The living lab concept: a new tool for urban planning and -design


Because of various developments within today’s society, like participatory movements, demographic shifting, climate change, and a few others, the urban area is becoming more complex in economic, social, political, cultural, ecological and organisational perspective. A relatively new concept to urban development, among others, is the living lab concept.

I noticed that the living lab concept is quite unknown during my bachelor thesis at the ZUYD University of Applied Sciences in Heerlen. Therefore, I want to inform you more about this concept in a relatively general sense. First, I will explain the living lab concept to you by using the definition given by the European Network of Living Labs (further: ENoLL). Then, I will go back to the 1960s to trace back the origin of the concept and the rise of the ENoLL. Subsequently, I will introduce two living labs, both on a national and international scale. Finally, I will figure out what kinds of theoretical stakeholders are involved in the living lab concept.

What is the living lab concept?
According to the ENoLL, the living lab concept is defined as: “A user-centred, open innovation ecosystem based on a systematic user co-creation approach, integrating research and innovation processes in real-life communities and settings.” If we unravel this definition, we find five significant components characterising the living lab concept as opposed to other types of development. The definition is very broad and abstract. Nevertheless, it gives us a quick overview of this new way of development. Furthermore, literature shows that the living lab concept is used for product development as well as urban development.

The origin of the living lab concept and the ENoLL.
The living lab method refers to the Scandinavian participatory design movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the European social experiment with Information Technology (IT) in the 1980s and the Digital City projects in the 1990s. In Scandinavia, trade unions and workers in the design of IT started the ideology of cooperation and participation. In the 1980s, various experiments with IT took place outside of the laboratory environment. This meant less physical isolation, less procedural standardisation and longer-lasting treatments as compared to experiments within laboratories. And the Digital City projects refer to initiatives that were taken by cities related to digital representation, digital-related economic development and urban regeneration in combination with access to the internet. So, in general, the concept originates from the IT branch or with a close connection to it.

Different collaboration projects between Barcelona, Helsinki and Manchester eventually started the ENoLL in 2006. They agreed to establish a network to exchange knowledge on the living lab concept and support the evolution and uptake of the concept throughout Europe and the rest of the world.

Examples of the living lab concept
MaastrichtLAB and Project for Public Spaces are two examples of living labs. Obviously, the first one is about the capital city of the most southern province of the Netherlands. As their website explains, MaastrichtLAB was established in 2012 by the municipality to give an impulse to urban re-development. Urban re-development, in this case, refers to new and innovative ways of thinking, working and organising today’s and tomorrow’s urban challenges, like temporary usage, sustainability and gradual transformation. They cooperate with new partners and local inhabitants, in which they do not initiate projects but rather advise or intermediate in the process. A successful project, facilitated by MaastrichtLAB, is the transformation of the empty gas storage tank in Maastricht. Two initiators started experimenting with transforming this tank into a cultural hotspot. These experiments ended up successfully, and the gas storage tank will probably (the project is now in development) be transformed into a cultural hotspot permanently.

The second one is, or rather has grown into, a non-profit organisation in the United States of America. Project for Public Spaces builds on the techniques of William ‘Holly’ Whyte’s Street Life Project, wherein he did qualitative urban research about how people use urban space. The approach involves looking at, listening to and asking questions to the people in a community to discover their local and real needs. It expresses itself as a central hub of the placemaking movement to create vital places by connecting people’s and partners’ ideas and expertise. It was founded in 1975. A great project, published on their website, is about the transformation of Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto, Canada. A group of local inhabitants, called the Friends of Dufferin Grove Park, have introduced ‘new’ activities in the park, like cooking classes for immigrants and music-playing of local school classes, and created a community place which is now actively used and taken care of. ‘’Poor kids know how to cook’’ thus the founder of the Friends.

Stakeholders’ roles
Research on the living lab concept shows us that, theoretically seen, four types of stakeholders are involved: the enablers, providers, utilizers and users. In addition, it explains four types of living labs based on the four types of stakeholders and the one who is driving the activities, which are the enabler-, provider-, utilizer- and user-driven variant.

Enablers are public actors, NGO’s or financiers, such as municipalities. Providers are stakeholders, mostly private enterprises, who provide products or services to the living lab concept. Sometimes, this role is given to educational institutions, both to universities and universities of applied sciences, which provide the living lab with knowledge. Utilizers are companies who want to develop and test new products in the living lab. They use the concept as a strategic tool for their own business. And, finally, users are end-users of a product or a region on which the living lab is focussing. From a practical perspective, it is seen that existing living labs consist of a combination of two of the four types because two different stakeholders start a living lab together and then start to involve others.

The living lab concept in the year 2017
To end, I hope that I have given the reader a quick and general overview of this new way of development. The concept is subject to a lot of research and practical experimentation nowadays, so it is not yet clear how it could be used best. It is important to mention that it is difficult to say how many living labs exist nowadays in, for example, the Netherlands. According to the ENoLL, there are only three living labs members of their network. According to an independent research institute, there are ninety living lab initiatives in the Netherlands. And also, it is not uncommon that projects are theoretically a living lab, but they are not in practice and vice versa. So, the future will tell us the exact benefits of the living lab concept, but until then, we just keep experimenting, learning, researching and working together!

This article was published in our December 2017 issue.


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