Shaping the Future: Civil Twilight @ ICFF 2007

From the 2007 Metropolis Conference: Design Entrepreneurs: Rethinking Energy
May 21, 2007

Kate Lydon: We’re Civil Twilight, a design cooperative based in San Francisco and we’re honored to have won Metropolis’ Next Generation® award this year for our Lunar-Resonant Streetlights project. Now we’re very excited about making it happen.

Our name, Civil Twilight, comes from an astronomical and legal term for the period of general visibility just after sunset and just before sunrise when the remaining illumination is enough to see by outdoors. This term reflects our interest in the civic, the natural, and the experiential, as well as in-between conditions.

We’re part of a larger culture of design, art, and making collectives that have sprung up lately in the Bay Area. Our members include a filmmaker/robotics engineer, an animator/architect and several artists/designers/architects. We have a lot of slashes in our midst because we are people who bridge disciplines and are looking for a place to develop ideas that might not fit neatly into one definition.

As a collective, we’re interested in brilliant simplicity—maximum impact with minimum means. Our approach is resolutely interdisciplinary, and our projects, which range from buildings to books, cross scales and disciplines to explore how the built environment engages natural phenomena to both practical as well as poetic ends.

Our focus is on re-introducing a wonder for the natural world as a means of generating appreciation for it. The project we’re most excited about right now is our Lunar Resonant Streetlights. With this project ordinary streetlights will dim or brighten with moonlight—saving energy and rekindling an urban connection to the night sky.

This project represents brilliant simplicity through the design of a process, or intelligence, rather than an object. The technology is unobtrusive but its cumulative effects are dramatic. Lunar Resonant Streetlights won’t necessarily alter the appearance of an individual streetlight fixture, but they will alter how cities experience the night sky.

Zooming out, the bright spots on the NASA map of the earth at night are mostly streetlights. Imagine them dimming and brightening around the world as the moon orbits. We see this project as the consonance of two issues, how we use energy wastefully, and the relationship between nature and society.

Christina Seely: For millions of years, only dramatic shifts in terrain formed the reading of the Earth’s surface from space. Now the cumulative light from highly urbanized areas creates a new type of information and understanding of the world that reflects man’s dominance over the planet.

I’m an artist and I’ll be presenting a series of photographs from my latest body of work entitled Lux. The relevant issues surrounding this project naturally led to the current collaboration with Kate and Anton on the streetlight project and also led to a more concrete formation of Civil Twilight.

Lux, titled after the system unit for illumination, is a photographic project I started two years ago. It documents the artificial glow produced by cities in the three brightest regions in the world. My inspiration was drawn from the disconnect between the immense beauty created by manmade lights and what this light represents.

From its inception, the public has understood lighting as a powerful symbolic medium. Looking at the NASA map of the world at night I became interested in what this light means and symbolizes. The three brightest regions are the United States, Western Europe, and Japan and they cumulatively use the majority of the world’s resources.

Streetlights use up to 8 percent of electricity in the United States. If we’re going to talk economics, the energy cost per light is about $80. There are approximately 15,000,000 streetlights in the United States, which comes out to about a billion dollars a year that streetlight illumination costs the country.

In the three different regions I’ve photographed, different types of lights are used, causing a range of overall color cast and brightness. Out of these three regions, the glow of US cities is somewhere between the bright white of Japan and the medium, dimmer glow of Western Europe.

The world’s 60,000,000 streetlights produce ten million tons of carbon a year.

Aside from being the wealthiest and most powerful regions of the world, these three areas cumulatively emit approximately 45 percent of the world’s carbon emissions and along with China are the top consumers of electricity energy and resources.

In order to make the correct exposures, which were sometimes four hours long, I also had to pay attention to the geography and the landscape that each city is built upon in order to find a suitable viewpoint. I often found myself in city parks looking out at the city, and I could hear the distant noise of a metropolis. It was an experience of connecting to nature I didn’t find very often in the cities I had visited or lived in. At the time I was living here in New York City and I had struggled with finding a connection to nature while living in a city. The struggle led me to push the visual tension in these photographs. All of them reflect society’s disconnect from nature by revealing its dominance in the form of lights over the land and sky.

Anton Willis: Christina’s Lux project started conceptually with the view of the Earth from space and the light of cities as seen from space. The Lunar Resonant research project started in the opposite way, from research into the history of how cities have seen the sky from the ground, and in particular how the relationship between astronomy and the built environment has changed over the years.

It started as an offshoot of my masters thesis at Berkeley, which concerned the role of the moon in architecture. I was looking at it is as a counterpoint to the countless examples of solar-oriented architecture, both ancient and contemporary. Connections between astronomy and architecture are universal and span back as far as architecture does.

In Newgrange, a Neolithic tomb in Ireland, the only time that light enters the passage is on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.

Uxmal, in Mexico, was built about 2,000 years later. It’s a complex of pyramids and temples that is oriented to various solar, stellar, and lunar events. As in Newgrange, the ceremonies that took place there were coordinated to these same astronomical cycles that were embodied in the architecture itself.

A third example, which is specifically lunar, is the Itsukushima Shinto shrine in Japan. It’s built on tidal flats, which are alternately dry and flooded. The main ceremony that takes place at this shrine is a full moon festival, which happens in boats as both the tide and the moon are rising. So there is recognition of the interdependence of the moon and tidal cycles. Both of those are actually embodied in the architecture and in the way the shrine is used.

Even some more recent moments, since the industrial revolution, have included a fascination with the moon in relation to urbanism. In the text for the patent of a pattern from an 1891 automatic gas streetlight extinguisher, it says, “It may be stated that it is common to have them [the streetlights] extinguished soon after the rising of the moon on moonlit nights…” At the time, moonlight was seen not only as a romantic thing but as a useful way of lighting cities.

Moon Towers are a related example from the same period. At one time they were fairly widespread across the United States and some of them still exist and are still operational in Austin, Texas. These are enormous towers, 16 stories high with lights at the top. They were in fact designed to simulate moonlight, which at the time was thought of as a natural standard for nighttime illumination. It was what people were used to, so it was thought of as both natural and practical.

However, lighting standards ultimately changed with technology, particularly in the 1930s when the electrical grid in the United States was expanded vastly. This led to some technical problems, which today seem ludicrous. The earliest electrical power plants had to burn off electricity during low demand times so as not to overheat. During the night, this grid of streetlights became a useful way to burn off the excess energy. Incredibly, the lighting standards that we still use today were in large part determined by this intentional effort to waste energy, which is mind-boggling. Beyond wasting energy these standards have caused light pollution across the United States and in many other parts of the world as you saw beautifully in the Lux images. Today about 2/3 of Americans can’t see full moonlight when it happens once a month, and more like 90 percent can’t see the Milky Way.

Overall I think technology has become an impediment to the kinds of relationships between nature and society that I was investigating in this thesis. Las Vegas might be the ultimate example. You can see a massive column of light shooting out of the Luxor pyramid obliterating the night sky, which is the ironic opposite of the Mayan pyramid I showed earlier.

The Lunar Resonant Streetlight project started as a hypothetical question. How could technology, rather than impeding these relationships between society and natural cycles, help to facilitate them?

Lunar Resonant Streetlights are an answer to our wasteful energy habits and also to our disconnection from natural cycles. Sometimes it’s the simplest uses of technology that are the most elegant, and the simplest moves produce the most profound changes. When the unobstructed moon is in the sky, there is little need for additional light in most outdoor circumstances. Our eyes have evolved to this natural standard. So on full moon nights, streetlights would be off or very dim. As the moon moves through its 29 day cycle, during a new or crescent moon, streetlights would brighten, providing needed additional light for outdoor visibility.

Light sensors on the top of today’s normal streetlights turn the lights on and off, reacting only to two conditions, night and day. In Lunar Resonant Streetlights, these would be replaced with ultra-sensitive photodiodes which are able to react to a much wider range of light intensities. Dimmable white LED arrays replace yellow sodium bulbs and a microprocessor dimming control connected to a switch that connects the sensor and the LEDs. When there is ambient moonlight the streetlight senses it directly and dims down. All of these electronics are cheap and are available off the shelf.

Look at the drawing that shows brightness levels for one streetlight at the half-moon over the course of one night, responding to both moonlight and weather conditions. You’ll see that around 9 p.m., under cloud cover, the streetlight brightens, as it does around midnight, when the moon sets. After the moon sets and the sky is dark, the streetlight stays on until the sun rises again.

Lunar Resonant Streetlights respond to changes in moonlight levels and also to changes in cloud cover and weather that affects general visibility. This is especially important in San Francisco where the fog patterns produce completely unexpected lighting results.

The demo prototype, here at ICFF, was built with an existing streetlight fixture. At the Metropolis booth you can see how Lunar Resonant Streetlights work, and how they react to cloud cover, a full moon, a new moon, etc, by covering the sensor with your hand and watching how the light dims and brightens in response to the lighting condition that you are creating.

We’re developing ways to retrofit existing streetlight fixtures with conversion kits by simply plugging in new electronics. The new technology consumes dramatically less energy—LEDs consume half the energy of sodium vapor bulb and last up to ten time as long. Additionally they’re dimmable, which the current bulbs aren’t, so lunar resonance saves even more energy that way. And of course sodium vapor bulbs have that sort of sickly yellow look. LED light is both closer to moonlight, more pleasant, and more effective for night vision.

LEDs are more expensive up front but as technology advances and their use spreads, their prices are dropping quickly. They’re just starting to be used in regular streetlights now, and the energy and maintenance savings easily pay for themselves.

Our conversion kits will offer an 80 percent savings over conventional streetlights, first through LED efficiency, and second through lunar resonance. In addition, there are further possibilities of coupling Lunar Resonant conversion systems with other green technologies. There are already solar-powered streetlights on the market, but if combined with lunar resonant technology, solar cells atop streetlights here could absorb sunlight during the day and respond to moonlight at night, offering an elegant sun/moon duality in the streetlight.

Reducing carbon emissions and saving energy is great. The power of this project is in its experiential possibilities. The technology is simple but the large-scale effects could be quite profound.

Looking down at a city you see an intelligent, luminous network, synchronized with the sky. As the moon cycles through its phases, the whole system responds. As clouds pass, neighborhoods or individual lights respond and pools of artificial light cross the city, following the clouds and wind. We hope this wouldn’t just be a beautiful sight from above but would start to change the way that urban dwellers experience lights. It would bring an awareness of the skies and lunar phase cycle into people’s lives as streets and neighborhoods gradually shifted in and out of moonlight each month.

We see this as facilitating a new kind of urban connection to nature, one in time rather than just in space.

We are taking a two-tiered approach to making this project happen. We’re developing conversion kits for towns and cities, both here and abroad, so that you could get these city-wide effects and energy savings.

As designers, we’re also interested in smaller, more site-specific installations as a way to promote and showcase the idea. We think every city could have great opportunities for this to happen. Imagine Lunar-Resonant Streetlights at the Museum of Natural History as an extension of the Hayden Planetarium. We’ve shown them the LEDs mounted on glass in the patterns of constellations that are no longer visible in New York due to light pollution, so the whole thing becomes an illustration of the way the stars and the moon work in pristine night skies—and as it does appear in pristine skies, the stars would appear brighter as the moon gets dimmer.

We are really excited about a new project in New York City, which could have a big impact on the future of green power generation. There is a tidal energy turbine that was just installed in the East River off Roosevelt Island. It uses the tidal currents flowing through the channel to drive the turbine and generate electricity, so it’s actually power derived from the gravity of the moon. We would be really excited to use this lunar power to power these lunar lights.

To implement this project on a larger scale, we hope to tap into the growing awareness of light pollution, as well as energy and cost savings. We see cities retrofitting existing light grids incrementally and we imagine different planned lighting zones for cities. Nighttime commercial areas might remain more brightly lit while residential or day areas might convert to lunar resonance.

A great testing ground might also be the desert of the mountainous west, home to some of the most spectacular stars and moonlight in the world and also the fastest-growing area of the United States. We imagine the first town-scale installations in places like Sedona, Arizona where an appreciation of sky, as well as landscape, is a major quality of life issue as well as an issue for tourism.

We’re also looking at international possibilities. Europe in particular is very progressive on energy issues, including urban lighting. You see in Helsinki’s lighting plan, courtesy of an old issue of Metropolis, that it covers everything from brightly lit commercial areas to unlit nature parks. You see in the color legend on the right that there are about seven different lighting zones on the map. It’s not so surprising when you consider it’s dark twenty hours a day. You need a good lighting plan. But there’s an interesting flipside and that’s when the winter moon is full. It’s in the sky for all of those dark twenty hours, and it could be amazing to have 20 hours of moonlight reflected off Helsinki’s snow and water.

Several major cities in the world, including Reykjavik, Sydney and Paris, marked last year’s UN climate report by staging blackouts. They’re all a step ahead of us on energy issues, which is not surprising. Turning city lights off during a full moon could save energy without any new technology but we hope that intelligent technology in the form of lunar resonance could enable all these places to save energy many nights per month rather than just one.

The technical simplicity and practicality of this project is really compelling, but what we’re even more excited about the experiential implications. Look at the picture of our neighborhood in San Francisco as it is now, with both streetlight and full moonlight. I live on that hill. We are all part of this group that goes on full moon hikes around the bay area, so we practice what we preach. Although we do get lost sometimes this monthly gathering is a great chance to experience nature as a specific time in full moonlight rather than a specific place. The place for these hikes varies around the Bay Area, but the time is always the same and always coordinated to the cycle, not the days of the week, but to just after the moon rise, every twenty-nine days when it’s full. The quality of moonlight transforms even familiar places in unexpected and delightful ways. The quality of light is unlike any kind of light that I know of, whether artificial or natural, and it’s a wonderful thing to experience.

We hope that the Lunar Resonant Streetlight project and its implementation could inspire new cycles of urban culture on the lines of these kind of hikes. Imagine going to a full moonlight wedding or an open air concert in the park or a street festival under full moonlight. It could be wonderful.

We’d like to close coming back to the broader issue of sustainability. Technological innovations are indisputably important but we think that sustainability should really capture the imagination and have an experiential side. We think that this project, and sustainable design, in general shouldn’t just be about invisible innovation. Sustainability can and should be about reshaping human experience. The substance of this project is not just in the technology—LEDs and the photo sensor—but it’s in something as simple and profound as being able to take a walk in the city in full moonlight.

Susan S. Szenasy, editor in chief, Metropolis: That’s absolutely inspiring. It was really interesting, by the way, when your entry came up for discussion before the judges everybody responded the way you hoped. People found it powerfully poetic. I don’t think we’ve seen the moon in New York. I haven’t seen it for twenty years.

This is a distinct technology that you’re working with, and you can assemble these adaptor kits fairly easily. Is there some funding behind you on this, or are you looking for it? What’s the story so that we can start moving this thing along?

Willis: So far there’s the prize money from Next Generation. We’re looking for funding in the form of grants and probably venture capital.

Lydon: There’s a grant at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Berkeley that we’re interested in going after. They’re one of the best lighting innovations labs in the world.

Willis: And we’re open to collaborators.

Szenasy: Is it installed anywhere? I mean, I know it’s in our booth but that’s a false thing, because we have no moon, sun, or stars here at the Javits Center. Is it installed anywhere as a real lamp?

Seely: Not yet. We’re hoping New York would be the first.

Willis: And we should mention that this prototype that’s in the Metropolisbooth got built since the competition happened. We started with just an idea and we built it in a couple months for just $1,500. So, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to move it forward quickly.

Szenasy: How did this collaboration between the three of you and the other Civil Twilight people happen?

Seely: Kate and I went to high school together, and Anton and Kate went to graduate school together, so we all came together naturally. We’re interested in a lot of the same things and have a wider community of friends also represented here who are also interested in the same things. It’s good for things like this to collaborate and generate ideas.

Szenasy: Anton, when you found that fact from the 1930s about the discharge of extra energy and that this has been the standard of wasting energy ever since—I think that when the judges read that in your proposal it was like a scream went up in the room! How does this happen that we’re still following an old system that has absolutely no reason to be in place?

Willis: A big part of design and sustainability is seeing past what’s accepted as the obvious solution. We just don’t see these issues because we’re so used to things being the way they are, even if they’re the way they are for completely arbitrary reasons, as in this case.

In my research that was really interesting. I was equally interested in the fact that previously, moonlight was the accepted standard for outdoor lighting. That shift only happened over thirty or forty years.

Szenasy: The issue of course comes up that we live in a culture of fear. We’re afraid of one another and we’re afraid of being attacked on the street. It’s a very difficult time for America. You’re introducing something that is difficult for people who are at the forefront of this culture of fear. How are you thinking about convincing them that this can work? How do you deal with this issue?

Seely: Well, I think some of it is acknowledging that it exists and then mentioning too that we are not thinking necessarily of using it in a way that sweeps over an entire city, that main areas would maintain the level of light that they have now and implementing lunar resonance in smaller places. There are also ideas of more site-specific locales to get people comfortable with it—you have to experience it and adjust the way you think about light and how you see. We’re definitely aware of that and thinking about it in the way we present the idea too.

Question from the audience: Is there a possibility that existing streetlights might trigger the sensors of the new lights to be off? It seems like they all have to be switched at one time or not.

Willis: That’s something we would work with engineers on, but it is doable. If you look at existing streetlamp photo cells, they’re always pointed north and they’re pointed away from strong light sources. The photo cell has a direction so it picks up ambient light and not directly. That is a reason for doing it in places like parks when we’re talking about a smaller scale and not a city-wide scale, at which point you wouldn’t have to worry about it because they’d all be the same.

Szenasy: Is there any kind of exchange of information with the other Next Generation honorees that you might be interested in sharing with us?

Lydon: I think it’s inspiring to see all the different uses LEDs can be put to. Right now, since LEDs have recently gotten cheaper and the white ones are only a few years old and the dimmable capacity is pretty new as well, I think it’s really interesting to see all these possibilities with this new form of lighting.

Seely: I’d also say that the experiential aspect of all of the Next Generation projects is really important for getting people to feel involved. Sometimes people feel helpless about being able to help change happen and these projects show ways that people can, which are also fun. When you’re actually doing something to make change it opens a nice dialogue.

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