Can you imagine life without light? / by Tom Oliver Payne


Life as we know it would be very different without artificial light. By recognising the evolution of urban illumination in the two cities of London and Nairobi (where I went on a recent trip), we can understand how and why we've become so energy dependent. This comparison also reveals that, perhaps now more than ever, it's time to embrace new technologies.

Light is a form of energy. Simply, it’s a type of electromagnetic radiation that can be detected by the eye. This form of energy completely dictates our human existence. We in the ‘West’ have become very dependent on artificial light; without it, life would be very different. Yet we take light for granted. The hundreds of years that it’s taken to develop lighting technology for our homes, transport systems, streets and personal devices rarely cross our minds. For most of us, light is as simple as a flick of a switch.

This hasn’t always been the case. Civilizations across the globe were once subjected to the vulnerabilities of nightfall. In fact, it wasn’t very long ago. It’s only been over the last 100 years that cities have implemented electric lighting grids to power homes and streets. This development however, has not been global.

To imagine the darkness that continues to engulf cities and towns across Africa, I’ll first take you back in time to look at the journey that London has taken to become “the great city of the midnight sun”.

“Ye might say… that we’re ladin’ an artyficyal life, but, by Hivins, ye might as well tell me I ought to be paradin’ up and down a hillside with a suit iv skins… an’ livin’ in a cave as to make me believe I ought to get along without… ilictirc lights” 

– Mr Dooley, 1906 (The City as a Summer Resort)

London was once a very dark place and unsafe place (yep, probably even more so than now). While living room fires and other illuminants, such as oil lamps and cannels, were used for special purposes, the only means for continuous lighting from the middle ages until the end of the 18th century was the candle.

A “night walker” was not only regarded with suspicion, but any unauthorized person caught roaming the streets after 9pm was arrested by the police. Over the course of the next 300 years, the city’s laws were continuously adjusted to ensure strict specifications for the use of lanterns to correspond with moonlight at different times of the year. Moving into the 18th Century, London saw the development of more permanent gas lamps as demand for lighting continued to increase.


There were three major reasons for increased demand in street lightingduring the early 1800s. Firstly, night-work and leisure continued to increase. Secondly, street lighting enabled those in rich neighbourhoods to contrast themselves from the poor. Thirdly, and perhaps the most obvious reason, was for safety.

One Londoner, Frederick Howe, wrote that street lights “guarded persons and property from violence and depredation… Every improved mode to street lighting the public streets is an auxiliary to protective justice”. The development of the electricity grid in the 1890s saw the delivery of widespread public lighting across the city.

With the evolution of new technology, London not only saw a transformation of the city, but it saw a transformation of the lives within it. Living in the ‘Western’ cities, it is easy to forget the contributions that the evolution of light has made to modern urban society. That is, until we experience life without light today.

In other parts of the world however, darkness is the norm. At the same time as electric lighting was being delivered on a large scale across London, the city of Nairobi was only just being founded. 


In 2003, both London and North East America experienced major blackouts, impacting half a million and almost 50 million respectively. In both cases, major urban centres came to a standstill and our extremely vulnerable reliance on modern lighting was revealed.

In other parts of the world however, darkness is the norm. At the same time as electric lighting was being delivered on a large scale across London, the city of Nairobi was only just being founded. Today, as one of the most prominent political and financial centres on the African continent, it is a city of deep contrasts. While most of Nairobi stands relatively ‘developed’ (with widespread connection to the electricity grid), a third of its population live in informal settlements – remaining off the electricity grid.


On a recent trip to the city, I was able to visit two major slums to talk with locals about their living experiences. Far from the glum scenarios that are often portrayed in the media, these exciting neighbourhoods seemed to be thriving both culturally and economically. However, two major infrastructure issues were clear; water and lighting. While some residents have chosen to illegally hook up electricity from surrounding grids, this expensive and dangerous process (with local gangs profiting from the procedure) is generally unaffordable for Nairobi’s two-million or more slum dwellers.

Upon a visit to the Mathare slum Community Light Centre, I was fortunate enough to speak with a young lady from World Coaches who had spent her childhood playing football in the neighbourhood. Martha explained to me that Mathare had a highly organised football league comprised of 16 zones across the slum district (another realisation that these informal settlements are far from the messy, disorganised places that I once imagined). She told me:

“I grew up a Tom-boy… I starting playing football when I was 12, but my Mum didn’t like it. She told me it was a boy’s game. When I was young, we couldn’t play in the dark, we went home… there was always a danger traveling in the dark. I didn’t feel threatened though, I had nothing to lose. But it was unsafe. I know it was unsafe. I feel it now when I visit.”

Asking her about the benefits that the new solar-powered Light Centre will bring to Mathare, I sensed the excitement that she felt for the transformation of her old community. To me, it was a sudden realisation of the extent to which I took lighting for granted in my own neighbourhood. Martha explained:

“These lights are not only helping football… It’s helping young people in terms of security… not only security… shops shut early because it is dark.  Even if shops can stay open just one more hour, it will have benefits to the local economies. I’m telling you, things will change”.

Thinking about the strict rules and regulations that once dictated the use of lighting across London, I wondered about the spatial tensions that may arise from only a partial delivery of public lighting within Nairobi slums. I decided to ask Martha. Embarrassingly, it was a stupid question:

“There will be no tensions… These communities are well organised and can take care of themselves. They know the benefits and will set up schedules when they need to.”

Continually underestimating the power of communal governance in Kenya’s slums, I was once again reminded of the amazing capability of local residents to share resources. Her statements also confirmed to me that when it comes to lighting and water infrastructure – every little bit helps.

The concept of light has strikingly different meanings in London and the slums of Nairobi. In the slums, light is seen as a wonderful asset that has the ability to provide new opportunities in safety, education, health and sports. In the UK, on the other hand, light is an element of everyday life that’s generally taken for granted. In a sense, the trip to the slums of Nairobi seemed a little like stepping back into 19th Century London.

On the other hand however, travelling to the slums of Nairobi was also like glancing into the future. With some of the planet’s highest levels of annual sunlight, and without the need to retrofit pre-existing infrastructure, some of Africa’s poorest, yet most resourceful neighbourhoods are rapidly advancing in the solar-powered lighting revolution.

While the implementation of more efficient LED-lighting is makingprogress in larger, ‘developed’ cities, such progress remains slow. As authorities drag their feet on climate change policy, urban infrastructure generally remains unsustainable and incredibly energy-inefficient.

Due to advancements in LED technology over the last decade, lighting has made incredible progress in efficiency and functionality. These improvements have the ability to play a major role in curbing energy usage, and human-induced climate change as a result.

Perhaps now, more than ever, cities like London should be paying attention to the progression of lighting technology. The slums of Nairobi not only provide a history lesson on life without light, but also provide examples of highly advanced, sustainable urban illumination.