that smart modern lighting is constantly evolving. We are so focused on creating the most energy-efficient, long-lasting bulb that we forget how much energy goes into mass-producing a new, updated product. This is especially worrying when we consider that closed-protocol brands are becoming even more selective about how many related products are compatible with their devices.
Read our blog on the principle of sustainability to learn more.
Smart home lighting shines bright as the latest home innovation, but we can’t ignore questions about longevity. To avoid a future full of waste, manufacturers and designers need to band together to create widely compatible open protocols for smart systems. We need to empower consumers to focus on repairing their devices and replacing parts, rather than just recycling their old devices and buying the latest model.
At Ström, we work with commercial clients who want sustainable, user-centred lighting. We try not to use closed-protocol systems like Google because we want to create long-lasting smart solutions for our customers. You can read more about our sustainability practices on our website.
Many parents aren’t as excited to show off to their friends that their child is a plumber not a doctor. However, the reality paints a different picture...
Suelan Allison’s journey as a garden designer is a testament to the remarkable transformative influence of nature and design...
Find more articles