Design innovation is a creative discipline and as such, it means many things. It means thought leadership. It means knowledge, and pattern spotting. It means cross-disciplinary work. It means lateral thinking (as Edward de Bono insightfully described in his work). It means a certain mindset, the one that demands challenges and keeps asking “why not?’’ instead of just “why?’’. But above all, it means collaboration – within disciplines, within functions, within institutions. And on that line of thought, academic collaboration can bring a lot to the design innovation equation. There is just so much place to serendipity and out-of-the-box thinking when you put the expertise of professionals together with deeper insights of academics and the fresh minds of students to work together, that creativity and intensive learning are bound to occur.

Here at Philips Lighting Design we hold that thought very close to our culture, and for that reason we strive to collaborate with institutions, in order to keep us fresh and ahead, to learn and to improve. And today, I’m very proud to introduce to you one of our most creative partners.

Rombout Frieling is the creative director of Openlight, the creative lab of the Intelligent Lighting Institute at Eindhoven University of Technology. The TU/e Intelligent Lighting Institute (ILI) was established in 2010 to investigate novel intelligent lighting solutions that will become within our reach by the large-scale introduction of LED technology, with a special emphasis on how these new solutions might affect people. Openlight explores, from a design perspective, the desirability, and meaningfulness, of those technologically possible new options. Merging design education with lighting knowledge and commercial partners, Openlight stands for a clear idea of what lighting should be.

Above: one of Openlight's most recent projects, Brainpulse, an interactive installation for Glow Festival 2011 in Eindhoven, where the building reacts to the flashes of the photocameras.

How did this come about? What inspired you to start OPENLIGHT?

Inspiration comes from people; in this case the late professor Kees Overbeeke. Back in 2008, I started to tutor students with him, bringing me back to Eindhoven every now and then. It was inspiring: I had been moving from interaction design to building-sized stuff – and was looking at ways to connect interaction and spatiality. Light emerged quickly as the connecting medium – and we set out to apply the unspoiled creativity of young people to contribute to the shaping of what we call a liberation of light. It all converged in OPENLIGHT, as a creative lab of the Intelligent Lighting Institute, which was also established in 2010.

What is on the agenda of this institute?

Light is liberated from its bulb. It opens up great design freedom – and the institute is founded with a vision to see how we can utilize this best. We mainly do research in various programmes. In programmes as Sound Lighting we set out to prove the effects of light on wellbeing and productivity. In the Brilliant Streets programme we explore how we can design reactive lighting systems (to reduce energy and light pollution) to provide the best levels of (perceived) safety. OPENLIGHT is a bit different in the sense that our aim is not so much to provide scientific data, but to plant and grow seeds into substantial proposals that can lead to further research and development.

What do you and the participants want to achieve?

Technology so far has created a very rational world and has made many of other capabilities as human beings vanish. Think about all these situations where ‘the system’ cannot deal with us humans: from the robot-like treatment at airport security through to lights than cannot be switched off. We dream of technology that is sensitive to subtleties: to our instinctive behaviors, thoughtless acts, our emotions, skills, complex needs: to our human potential. Light has incredible power to influence our visual systems instantaneously so that one could say we can ‘bypass’ our rational system – and touch us humans on all levels. We argue that the emerging freedom in the application of light should be used in a humanizing way – and we develop and design propositions where you can experience the value of this.

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Above: Dancerail, an Openlight project in which Frank de Jong, Pakwing Man & Eric Toering worked with professor David Kirsh and students from the cognitive science department to develop an interactive installation based upon the work of world famous dance choreographer Wayne McGregor.

Where do you see this kind of work going?

Last year we brought light to a recently excavated cellar in the Santa Maria della Scala museum in Siena, Italy. We lit the spaces in interactive ways that conveyed the cultural heritage to the young generation. Some started to cry, some got angry. The youngsters were so moved, that this year they initiated their own creative project at the museum – it had been a memory that they will keep with them for their lives. The heritage will survive. To us, it moreover showed the incredible immersive power of interactive lighting. It also showed that the value can only be truly understood once experienced. And that is a challenge in a world full of reports, spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. We are now working on a number of light proposals that relate to situations that everybody recognizes: our instant reaction to moving shadows, our desire to see beyond what we currently see, the eye contact we make with people. Yet we keep seeing expos and festivals as a great way to convey our message – so stay tuned for the next GLOW festival in Eindhoven!

What’s been the reaction so far from the design/creative world?

To be honest: I don’t know from that angle, really. So far, we focused on the public, on industry and on other partners. We really want those people to dream together with us – so we can make new projects happen. So far, we had a great time with the public and visitors who came to our installations at the Beijing Design WeekGLOW Eindhoven or DesignAct Moscow. Again, it showed the importance of events!

What have you personally seen that has most inspired you?

It may be obvious, but the work from James Turrell was absolutely mind-changing for me. Some of his work is in the great exhibition ‘See:Colour’. It is in a lovely outdoor site in Järna, Sweden. I’d absolutely recommend it. Yet, the most inspiring times are still those hours of trying out an idea, of hanging a lamp, programming some code, cutting some paper. Those are the moments you either get to the crux of an idea – or you just end up with something that is much bigger than you started off with. But those times are scarce – and I guess the number 1 priority for every creative person is to minimize the time spent the many other matters that have to be done.

How many people have been involved?

We only have a small staff core team, but can rely on a huge network of specialists within TU/e: in psychology, architecture, systems engineering, and computer science. Next to that, we bring in a lot of expertise from outside too. They range from choreographers to architects, art historians, lighting designers, urban planners and – very importantly – the industry. Collaboration with industry is extremely important to us. Last year we did a great project with Philips Design – which helped to position our work more clearly to the many things going on in the lighting design world. It also helped students – while for Philips this was a way to explore ideas that otherwise would not get the time they deserve to be developed. At the core of OPENLIGHT are still students that usually carry the projects through. Over a 100 people have been involved over the last 2 years.

Above: Some aesthetic reflections done by students at Openlight exploring the way light can influence our visual system.

I did originally post this article on the Light Community blog here, as a part of a series of interviews on Innovation for the Design Innovation month at the community.

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