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Towards New Forms of Urban Governance and City Development

About urban labs

New forms of governance that have recently gained much attention are so-called Living Labs and City Labs. Living Labs represent an approach to user-centered innovation by engaging users actively as contributors to the creative and evaluative processes in innovation and development. City Labs are projects in which local governments and other stakeholders jointly seek to learn about and be involved in new ways of dealing with urban challenges. Both types of ‘lab’ aim to extend the networks of those actively involved in finding innovative solutions by emphasizing co-creation and joint learning by multiple urban actors.

In urb@exp, we use the generic term ‘urban labs’ to refer to City Labs and Living Labs. Urban labs appear to be a particularly promising, innovative form of governance to address complex urban challenges and create public value. However, policymakers and other urban actors struggle with the implementation of urban labs and seek guidance for their further development. Evidence-based guidelines and design principles are still lacking concerning types of issues 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 combined and integrated with formal local government structure.

There have been calls for innovation in the innovation process itself, especially when actual or prospective problems are complex, systemic and unprecedented and the search for solutions confronts uncertainty and involves risk. There have been pleas for new approaches to innovation that are more open, more inclusive, more democratic, and more creative than traditional ‘closed’ approaches, and for approaches that can be sustained to provide enduring innovation potential in line with a goal of continuous improvement and the need to adapt to an ever-changing world. The Living Labs (LL) concept represents such an innovation in the innovation process, as also does its implementation in urban settings as a support for open innovation and as an approach for adding public value, expressed in economic, social and ecological benefits, both in public and private spheres, in new and creative ways. Urban implementation extends the concept beyond the domain of ICT where forms of open innovation and co-production have achieved notable successes already.

Extending Networks

An important element of LL, especially as a support to ‘open’ innovation and ‘co-creation’, is to extend the networks of those actively involved in innovation processes to include users and citizens alongside professional researchers and R&D commissioners. LL represent an approach to “user-centred” innovation and development. The idea is for users to be engaged actively in innovation and development processes as contributors to creative and evaluative processes (such as ideation, prototyping, testing and validation) rather than being passive recipients of innovation and development outcomes after these have been achieved. As well as involving users in the innovation process, innovation is extended also to include multiple organizations, rather than only the traditional product or service developer and a set of in-house or commissioned specialists, such as professional scientists, researchers, designers and engineers. Thus policymakers, city authorities, planners, housing associations, urban architects and other stakeholders are also included in open innovation, which may be formalised through Public-Private Partnership and similar organisational arrangements. Open innovation is therefore multi-organisational as well as user-centred and co-creation is heavily reflected in the literature as a characterising feature of LL.

‘Mass’ input

Basic principles for innovation within the framework of the LL approach, alongside user-centred innovation, include: the principle of ‘mass’ input (the key insight here is that innovation benefits can come from getting inputs from large numbers of users), which requires new channels and methods for gathering, handling and processing large quantities of data (often in real time); the principle that innovation is driven by the potential for ‘value’ creation for stakeholders and that values and interests differ for different stakeholders, which requires that innovation must support and sustain multiple forms of value creation, private and public; the principle that risk is inherent in innovation, which requires preparedness to adopt a ‘win-some, lose-some’ attitude; openness of innovation and freedom of interaction, facilitated through development of trust among contributors to the process in order to secure broad distribution of benefits; and the principle of an agile process, i.e. a facilitated process that is adaptable to changes in requirements (Gulliksen et al, 2009).

Early experiences

From early experience with pioneering LL implementations some lessons have been learned. The importance of visible and understandable governance structures, the need for the engaged communities to be mixed and open, the need to adhere to ethical principles of sustainable leadership, and for there to be appropriate attitudes to Intellectual Property (IP) and trust are all recognised, although these initial insights are still very imprecise. Equally some key components of virtual collaborative network governance have been identified, including an organisational culture of holistic and sustainable development incorporating strategies for technical, organizational and behavioural change (Semolic, 2009).

The LL concept

The LL concept holds a potential to stimulate, accelerate and democratize innovation, to make innovation more efficient and more effective, and to orient innovation in new directions; e.g. by supporting wider involvement in the creative process, by representing diversity, by assuring participation of usually underrepresented groups (the old, young, women, minorities, immigrants, etc.), by pinpointing users’ needs and priorities, and by focussing innovation efforts on these. Against the backdrop of major innovation challenges facing society, the need for new solutions, and calls for democratisation in innovation governance, interest in the LL concept has recently taken-off, inspired also by the success of open innovation in the ICT domain and in some ‘pioneer’ sectors. This is stimulating a strong interest in applying the LL concept in a wide range of different domains and contexts, further developing it, and learning more about its potential and how to take this up.

With the dramatic growth in interest in the LL concept, several hundred LL have now been established across the EU, spread across application domains. This surge in implementations now provides opportunity to experiment and learn more systematically about the LL approach – including how the broad framework is translated into context-specific applications in actual implementations in specific domains – while simultaneously applying the LL concept in real situations to address real and urgent innovation challenges. New implementations of LL gives scope also to test and learn from these in real time, so implementations can be made more effective and efficient in the future.

Against this backdrop, there is particular interest now: to explore motivations for implementing LL; to describe and assess how – and how successfully – the LL concept is being implemented and for which purposes in specific domains; to understand the challenges in implementing LL in different contexts and domains and in relation to specific innovation goals; to describe successful implementation designs and practices; and to identify factors in successful implementations that give insight into the scope to transfer or customize the approach. Research is needed to understand how scale-up and extension can be supported; for example, by defining, testing and validating LL design principles, developing generic or customizable methods, supplying guidance notes on the use and combination of methods, and providing illustrative and inspiring case-studies of successful implementations and innovation outcomes.

The LL approach is being implemented in several domains. Increasingly there is interest in urban implementations aimed at adding public value, expressed in economic, social and ecological benefits, both in public and private spheres. Real-life applications of ‘open’ innovations in an urban context are often referred to as City Labs (CL). CL are projects in which local authorities and other stakeholders want to learn about and be involved in new ways of dealing with urban challenges such as the development of a polluted site and inflexible regulations. What unites LL and CL is an interest in experimentation involving users, co-design and learning.

Urban Labs that are part of urb@exp

Antwerpen Stadslab 2050 logo City of Antwerp: Stadslab2050 started in 2013. It focusses on innovative actions and experiments for a more sustainable city. From 2013 up to now 5 thematic trajectories were started with all different themes: more green and nature in the city; collective renovating, energy efficiency in the commercial city centre, circular fashion, sustainable food. The trajectories resulted in project ideas and experiments, measuring airquality trough strawberry plants, possibilities of modular building, a zero energy, zero waste supermarket, a clothing library …. New thematic challenges are being considered and new stakeholder meetings will be planned.
Graz City Logo City of Graz: Since 2005 the City of Graz had good experience with interdisciplinary urban development programmes and projects like the EU Community Initiatives URBAN I and URBAN II which already considered also participatory approaches. As an integral part of the Smart City Graz Action Plan 2020 living labs should play an important role initiating additional Smart City urban quarters in Graz. Therefore the City of Graz aims to gather the latest know how and experience from other European cities in regard to involve citizens in city development to make urban areas more suitable to their needs and prevent social problems.
Leoben City Logo  City of Leoben: The City of Leoben is convinced that urban labs are necessary in order to get a broader view in terms of stakeholder needs and perceptions, and that it can help to close the gap between politics and citizenship. However, the more people are involved in city development the harder it gets to reach consensus because strategies and implications can be very different. Important is to define a common goal and responsible persons or institutions, and transparent and open communication. Therefore it is crucial to clarify who will be the best candidates for the urban lab and who can contribute in what way.
Maastricht Lab Logo City of Maastricht: Maastricht-LAB started in 2011 and implemented 8 projects for experimentation and learning in order to deal with complex urban challenges. Maastricht-LAB aims to develop a joint strategy with urban stakeholders for dealing with the seemingly intractable issue of vacant property in the city, and wants to shift its current approach from civil participation to governmental participation.
Malmö University Logo City of Malmö: The City of Malmö has been strongly involved in the Malmö living labs hosted at MEDEA/K3, Malmö University. The City of Malmö does not currently run its own urban lab, but is very interested in exploring options to establish an urban lab for new forms of urban governance and city development.