European cities face economic, social and environmental challenges of growing complexity. In response, new forms of governance are called for, including urban labs (Living Labs and City Labs). Policymakers and urban development stakeholders struggle to implement urban labs and seek guidance for further development. Evidence-based guidelines and design principles are needed concerning types of challenges for which urban labs are most suited, how urban labs can best be organized in terms of structure, process, and participation, and how urban labs can best be integrated into local government structures.
Urb@exp aims to develop such guidelines in order to enhance successful uptake of this innovative form of urban governance, thereby contributing to improved governance of urban complexity, for creating more sustainable, inclusive, attractive, and economically viable cities. To develop evidence-based guidelines for urban labs, our objectives are to determine:
- the types of problems most suited to deal with in urban labs
- ‘good practices’ of implementing urban labs in terms of structure, processes of co-creation and engaging participants
- effective approaches to integration of urban labs as a new, innovative form of governance with the formal local government structures
The project has a strong focus on facilitating joint learning, which will be fostered by the diversity represented in the consortium in terms of actors, contexts and stages of development of urban labs. Learning is to occur throughout the process, as urban stakeholders and policymakers engage in the urban lab experiments: not only at the end, where it concerns drawing and disseminating guidelines and lessons. To ensure learning, dissemination and integration of lessons, an interurban mobility program for policymakers involved in the urban lab experiments will be implemented. The aim of this mobility program is to foster exchange of knowledge, experiences and innovative practices in urban governance by a rotating scheme of study visits to all city partners in the urb@exp project.
Action research approach
Action research is major element of urb@exp’s approach in the five cities. Central to our action research methodology is the novel concept of ‘transitioning of experiments’. Beyond engaging in urban lab experiments, we aim to transform these into so-called transition experiments, which involves their integration into urban governance. The way in which we envision to achieve the ‘transitioning’ of experiments is by:
- Co-designing the experiments with the urban actors concerned, using “agonistic participatory design” and envisioning methods guided by the logical levels approach;
- Setting explicit learning goals for the experiments, based on important issues as identified by the actors;
- Identifying what has been learned through evaluation of processes and achievements (with interviews, surveys, comparative research and joint reflection workshops); and
- Disseminating lessons to the urban actors concerned and embedding the lessons in urban governance structures.
Evaluation will be conducted at the level of individual cases (experiments) and across the set of cases to draw generalized lessons concerning the research questions, using a corroboratory evaluation methodology, i.e., evaluation by combining evidence from different sources. This includes: developing and applying a consistent method to evaluate outcomes across the cases and contexts; collecting evidence ‘before’ and ‘after’ the experiments; and, combining on-going internal ‘formative’ evaluation (to support joint, reflexive learning and improvement during the experiment) with external ‘summative’ evaluation (to help identify effective practices).
The lessons will be disseminated to urban policymakers as guidelines, including design principles, generic methods, guidance notes on the use and combination of methods, and illustrative and inspiring case-studies of successful implementations and innovation outcomes. The greatest challenge for transition experiments is to embed the lessons in urban governance structures. The active involvement of urban policymakers in the choice, design and evaluation of the experiments is one way of facilitating transition. The mobility program, allowing policymakers to spend time learning from and engaging with other city partners, is also expected to promote transition.
A third way is to focus the evaluation of transition experiments not only on the outcomes, but also on the processes and conditions critical for achieving positive outcomes, in order to make the policymakers and stakeholders involved mindful of the coproduction element of outcomes of the experiments, thereby fostering the adaptation of urban governance structures.