Dr. Shelley James

23rd August 2021

Throughout lockdown, Dr. Shelley James has been spreading the word about the importance of healthy light. Here, she tells us all about the Luna project, the Age of Light Innovations Group, and her goals for a better lit future.

Dr. Shelley James is on a mission to bring healthy lighting to the masses.

Founder of the Age of Light Innovations, the self-proclaimed “lumenologist” has been making waves in the lighting industry and beyond, working to educate the wider public on the power of light and the lasting impact that it can have on both mental and physical wellbeing.

With a well-travelled upbringing that has seen her move from Jamaica to Kent, Nigeria, South Carolina, Paris and back to the UK, James has experienced a diverse array of cultures, and attitudes towards light and colour. “I’ve been all over the world growing up. That led to a fascination in the way that changes in climate shape culture and colour,” she said.

This fascination firstly led to her studying textiles in Paris, before entering the world of corporate branding, “working with clients to help them to bring together different types of visual, textual clues to create the experience of an organisation”.

A traumatic head injury meant that James had to learn first-hand about light and vision as she had to retrain her own central nervous system.

From here, she moved on to working in printmaking at the University of Bristol, integrating prints into glass to create illusions of space and depth; before eventually undertaking a PhD at the Royal College of Art on Perception, which led to working with glass that changes colour in different lights.

It is here that James’ interest in artificial light began to grow, as she sought to use more light in her own work and as such undertook a City and Guilds qualification in electrical installation, after which she began to work with artists, designing lighting to complement their work.

“I also got funding from the LIA to do a qualification in lighting design, and discovered parallels in the way the brain is wired to how lights are wired in a house.”

In 2019, James founded the Age of Light Innovations Group, where her goal is twofold: “I work as a consultant for individuals and organisations, where I work with them to see how light can help them to be healthier, happier and more productive – and more environmentally sustainable too,” she explained. “I work with architects and interior designers, and also large organisations, on how light can contribute to their offer, whether that be to do with staff engagement or product development, and that draws on my background in branding and product innovation.

“Alongside this, I also work as a teacher, teaching and mentoring at the Royal College of Art and King’s College, and part of that is working with artists, and looking at how they can use light to create experiences and tell stories.”

However, as with everyone else around the world, things took an unexpected break in early 2020, when Covid-19, and the resultant lockdown hit. It was during this enforced isolation that James realised that there was a dearth of information about the ramifications of poor lighting.

“When lockdown happened, I found myself in Bridport with my mum and my nieces struggling to be indoors with a badly wired-up lightbulb in their back bedrooms, seeing them struggle with depression, putting on weight, bad behaviour. 

“I did some more research, and during lockdown, the number of children presenting with myopia has tripled between the ages of six and eight. The people presenting with depression is up 40%, obesity levels are rising, and a lot of that has got to do with not getting the right light at the right time.

“With what I knew about how the power of light, I started to see how little other people knew about it.”

Sensing an opportunity to do some good for the world, James, along with her brother, “cooked up a plan” to create LunaTM – a series of YouTube videos to educate the wider public on the “right” kind of lighting for the environments that they now found themselves in.

“I talked to some amazing people from around the world – scientists and education specialists – on how light affects the brain. I also reached out to some manufacturers that I thought were doing great work. Fagerhult, Signify and Seoul Semiconductor came on board as sponsors; they saw that there was a body of knowledge that needed to be shared, and came in to help us to do that.”

The series, which includes short, 40-second TikTok-style videos and longer, more in-depth videos incorporating solutions and interviews with scientists, launched in the UK in mid-January, and James was amazed by the response that it received.

“I started to promote it on Facebook and Instagram, and it suddenly took off. We’ve had 1.9 million views, reaching 1.9 million kids. We then translated it into German and Italian, and again, had a great reaction in these countries too.

“I then tried to promote it in India, and we had a quarter of a million views in four days, which is just amazing.”

Following the success of the LunaTM project, James expanded this to LunaPro, the next iteration, which is connecting with professionals from across the business chain – from architects and facilities managers to specifiers and installers – about the value of investing in lighting. This time, the sponsorship team has expanded to include Bios, Phos, Glamox Luxonic and Zumtobel – alongside Seoul Semiconductor and Signify.

“There’s a growing awareness that the way that decisions are made about lighting for the homes and offices where we spend 90% of our lives – and the schools and hospitals we send our most vulnerable people – is being made in a very inefficient way,” she continued. “To me, we’re missing a chance, for a very marginal increase in the overall spend, to not only reduce energy use and waste in terms of landfill, but to improve performance and improve health outcomes. The minute that you make the business case properly, it’s a no brainer.”

The overwhelming response that James has received for both the LunaTM and LunaPro projects has led to invitations to deliver keynotes for the IES, interviews with the BBC, and further collaborations with Arup, the ILP, SLL and WELL Standard. “We started from a spare bedroom in Bridport just nine months ago. We’re now working with a growing team of remarkable professionals to get good quality lighting onto the spreadsheet.

“It’s time to move lighting from the supermarket with the loo rolls and the budget cleaning products and put it where it belongs: with the IT, the health insurance and the ergonomic chair. We know that the right light can transform performance – let alone motivation. And, now we are working from home more and more, employers are realising that they have a legal responsibility to provide a safe, healthy working environment – and light is a vital part of that.”

With a particular focus on lighting for educational facilities, James explained that achieving the “right” lighting is, in and of itself, relatively simple: as much natural daylight as possible, supplemented with good-quality LED lighting. “That’s bright, full spectrum, low glare, ideally tunable lighting. A good-quality light will not only last longer, reducing the number of lights you use overall – cutting down on landfill and maintenance costs – but be designed with some level of retrofit capability so you just switch out the parts that are broken,” she said.

“The real problem is not getting the lights right, it’s getting it onto the agenda in the first place where it belongs, part of the health, safety and sustainability agenda of the school.

“The starting point for most schools is simply to think about it,” she said. “Installation and maintenance is so often left to the facilities person, along with the plumbing and parking.  But if you think about how much education has changed from paper and pencil to screens and interactive whiteboards, you can see how much the lighting needs to adapt. A lot of the time, it’s also designed for a one-size-fits-all approach, which isn’t necessarily the right solution.

“We also need to be aware of the pressures that teachers face in a busy classroom: they have little or no time to set up the room before the class begins. A study by the Helen Hamlyn Centre showed that if it’s too complicated to open the blinds, they will stay down and the lights will go on instead.

“But the first thing is to have lighting on the agenda. A bit like Jamie Oliver put Turkey Twizzlers on the agenda – we’re seeing now how a proper breakfast helps kids to learn, and actually, proper lighting is probably as important. We’re still at Turkey Twizzler lighting. We can do better than that.”

When it comes to getting lighting on the agenda, James revealed that she is “using all the channels that I can find to raise awareness of the potential of better quality lighting,” in a two-pronged approach, to try and reach as many people as possible, from both the consumer side, and the business side.

However, while she is working to get lighting on the agenda for both decision makers and the general public, she believes that there is a much deeper, societal issue surrounding the commodification of lighting. “We know that disrupting your body clock has a huge impact on your life chances. It affects your ability to concentrate, it gives you cancer, it’s a killer. We rely on a huge number of ‘hidden’ workers to work through the night – nurses, cleaners, and food packers, for example. These are often low-paid, precarious jobs and many are women. Many of these low-grade environments are poorly lit too. People who work after dark in the shadows often have a poor diet of light.

“Much like the Turkey Twizzlers debate, the diet of light for people without much money is worse than it is for those with money. Not only because of a lack of awareness, but also because the people who design and manage the places where they work, where they learn, are delivering to the bare minimum legal standard and cutting costs where they can, simply because their ‘clients’ don’t have many choices.

“Think about the classic office buildings, the boss gets the corner office with the window, while the low status workers are in the cubicle in the middle. That makes a difference to their ability to concentrate, their ability to sleep, to manage social interaction, which means those workers sitting in the dark don’t perform as well, and so their career trajectory is affected. So, you end up with a perpetuation of disadvantage when you don’t give people the chances to see clearly.

“It’s a political issue in the sense that we spend money on people who are considered to be valuable, including the lighting environment. We talk a lot about how valuable employees are, but there’s a whole group of people who are considered much more of a commodity. Whether that be working in a call centre, shift workers, care workers at night, we don’t spend the same amount of money or attention on the lighting environments that they live in. And yet, arguably, changing the quality of lighting for a nurse who works at night could not only make the biggest difference for her life, but also to the patients that she takes care of.

“The technology is there now to deliver good quality, full spectrum, flicker free, time appropriate lighting for everybody, and yet we don’t. And the reason we don’t is the way the spreadsheet works for different populations is different. We also know that, as we’ve found through Covid, we’re all in this together. Everybody who is underperforming is not only a missed opportunity, but has a knock on effect on everybody else. Nobody is an island.

“The other thing that is important to think about is that cheap lights, unbranded, unregulated lighting that ends up in HMOs [houses of multiple occupancy], hostels, local authority care homes, they come from sources where the environmental cost of extracting the materials is completely unregulated,” she continued.

“Better quality lighting from a reputable manufacturer is part of at least some effort to improve the environmental footprint and lifecycle of the object. So if you think about humanity centred lighting in the sense of taking care of the planet, which then takes care of us, that’s part of the equation – the need to make sure that we’re aware of where this stuff comes from and where it’s going.”

As such, James believes that the lighting design community needs to take a more “humanity centred” approach to lighting – this means a shift of focus from ‘product’ to solution, cost to value.

“I was speaking with Florence Lam of Arup about Humanity Centred Lighting, and she was saying that when she first started out, every time they went from fluorescent lighting to LEDs, they had to make the business case and fight tooth and nail for it. And now, if you haven’t got LED lighting, your building isn’t considered a modern building.”

Looking ahead, James is keen for the conversation on healthy lighting to continue. With a couple of books in the pipeline – targeted towards businesses and parents and teachers as a means of making the case for healthy lighting and its benefits – along with the continued success of the Luna project, she is hopeful that people will become more aware of the impact that lighting can have. Although she understands that it may be a slow process.

“People need to realise just what a difference it makes. You can improve employee performance by improving the quality of light that they get. We didn’t know that before, but now we do, so we need to talk about it, get it on the agenda and use the information that we know” she said.

“The next thing is to invite organisations to put their money where their mouth is. If they’re talking about the environment and sustainability and employee wellbeing, then small changes in the way they spend money on the places where people work will make a huge difference to their outcomes.

“It’s a slow process, it’s like a tanker. It’s a bit like smoking and seatbelts – it took a while, but now you wouldn’t see someone smoking in a car with a child; you wouldn’t get into a car without a seatbelt. It needs to be a culture shift.”

While it may be a slow process for James, she has her sights on an ambitious end goal, both for the lighting industry and wider society.

“My goal is that one day lighting is on the agenda in the same way as healthy eating. Not only because it makes us feel better, but it offers us a chance to live healthier, happier lives, and to tackle the urgent issue of climate change. Anybody who has been into a well-lit space can taste the difference, as with a good quality, delicious meal.

“One of my dreams is that some form of lighting design, the professional consideration of lighting, is included in every major building project, in every sector; that it’s not a nice to have, it’s a business decision that makes perfect sense, that’s on the spreadsheet alongside other things that you would do as an organisation to keep yourself resilient and profitable.

“I’d also like to see people move away from the idea of lighting as a product and think about it as an attitude or solution or situation. As long as we’re talking about lumens per watt and cost not value, we’re missing a chance to think about the overall lighting environment, and that’s where the added value is, where the savings are and where the performance is.”

She is also hopeful that the “Humanity Centred Lighting” concept is one that will become common place – not simply another buzz word for the industry, but a standard consideration.

She concluded: “The next phase, I hope, is that we’ll move from LED to full spectrum, flicker-free, tunable lighting, which will be the baseline for healthy light. In the same way that you would expect an ergonomic chair, or a place to make a cup of tea, a sterile operating theatre, or properly-fitting shoes for your child, the lighting can and should be simply what you expect.”


Pic: Marcus Ahmad