By David Pring-Mill
The following text has been excerpted from Section 2.6 of the Policy2050 report “Smart Cities Decoded: Analysis of Technology Providers, Risks, and Opportunities” in order to serve as a product sample and fulfill Policy2050’s mission “to keep the most socially-relevant insights outside of any paywall.”
Glowee is a biotechnology startup in Paris looking to leverage the power of bioluminescence to create a sustainable urban lighting solution. Bioluminescence is present in organisms like fireflies, fungi, and fish. Glowee proposes the use of bioluminescent bacteria that emit a bluish glow, in street furniture and fixtures along pathways, to enhance cityscapes with a “glowpolis.” They’re also proponents of biomimetics generally, hosting exhibits, participating in conferences, and providing their bioluminescent installations for other events looking to offer novelty with the thematic underpinnings of an ecological message.
Glowee claims that manufacturing and operating its bio-lamps consumes less energy when compared with energy-saving LED lights. However, there are significant technical limitations. The bioluminescent fixtures shine at 15-20 lumen per square meter, significantly dimmer than the 111 lumens per square meter from a typical 220-lumen LED bulb.
Glowee describes its biotechnology product as “a living raw material made of marine bacteria,” emphasizing the absence of attributes that would cut short the conversation with stakeholders. The startup carefully describes the bacteria as “non-pathogenic and non-toxic” and its process as occurring “without genetic modifications.” For context, it’s worth noting that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been an ongoing topic of debate and controversy, especially in Europe, due to various health-related, environmental, economic, ethical, social, and cultural concerns. Widespread mistrust of multinational biotech companies such as Monsanto and their attempts to exert control over the food supply chain has acted as a major driver of this negative GMO publicity.
Returning then to Glowee’s solution, the bacterium, named Aliivibrio fischeri, can be found naturally and globally in symbiotic marine relationships. For example, the Hawaiian bobtail squid acts as a host and partner for Aliivibrio fischeri. The bioluminescent bacteria draws protection and nutrients from the anatomical structures, or light organs, of these squids and, in turn, offers the squids the ability to evade predators through counter-illumination camouflage. The lighting process is chemically regulated by a phenomenon called quorum sensing, where the light-producing genes are activated once a certain population density (quorum) of bacteria is reached. The host squid also has tissues that can act like a shutter, adjusting the intensity and direction of the light. It’s a fascinating aspect of evolution and ecological relationships.
In Glowee’s Smart City configuration, the bacteria are housed in plastic tubes and are stimulated to emit light when provided with food and oxygen. The illumination can be stopped by cutting off the air supply, placing the organisms in an anaerobic state. Even in nature, the squids control the number of bacteria in their light organs by expelling most of them at dawn and re-colonizing the organ each night. The squids also supply the bacteria with the necessary nutrients to grow and produce light. Therefore, Glowee’s method of containment and control in a Smart City context isn’t totally inconsistent with the natural rhythms of colonization, light production, and expulsion that occur in marine symbiosis. This bacterium is easy to culture in a lab due to a combination of its biological properties, including its genetic simplicity, and practical aspects related to its growth requirements and non-pathogenic nature. Glowee cultivates its liquid raw material in saltwater aquariums before packaging it in saltwater-filled tubes.
While other Smart City providers quantify calamities or incremental optimizations across municipal services, Glowee begins its value proposition on its website by quantifying the prevalence of bioluminescence in the natural world, where more than 80% of marine organisms are said to exhibit some form of bioluminescence. Technically, this assessment was made within a depth between 200 and 1,000 meters, where it applies to fish, squid, and gelatinous zooplankton. One study, utilizing 17 years of video data collected by remotely operated vehicles surveying the California Coast from the surface to a depth of 3,900 meters, concluded that bioluminescence is a predominant ecological trait, observed in about 76% of marine organisms. This percentage remained remarkably consistent across all depths. However, there were changes in the proportion of bioluminescent organisms within specific taxonomic groups that corresponded with depth. The vast, largely unexplored nature of the world’s oceans lends some ambiguity to these estimations.
Either way, Glowee’s intention seems to be to point to the pervasiveness of this natural phenomenon, beyond the more obvious, yet scarce, terrestrial examples of fireflies and glowworms. This helps to craft an appealing narrative – humanity searching for a solution, when it’s right there in front of us. Implicitly, there’s an appeal to nature at play, which is a rhetorical tactic that works better intuitively than logically, not to mention a layer of irony. These communications strategies are designed to drive conviction in biomimetics, which is the emulation of models, systems, and elements of nature for technical problem-solving.
Proponents of aquaculture have used similar framing to change the way that resources are perceived, drawing a contrast between scarce tillable land and the oceans covering more than 70% of the Earth’s surface. Ultimately, the goal in these cases is to shift perspectives in favor of innovation, and away from suboptimal or unsustainable models. In this case, Glowee is unveiling “biological light, an alternative to artificial light.”
Glowee also attributes a quote to High Renaissance Italian polymath Leonardo Da Vinci about the importance of studying nature. The startup positions its solution as scalable and as something profound, derived from nature, without extracting from natural resources or reducing biodiversity. The copy states: “Thanks to a biosourced and biodegradable raw material made from marine bacteria that can be cultivated ad infinitum in the laboratory, we reduce the consumption of limited resources and the pollution generated by their extraction, transformation and export.”
Glowee’s Smart City solution aspires to be evaluated on terms that go beyond the mere functional aspects. Instead, they’re representing “a new lighting philosophy” that is meant “to awaken citizens to the power of nature and to drive a change in consumption methods” with a “less aggressive and more harmonious approach.” But does “less aggressive” mean “less effective” from a functional or municipal standpoint?
If the solution is used in conjunction with other lighting sources that supplement the dim levels, it may be seen as too logistically and financially burdensome to justify. In areas that require high levels of illumination, such as busy streets or large public spaces, the low light intensity could hinder visibility and compromise safety. However, an argument could also be made that there’s a widespread need to reduce light pollution and restore natural rhythms.
Glowee’s technology builds upon historical precedents. Coal miners have used fireflies in jars to avoid triggering deadly explosions, and tribes in India have turned to glowing fungi to find their way through dense jungles. The main challenge for this modern iteration so far is improving the light intensity of these bioluminescent fixtures. That being said, Glowee’s bioluminescent lighting technology has the potential to provide a more natural and subdued form of lighting that minimizes light pollution, which has been found to be problematic for human health, wildlife, and ecosystems. The project’s viability during winter has also been questioned. The vital nutrients must be refed in a matter of days or weeks.
“We are advancing little by little,” Glowee founder Sandra Rey told the BBC. “But we’ve made enormous steps already, and our philosophy of light is a response to the crisis humanity is facing.” Alternative strategies such as “chemiluminescence,” which involves using the enzyme responsible for the bioluminescence, luciferase, without requiring live bacteria, are also being explored by Glowee and others.
Rambouillet, a French city situated south of Paris, is testing Glowee’s novel utilization of bioluminescence for a sustainable urban lighting system. The city agreed to spend €100,000 to become a bioluminescent public site over the course of two years. “This is about a city of tomorrow,” declared Guillaume Douet, head of Rambouillet’s public spaces. “If the prototype really works, we can bring it to a large-scale deployment and replace current lighting systems.” Another experiment is being hosted at the Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Paris. Glowee is currently negotiating with 40 cities across France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Portugal to initiate new projects.
Glowee has received financial support from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the European Innovation Council (EIC), as well as technical support from France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm), indicating a high degree of public sector interest.
“Reinventing the wheel” is an idiomatic metaphor that signifies the wasted efforts involved in attempting to develop an alternative method to one that already works well, if not better. Should we reinvent the lightbulb? In this case, we should consider how the results are being assessed. If sustainability and energy independence are increasingly important criteria – with the need for the latter clearly highlighted by the fissuring of Western Europe from Russia in response to illegal Russian aggression – then more ideation and innovation will likely be welcomed. Lumens may rank below the need for resilient systems, diverse lighting applications, and a high energy self-sufficiency ratio.
Another French startup, Woodlight, is also seeking to leverage bioluminescence for public lighting, investigating the potential to transfer this characteristic from marine microorganisms to plants. Their goal is to bio-engineer plants that could potentially replace public lighting in cities. Meanwhile, Vancouver-based startup Nyoka proposes that its biodegradable alternative to glow sticks, using non-living, cell-free enzymes, can address a wide range of applications, including fishing lures. Their technology reflects a sensible engineering design process. “Instead of using the whole car, we just take out the headlights,” said Paige Whitehead, co-founder and CEO. “Enzymology has advanced to the extent that we no longer have to rely on the cell-supported systems.” In a different but related venture, Spanish company Bioo has developed a system of garden panels that turn a plot of land into a battery by utilizing the hydrogen ions released by soil bacteria’s metabolism. These startups’ extremely unconventional efforts reflect a growing interest (somewhat literally) in sustainable, innovative, and biological solutions for energy and lighting in urban environments.
Long-Term, Big Picture Thinking
History is filled with examples of projects, both ambitious and small-scale, that led to severe unintended consequences via the disruption of local ecosystems. However, there are also plenty of examples where the benefits of a discovery were not immediately recognized. Integrating this new lighting technology into urban infrastructure, buildings, and public spaces would not only create visually captivating environments while reducing energy consumption but might also provoke a broader cultural conversation about the need to balance functionality and entrenched preferences with environmental considerations. Public awareness of this underlying rationale could foster a sense of community identity and pride. Ultimately, we cannot mitigate climate change without expanding these sorts of cultural touchpoints.
Even if Glowee were to fail as a company, the technologies they develop could still have other applications and potentially advance various scientific fields. For example, the French startup might lead the way for investments in synthetic biology projects with tailored functionalities, or more bio-inspired design and architecture. The use of bioluminescence in medical imaging and diagnostics is an area of active research. Bioluminescent microorganisms might also serve as biosensors that detect pollutants, toxins, or changes in environmental conditions.
Applying an interdisciplinary lens generates endless possibilities. Public sector stakeholders should factor in the underlying knowledge and techniques that might be gained through the Smart City or innovation projects they support.
Genuine scientific advancement is likely to yield local, national, and global benefits, which strengthens the case for international collaborations among parties with a shared vision and values.
- Harnessing Bioluminescence: Bioluminescence, a natural phenomenon where organisms produce light through chemical reactions, is being harnessed for urban lighting pilot programs in France. The technology developed by Glowee is currently undergoing improvements that adjust for light intensity and nutrient replenishment frequency.
- Innovative Lighting Metabolism: Glowee’s solution leverages the natural metabolism of bacteria as a lighting source, aiming to reduce carbon emissions and energy costs. This innovative approach exemplifies lateral thinking. However, it may face technical challenges related to maintenance, lighting standards, and resource logistics.
- Balancing Illumination and Ecology: While the low light intensity could potentially limit visibility, an argument could be made for the necessity to reduce light pollution and restore natural rhythms. Finding a balance between safety, ecology, and light requirements is key.
- Navigating Ecological Concerns: Ethical and ecological concerns about the large-scale cultivation and accidental release of bioluminescent bacteria could potentially impact such projects. Public engagement and effective communication about risk mitigation strategies may help in overcoming objections and ensuring project viability.
- Regulatory Uncertainty: Regulations primarily targeting other emerging technologies might contain sweeping language that creates an atmosphere of uncertainty for bioluminescent lighting solutions. This could potentially erode stakeholder support, including key investor backing.
- Future Feasibility and Applications: In the long term, advances in synthetic biology and improved cultivation techniques could make bioluminescent lighting projects more feasible, especially amid growing energy crises. However, in the near term, this solution might find better acceptance in niche applications requiring low-light, decorative ambiance, or as a stopgap in areas with limited electricity access.
- Aesthetic Considerations: Public acceptance of bioluminescent lighting’s aesthetics could vary. Ensuring the technology aligns with the cultural and architectural context will be vital for its market acceptance and integration into urban environments.
- Inspirational Sustainable Design: Glowee’s bioluminescent lighting solutions could inspire more environmentally-conscious ways of living, as well as new possibilities for sustainable design and architecture.
- Startup Risks and Rewards: As an early-stage startup, Glowee may carry higher risks compared to more established Smart City technology providers tapping into well-established demand. However, its novel approach has the potential to drive STEM forward, create a supportive tech ecosystem, and yield other fantastic innovations in the future.
The full report “Smart Cities Decoded: Analysis of Technology Providers, Risks, and Opportunities” is now available for purchase on Policy2050.com.