Living Labs a model for Collaborative Innovation

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” — Jane Jacobs (1916–2006). Journalist, author, and activist. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities
“person holding printed photo of him with graffiti as background” by Jakob Owens on Unsplash


In the last week we have been working to initiate and create our user research / prototyping plan that we will use to form the basis of our business and impact model. As a part of this process, we looking at cities around the world for effective models of community centric innovation and change. What are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of these organizations, and how can we build on best practices in community led innovation? One concept that we looked at that has been very popular in Europe are Living Labs.

The definition of what exactly a living lab is has not been precisely defined. The following definition from Alcotra was the most descriptive.

A Living Lab is a research and innovation concept. Living labs deal with centered, open innovation ecosystem, often operating in a territorial or regional context (e.g. city, agglomeration, region), integrating concurrent research and innovation processes within a citizen-public-private partnership (C3P). The concept is based on a systematic user-driven co-creation approach integrating research and innovation processes. These are integrated through the co-creation, exploration, experimentation and evaluation of innovative ideas, scenarios, concepts and related technological artifacts in real life use cases. In a living lab, the users are also considered the creators of value to government and local businesses. A Living lab rather constitutes an experiential environment, which could be compared to the concept of experimental learning, where users are immersed in a creative social space for designing and experiencing their own future. Living labs are also used by policy makers and users/citizens for designing, exploring, experiencing and refining new policies and regulations in real-life scenarios for evaluating their potential impacts before their implementations (source)

living lab represents a user-centric research methodology for sensing, prototyping, validating and refining complex solutions in multiple and evolving real life contexts. Living Labs take an experimental approach to understanding the impact of local policies, services, products, and programs by creating “true to life” communities that interact these innovations early in the design process. The promise of living labs is that they increase the impact and success of innovation through prototyping “living” experiences with stakeholders.

One example of this concept is the living lab developed by MIT’s office of sustainability. They turned their entire campus into a living lab for sustainability. They bring together interdisciplinary experts to develop, deploy, and test — in actual living environments — new technologies and strategies for sustainable designs and innovations that respond to the changing world. Professors and students have the ability to use the campus to implement their ideas on how to conserve energy, reuse water, or pioneer new forms of small scale urban transportation.

How might this model be applied in the context of Build with Humanity’s mission to empower underserved community members to design solutions to urban inequity?


The main strengths of the Living Labs model are:

  1. Deep insight can be gained through testing services, programs, and products through live experience. This deep insight in addition to co-creation of innovation incubated within Living Labs lead to more effective services for governments and non-profits as well as increased revenue for for-profit companies.
  2. Co-creation faciliates ownership of ideas by the stakeholders themselves
  3. Provides a context for policy innovation outside of governmental restrictions and bureaucracy.
  4. The collaborative structure enables effective knowledge sharing and multiplies effectiveness of living lab partners. Many Labs for public, private, citizen partnerships that are mutually beneficial.


The main weaknesses of the Living Labs model are:

  1. The Living Labs methodology is not well defined
  2. There is not much evidence to validate the impact of the Living Lab model
  3. Unstructured collaboration can be time consuming and difficult to manage. This is especially true when innovation requires collaboration between entities that have opposing interests.
  4. There can be ethical issues surrounding using living labs as a means to run design and innovation “experiments” in underserved communities.


The main opportunities of the Living Lab model are:

  1. There is tremendous opportunity to help facilitiate rapid community change by providing a share social spaces for community feedback, engagement, and innovation.
  2. It provides another avenue for innovating policies, in a way that can better inform their implementation


The main threats to the Living Labs model are:

  1. Competition for grant funding, revenue, or commercial interest can prevent collaboration in certain domains
  2. User engagement from the community could be too low to make a difference.
  3. Issues of inequity are often a result of a lack of political power. There is a greater need for community organization and advocacy.
  4. The revenue and cost structure of living labs can be ambiguous and difficult to evaluate.

Overall we hope to continue to look for and evaluate ways in which other organizations and institutes are effectively using participatory design methods to improve the quality of life in underserved communities. We will have an overall analysis of existing methods completed by December 2018.