So who ever said a light is a lamp anyway? Certainly not the glowworms!

It was my recent privilege to travel through the US as a guest designer and to attend the end-year student reviews at two leading universities, from Texas to New York, and under the inspired guidance of Fred Oberkircher at Texas Christian University (TCU) and Derek Porter at Parsons The New School for Design. Now, that's a long way and a broad demographic, and I'm still processing all that I learned from the absolutely amazing new young bloods in lighting land.

The idea of maybe using phosphorescent algae as a lighting source might seem a little far-fetched, but when you consider how many examples there are of bio-luminescence in our natural world, it makes you think: What is light anyway, and who says it has to come out of a light bulb? If glowworms or fireflies can emit light — and have a light-based conversation with each other — then what about the light-emitting squid or glow-in-the-dark tuna steaks?

At the simplest organic level, light-emitting bacteria transfer food into light by just shuffling around a few ions during their daily business — no big deal for them. And, yes, if you leave a piece of tuna out overnight in the right environment, it will glow in the dark in a few hours.

In fact, including simple bacteria in building materials to become light sources is not such a far-fetched concept after all. Some architects already design environments that break all the paradigms of wall surfaces, floors, and ceilings — flowing organic shapes where walls meet floors and ceilings in a seamless continuum that interacts with the occupants — in realtime virtual environments.

Zaha Hadid's work is an absolute inspiration in this area, and if you go back a bit further, Antoni Gaudí had a good take on what makes a wall a wall and where ceilings start and finish. So glow-in-the-dark walls with “emergent illuminance” — I'm up for it!

Add to this the intelligence one might see in a series of small, interlinked and interactive nodes that detect presence and purpose throughout an entire environment. Light levels, color temperature, and position are automatically controlled via a simple algorithm in each node that communicates with all of the other nodes, like virtual Legos. I saw a student demonstration of this technology and application — very, very cool. The virtual-games generation is here to stay anyway, so free your mind and enjoy the ride.

On a different note, when is light too much light? The answer might be on the 20th floor of a glass building on a hot summer afternoon with sunlight pouring in — no air conditioning and nowhere to hide. The searing rays of glass magnified sunlight — phew!

I was greatly inspired by the desire of some students to capture the discoveries of older civilizations and adapt those proven techniques into modern environments, saving energy, adding beauty, and promoting cross-cultural harmony at the same time.

There's an old Persian technique that captures the cool air at the top of, say, a tall tower, and the cool air, being heavier than the warm air, falls to the bottom of the building. In perfect balance, the lighter warm air then rises up and funnels out — brilliant! You've got natural air conditioning and sustainability in one. There is a fully self-sufficient building in Dubai on the drawing board along these principles right now, a 68-story energy tower by Eckhard Gerber.

Another direction of paradigm shift — or when backward is forward — was when I was introduced to the simple sophistication of Mashrabiyya screen as a shading device — carved lattices of different density that cast beautiful and intricate patterns of light in a room, as well as controlling air circulation and a person's privacy. Why settle for just glass, anyway?

All of these shifts have a strong core of improving sustainability and energy consumption as their raison d'être. The days where lots of watts was a measure of a rig's worth and where a direct line to the Hoover Dam was worn as a badge of pride are rightly falling into the annals of history.

It's my opinion that lighting land gets unfairly targeted in the sustainability debate raging through the world — a sort of obvious easy fix, while some of the real demons of HVAC are overlooked. In fact, and by comparison in today's office environments, the power used by lighting is now less than that used by office laptops and PCs. Your regular widescreen home-theatre screen can draw more power than your average fridge.

However, it's good to see that we're coming up with solutions — full-spectrum compact fluros, superbright and long-life white LEDs, and retrofit 12V MR16 bubbles in both LED and compact fluro, to name a few.

There are clearly a lot of new tools on the horizon, and I reckon our new designers are probably going to turn it all on its head again. These people coming through are not just going to be writing the future, they are also going to be writing our legacy.

Next shift: How about OLEDs (Organic Light-Emitting Diodes) married up with a tuna steak? It's a similar chemistry, so…?

Ken Flower is a designer (IESNA associate, IALD affiliate), conference presenter, lecturer, and executive-in-residence at Temple University. His work has won numerous awards and has been featured in professional design journals and shown at international trade expos, including WSD, IIDA, LDI, IALD. He is also a committee member of AALD. He can be reached at kenf@dreamscapes.com.au.