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Small is beautiful

Looking at the book Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (by E F Schumacher), Dominic Meyrick is wondering if ‘small’ is always beautiful and therefore ‘big’ always ugly

Those of you who remember the 70s (oh those flares) may also remember this famous book by the economist Schumacher. And those of you interested in economic and ecological matters may also know that this is the guy who coined phrases such as ‘unsustainable’ as it relates to natural resources. Looking at this book again I am wondering if ‘small’ is always beautiful and therefore ‘big’ always ugly

Staring out of the train window on my way home I can see the ‘big’ sky view and I think that ‘big’ is certainly not always bad. However, when I look at the service levels I sometimes get from luminaire suppliers I think that big is not always so good. Small manufacturers, presumably having a smaller cost base and overheads, can seem more attentive to us lighting designers. But it is really a case of swings and roundabouts -–where would we be without the larger firms who add credibility to our young industry and also supply so much of the R&D investment that we need to push lighting technology forward?

End-users can be big, but a small decision within a big firm can have positive consequences. If, for example, more of the big food retailers readdressed their lighting level requirements and reduced their energy bills in the process, then that could have a big impact on carbon emissions for the UK.

And the big buildings that some of the end users occupy may look impressive, but often their deep floor plates means daylight cannot penetrate the building effectively. There may be a saving as more people can be packed in, but all the energy services go up – so is big good?

I applaud the EU governments which recognised the general public’s infatuation with big GLS wattage numbers and did something to address the situation. More light is not necessarily better and a 100W GLS is not always better than 60W. After all, the eye can see in moonlight levels of 0.5 lux, a very small number, and it is only since the twentieth century and the coming of the age of electric light that we have had such big artificial lighting numbers available.

How about the beauty of small? An LED lamp is sophisticated and has impressive output but, boy, when you switch it on in the latest ‘small’ fitting – it takes your head off!

And smaller suppliers of these poor products, that are here today and gone tomorrow, are everywhere at the moment.

This could give this new technology a bad name. Also, without the massive investment of the big lamp manufacturers, the LED would still be a humble indicator, telling you that the power is on, rather than the illuminator of interiors and exteriors that it is becoming. But here again is the big versus small dilemma – the lamp manufacturers, having designed a ‘small is beautiful’ lamp that doesn’t need replacing for a long time, now need to get bigger in order to keep their profits up.

So pros and cons all round. But what is the most important lesson from Schumacher’s book for the lighting industry? For me it is his basic principles regarding personal responsibility. A small change by an individual can instigate a big environmental change.

And light? Light is ‘big’, but remember that a ‘small’ amount of light (low energy of course), on the right surface, is beautiful.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Brings to mind the observation by Buckminster Fuller who said " Sunlight has never been regarded as wealth except by wild eyed poets who are laughing youths" And all this before there was ever word of an energy crisis.

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