Inspired by the United Nations’ International Year of Light, Lightswitch is exploring Why Light Matters throughout 2015.

We have asked our designers why light matters to them and will be sharing their responses in a short Q&A each month. Each Q&A will focus on a different way light shapes our lives—from buildings we live in to the emotions it evokes. We hope our stories will inspire you to think about why light matters to you, and we invite you to join the dialogue on Facebook: How can light affect social change?

Imagine a world where life switches off after dark.Where the only light for working, reading or cooking after the sun goes down is a kerosene lamp that gives off toxic gas and can cause fire. Now envision a world where light from digital devices keeps people up all night, disrupting their sleep and damaging their health. It shouldn’t be hard to picture. After all, this is our world. From rural Sub-Saharan Africa to Silicon Valley, our social lives are shaped by lighting and lighting technology. Janelle Drouet, Director of Lighting Design from Lightswitch San Francisco, examines how lighting impacts our society and its power to transform it.

Q: How can lighting positively impact society?
A: We are impacting society by creating social awareness through installation art and through the design process. An impactful moment I often reflect on is being involved with DIFFA (Design Industries’ Foundation Fighting AIDS) . We created a lighting piece for their San Francisco event that was a graphical representation of the struggle against aid over the last 60 years. The elements hung in a graphical form with the peak of the epidemic indicated by single red lamp, and the ratio of survivors and how that has progressed in time indicated with brighter lamps vs dimmed lamps. It was a moment where people approached the feature because of it’s visual impact and quickly it changed through interaction with me and each other to education, reflection and hope. It was powerful.

We are also impacting users’ health and wellbeing with the lighting choices we make as designers. For example, we designed a library with an interactive wall for children that had little sensors on indicator lights that would follow them as they walked by creating a sense of empowerment. We introduced technology in a way that allowed them to interact with the architectural space demonstrating how their presence was significant, causing the building come to life.

Q: Why is it important for users to feel that connection?
A: It’s all about giving users the power to impact their environments. I’ve seen some of the most interesting reactions to environments like that. When you have a standard open office space and give someone the power to control the general area light over their desk when traditionally they couldn’t, they feel like they matter and like things are in their control. Their space becomes unique to their individual needs, even their daily needs that may change over time. It can be very empowering.

Q: How will that interaction change as lighting technology evolves?
A: I see it becoming more responsive and more individualized as costs come down and more people have access to individual controls. Also, a lot of the change we’re currently seeing is about circadian rhythm awareness. For example, we’re seeing how exterior site lighting can impact the natural environment. There are quite a few studies out that show that the cooler color temperature of lighting in a daylight range can affect wildlife such as birds because their resting and wake times, even their mating schedules, can be disrupted by this artificial daylight. However, with design consideration of using warmer lighting, closer to the sunset spectrum, and/or load shedding unnecessary light is an improvement.

Q: What about humans?
A: How we impact our natural environment with lighting is just as important as how we impact ourselves. Let’s just say we take a 9-to-5 worker and they have to work late. If you keep the lights and computers on full in a daylight spectrum blue light, it can disrupt their body, their natural resting and wake cycles well into after they leave for the night.

Q: As a designer, how do you rectify that?
A: We consider the color and quality of light throughout every design process. We control the intensity of lighting and light pollution, and use warmer or white color adjusting luminaires for interior and exterior environments for nighttime hours. I’ve also done it in a more decorative format, where I’ve recreated the spectrum from sunrise to sunset, which is beautiful. In the library, there was an entire wall where the colors changed throughout the day to represent that and teach people about color of light and how it changes throughout the day. It’s all about trying to create a more natural environment with responsible selection of color temperatures with consideration of the natural spectrum, and a dynamic lighting system that can change throughout a period of time or by individual need.

Q: Why is that important for our health and well-being?
A: As we get more tied to screens, we are sadly forced to recreate our natural lighting conditions to be healthy and happy people. It is a harmonious balance of daylight and electric lighting to aid with the functionality of the space, and maintain our health needs for dynamic lighting that varies with time. I remember designing a concept for a plaza outside of a technology company. It was amazing to watch people on computers inside the building at sunset. Everybody’s face was glowing blue similar to the daylight spectrum. It became their ‘candlelight.’ It really stuck with me this blue, it’s unnatural for that time of night and can effect people in adverse ways.

Q: Can too much lighting technology be unhealthy?
A: I have yet to wrap my head around one decisive statement about it. We are super tech-focused here in San Francisco. You can go places and not see anyone interact with each other anymore because they are on their devices, or choosing automated forms of interaction instead of human ones. Light can help with that problem. As lighting designers, I think we have a responsibility to create natural environments that encourage interaction. At the plaza, for instance, I wanted to create pools of warm amber light that people would gather around at night, reminiscent of the primal firelight we all are attracted to, as a haven to escape their ‘blue screens.’

Q: What about the impact lighting can have on individuals and communities in developing countries?
A: Lighting has the power to improve the lives of people who may be living with unsafe conditions, such as the communities that are supported by SolarAid, a nonprofit organization that replaces toxic kerosene lamps with safe, affordable solar LED lights to communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. In a similar way that a child is also able to make the lights change on the library wall and a worker with individual controls can change the lighting at his or her desk, it’s empowering for the families served by SolarAid to have safe non-toxic light that can allow them to see at night.

New technology can also create jobs and help a community that way. For instance, I went to a talk about a group of women in rural India that learned how to wire and set up LED lighting for their village. The program took these women who were done raising their families and were not longer considered ‘useful’ in their community anymore, it made them essential to the community and trained them for this technical job. Then the women who learned these skills taught the next women, and it spread creating a movement to different areas and countries. The student became the teacher and even though they couldn’t verbally communicate and spoke different languages they were still able to learn from each other and communicate other ways, improving their lives and becoming respected members of their villages while providing needed lighting. But it’s not just about the ‘developed,’ first-world imparting our feelings about light and technology—We can learn just as much from third-world communities as they can from us.

Q: For example?
A: Some of these communities may have stronger family units because they don’t face such strong electronic divides. What I like about being part of organizations like SolarAid is that it puts things in perspective. We can get too focused on the latest technology and gadgets, and there has to be a balance. Where social change can happen, it can bridge the gap between the two environments. We may need to minimize our technological dependencies and get more ‘natural’ and dynamic with our light, and these communities need light to work and live. I think it’s a human problem—one I hope we can solve together.