IEMA's Digital Journalist, Tom Pashby speaks on the impacts that illuminated digital displays have on the environment
Times Square and Piccadilly Circus used to be novelties for tourists to flock to and bask in the artificial light of digital advertising displays. Today, similar ad boards are on high streets, in bus stops, tube stations and gyms. While they feel like an inevitable evolution of public spaces, little attention is seemingly paid to their environmental and social impacts.
In the industry, the screens are called Digital Out Of Home (DOOH) displays; BT calls them ‘Street Hubs’. The big advantages of using DOOH as opposed to traditional print displays are the ability to deliver fresh content much faster and offer audience targeting – with individual screens at different locations designed for specific demographics.
As the screens increase in ubiquity in public spaces, concerns about their impacts are likely to increase, including issues around power consumption, e-waste, the impact of luminosity on the biosphere, and the invasion by corporate interests into spaces that were previously not commercialised.
The highest profile companies involved in the space are BT, Global and JCDecaux, but there appears to be a significant network of other bodies involved including local authorities, landlords, and equipment manufacturers.
An investigation by The Guardian found that screens installed in Manchester each use the same amount of electricity as three households. BT claims its displays are powered by 100% renewable carbon-free energy.
While promoters of DOOHs, especially the hubs we see in our high streets, are keen to point out the social benefits of the displays such as free public access to Wi-Fi and 999 calling features, questions remain about whether the still limited supplies of renewable energy are best used for yet more advertising in public spaces.
When they reach the end of their lives, electronic and electrical goods become e-waste. This consists largely of hard plastic and common metals like aluminium, but also contains important metals such as cobalt and rare earth elements (REEs).
Cobalt and REEs have become notorious due to the conditions around their extraction. China has gained a geopolitical advantage with its near-monopoly on REE ores which are critical for the production of electrical items. Cobalt mining faces a growing chorus of accusations relating to modern day slavery.
According to the statistics website Statista, in the first three months of 2023, there were 14,560 digital out of home screens in Great Britain, up 3 percent from a year earlier. Clearly an increasing mass of electrical items in public spaces. They don’t have infinite useful lives and so the pile of e-waste increases too.
Luminosity and the Biosphere
A significant factor in assessing the impact of artificial luminosity on the living world is a necessity. Certain types of lighting are necessary for our ability to live safely, for example, street lights in places that are frequently used by pedestrians, cyclists and drivers after sunset and before sunrise. However, office lights left on at night when workers are not present is unnecessary.
Is it arguable that screens used to advertise products and services are not necessary additions to the already high volume of artificial light at night (ALAN).
According to the conservation organisation Buglife, ALAN is “directly linked to measurable negative impacts on… wildlife such as bats, birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and plants.”
People who dislike the increase in numbers of digital advertising screens in public spaces have taken direct action against them. In July 2023, a screen in Bristol was vandalised with paint with the words ‘Bristol Against Digital Advertising Screens S (BADASS)’ written on its base.
The widescale introduction of digital advertising screens into our public and semi-public lives is likely to increase in scale. Advertisers are desperate to find new ways of attracting consumer attention and this is an effective way of doing that.
Alongside widespread deployment of the screens, concerns around environmental and social impacts are likely to continue to provoke debate.