Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Cities as Living Labs

PLACE Volunteer Tiago Picão explains the European Living Labs initiative...

A new concept has been gaining strength since 2006, supported by the European Commission’s plan for a European Innovation System. On that year, under the auspices of the Finnish European Presidency, ENoLL, the European Network of Living Labs (, was founded. This blog entry will introduce Living Labs and highlight how the project directly relates to the built environment and particularly cities.

A Living Lab, as defined by ENoLL, is a real-life test and experimentation environment where users and producers co-create innovations. Living Labs have been characterized by the European Commission as Public-Private-People Partnerships (PPPP) for user-driven open innovation.

For now let’s concentrate on the latter part of the definition, and save the first one for the discussion about its relevance to the built environment. The European Commission view Living Labs as an instrument for user driven open innovation. This may appear as one expression but user driven and open innovation are concepts which developed independently so I will present them separately at first.

The concept of Open Innovation, presented by Henry Chesbrough, stands in opposition to the traditional model of innovation. On the tradition model, an organization is seen as self-sufficient, integrating vertically all stages of the innovation process. Inherent to such a model is the need to “capture” the so-called best minds, while the occurrence of spillovers (knowledge generated inside the organization that escapes its boundaries) is considered a normal consequence of the process, which it tries to minimize through legal restrictions and sigil.

Source: Henry Chesbrough, Wim Vanhaverbeke and Joel West.

The concept of Open Innovation declares that the closed model of innovation is not efficient. This inefficiency stems from two facts:

  1. the resources used to control knowledge spilling and its effects (e.g. patent litigations) could be put to better use; 
  2. the restrictions on knowledge flowing hinder innovation, by forbidding interaction between the best minds. Open Innovation defends thus that the best way to overcome these problems is to promote openness and transparency of the knowledge produced internally. In turn, this would lead to its adoption as external knowledge by other organizations, and vice-versa, in a continuous exchange. 

Source: Henry Chesbrough, Wim Vanhaverbeke and Joel West.

The concept of User-driven Innovation, developed on MIT, stands for an active participation of the end-user on the innovation process, from the very early stages of development. It is thus fundamentally different from what occurs on a test bed, where end-users only test prototypes. On User-driven Innovation the end-user can be seen as part of the development team, contributing with his experience, insight and ideas.

These two concepts intertwined give birth to the concept of Living Lab, since users are assumed to have latent knowledge (derived from their needs and aspirations), that is external to organizations, but essential for innovation. However, this knowledge is, more often than not, non-verbal or non-conscious (at least in the beginning), and can only be “collected” through a broad analysis of behavior. On the other hand, given its non-conscious characteristic, it is important to keep the context as real as possible. And thus we arrive, full circle, at the ENoLL definition of Living Lab, as a real-life test and experimentation environment where users and producers co-create innovations.

% of population living in urban areas. WWF 2012.

The keyword for the relationship between Living Labs and the built environment, as you probably have already guessed is “real”. However, it is more than that. As cities and other urban environments quickly become the home of the majority of the human population (according to the United Nations, two out of every three people will live in a city in 2050), it’s potential to be the ground for innovation grows, for a number of reasons: 

  • Urban growth poses new problems for infrastructure and equipment, for which innovative solutions are needed. For example, the Finnish Helsinki Living Lab is developing a Smart City Project Area, involved in the development of digital urban services that make travelling and living in the city easier ( Transport, Healthcare, Daycare, Tourism, Logistics, Citizen Participation, City Planning and Work Environments are some of the fields addressed; 
  • Urban environments allow a mass scale test of new solutions. RENER Living Lab, in Portugal, is developing the MOBI.E project (, where 24 cities in the country are experimenting different solutions to implement a wide network of electric based vehicles; 
  • Cities have a large diversity of inhabitants with different needs and aspirations to tackle. This is the stance of Living Labs like Barcelona’s Citilab (, a mix between a training center, a research centre and an incubator for business and social initiatives. One of their projects is a Learning Community, as a way for people to get involved in technology, by connecting with their personal needs and working jointly with other learners. Each collaborative effort will understand, plan, create, share, revise and delve deeper in more complex areas, as a result of ideas, projects and creations
  • The amount of knowledge and ideas exchanged by citizens cannot be compared to what happens inside a research laboratory. The Finnish Owela Living Lab ( is an online space for open innovation with users, customers, developers and other stakeholders. One of the features offered by Owela is the Ideatuubi (only in Finnish), an open space where anyone can share ideas and develop them further with other users. 

These are but some examples of why, and how, cities are now being looked as 21st Century laboratories, with increasing repercussions on the way we plan, build and manage them in order to allow the realization of their potential for innovation.

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