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Mike Simpson

Issue 53 Feb / Mar 2010

In the first of a series of interviews with the heads of the leading associations relating to lighting design, Jill Entwistle talks to Mike Simpson, president of Cibse about the recent failed merger between the ILE and SLL and re-establishing the lighting profession within the building services industry

It’s hard to imagine Mike Simpson chilling out with his clarinet or emerging exhausted from producing the latest local amdram extravaganza (he spent Christmas wrestling with a dimming system and the ethernet). In fact he is so firmly and irredeemably associated with lighting that it’s difficult to picture him with a life outside it at all.
But his family life is clearly deeply important to him, and he takes pleasure in the fact that his fascination with the theatre, which started with the lighting design and has expanded to scenery, production and direction, has spilled over to his family. As opening night approaches his wife and daughter will invariably also be feverishly occupied, in their case with costumes. (Son James has managed to combine the two passions by doing the lighting at Covent Garden). “It’s a bit of a family dynasty thing,” says Simpson.

Professionally, he is inextricably linked with Philips where he started in 1977 (he did a six-year stint with Marlin but returned to Philips as technical director in 2003) and with both the ILE and the SLL, where he has served on countless committees and worked on numerous lighting standards and guidances. He now has the full presidential set, having formerly headed both those institutions and as the current president of Cibse.

It is the fact that he straddles both the SLL and the ILE, and his pivotal position as Cibse president, that made him the Big Hope of the movement to merge the two bodies which came to a head last year. Although one attempt had fizzled out a few years ago, this time it seemed a certainty. “I was really conscious that a lot of people were looking to me over this year to make it happen,” he says. Initially he was a driving force, and then he appeared to change his mind.
Some 18 months before becoming president, he says, he still believed it would be viable to take the lighting people out of Cibse and create one professional organisation. “But as my apprenticeship went on, and I got more and more involved with Cibse, I began to realise that actually if you looked at the pure numbers, this wasn’t necessarily going to add up.”
Although there are around 2000 people in the SLL, the majority were interested in lighting but primarily concerned with building services. “The message they were giving me was that they weren’t going to leave Cibse, but needed to have access to lighting. The only people it was potentially going to benefit were the pure lighters like myself. When it came down to it, and you started looking at the numbers, you were probably talking say 200 or 300 people.”

Aside from the danger that this small band of SLL members would be subsumed by the 2000 ILE members, Simpson also felt that a merger would, ironically, be divisive. “What I could see happening was that rather than unifying something we were going to create even more splits,” he says. “We would have had the unified professional body and some sort of legacy organisation still within Cibse to support the building services people. And even if you brought the SLL and ILE together, we really wouldn’t have created any sort of unity because you’d still have all the independent designers in the PLDA and IALD.”
He is firmly convinced that the lighting liaison group or lighting council – the name is still floating – that was established last year is a much more effective proposition. “I began to see that it was important that we created something that involved more unification within the profession rather than doing something that appeared to be bringing things together in name, but in practice wasn’t going to achieve very much.”
The one thing that has emerged from this umbrella group is the document featuring guidelines for LED specification. But there has been informal collaboration between the SLL, ILE, PLDA, IALD, LIF and LA for some time and Simpson acknowledges the group needs more impetus if it is going to be effective as a single authoritative point of contact for government, for example, an entity which has been crucially lacking.
“We’ve had to go through a period of dust settling. It’s early days and it’s developing. The important thing is that we have a forum where all these people can sit down. It now needs to move forward on a more constitutional level. It needs a bit of pushing. That is my objective in the rest of my presidential year and my year as past president. It has to be more than just a talking shop.”

Simpson also believes that although the outcome was controversial, to say the least, the process of the merger talks was one of clarification for the SLL, a crucible out of which a stronger society has emerged.
“To some extent it’s come of age. There is now greater confidence. This whole business of the merger has been going on for about ten years. The first time, those in favour of it didn’t really engage with Cibse, they just went off and attempted it. This time the whole process was done with the full knowledge of the Cibse board and the executive. Having gone through that process we’ve finally put that ghost to rest.”
The society has also gained a stronger sense of the role it can play in promoting sustainability. “It’s about making people aware of what lighting can deliver, which I see as being the largest contribution to energy reduction in the built environment,” says Simpson. “So the SLL has gone from not quite knowing where they belong and not having a clear focus in terms of what they do, to the point where those two things have come together – they have a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose.”

As president of Cibse, Simpson has had the golden opportunity to push the lighting message within the institution. “As much as I’ve tried to learn about building services in general – which has been a really useful insight because I now understand the much bigger picture of how lighting fits into building services – the other people in the institution that I’ve worked with over the past couple of years have gained a much greater appreciation of lighting. I’d like to think that by the time I’ve finished my turn, there will be a greater understanding of the part that lighting plays in overall building services. It’s a two-way thing, but driving through the lighting agenda is the most important.”

With different presidents hailing from different disciplines within building services, there is a danger that from year to year the emphasis shifts and that such appreciation can wane when chains of office are handed over. But according to Simpson structural changes in areas such as how the SLL is financed have knitted the society more thoroughly into Cibse.
“I would like to think that we have re-established the lighting profession within the institution and made fundamental changes that will make it quite difficult now to unravel or fade away. What happened in the past was that we tended to be an isolated group. We had one person who looked after us within the institution. Part of the whole process we’ve gone through is creating links into the PR people, into the technical people so that we’ve got a bit of everybody. We’ve now got 20 or 30 people who all as part of what they do will support lighting. We’re much more firmly embedded.”

On that note, Simpson was off to sort out Dick Whittington, the current pantomime, and to ponder the next production, The Full Monty, at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley. And the answer is, no, he won’t.



Mike Simpson

(c) Simon Weir -

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