Urban Living Laboratories


Thank you for this fascinating talk to

Kes McCormick
B.A.(Hons) / M.Env.Sci. / Ph.D. / Docent

Associate Professor and Assistant Head
International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics (IIIEE)
Lund University, Sweden

Thank you so much Kes, thank you Lena, thank you for the invitation to present today. As ever it’s an honor to be at the institute. And have the opportunity to speak to such a diverse and knowledgeable audience.

As outlined, it’s been absolutely fascinating watching the rise of the urban agenda. So I became interested in environmental issues in the mid 1990s, and at that point I was studying mostly climatology. Cities with places without environment where nothing environmental happened. 10 years later, people had realized the cities had environments, that they have greenery, biodiversity, produced waste, required clean water, clear air and so on, and suddenly urban environments became important.

What I think has happened in the last five years is that cities have become seen as the places where environmental solutions can be found as well. So they’re not just places that produce environmental problems. There are actually places that can enable the development of solutions.

The key element of this is the way cities learn to become more sustainable. I think that is the core element of this idea of living labs that really holds some promise. They offer a way for cities to learn how to become more sustainable. And that’s really the main theme of the talk today.

The talk is split into two halves. I’m going to start off by just outlining some of the practices, what these urban living labs are, their characteristics so far as we can determine them.
Before what, moving on to discuss some of the opportunities and potential for cities to use these things in the future. I’m a geographer by background, so there are going to be a lot of places. That’s kind of the way my brain functions, it looks at what’s going on in one place, looks at what’s going on in another place, and try and figure things out from there.

We now accept broadly that we have a problem with climate change, science is done, it’s broadly accepted. We know we’ve got to do something about it. We have some pretty good ideas of where we wanna get to. Sustainability, resilience – these are all worthy goals. The tricky bit is how we get there, and this is really a question of governance. There’s been a profusion of theory about how we might get there: adaptation, transition, classic innovation theory. And each of these has abstract models about how change happens, whether it’s market forces, evolutionary economics, regulatory steering, and so on.

But of course, as we know, we haven’t really got there yet. We’ve had a number of things, proven technologies. PV, as Lena says, so much cheaper now. And yet, not exploited anywhere near as much as it could be. Why is that? So people are suddenly turning to experimentation as this kind of missing link. How do we get from these abstract solutions to concrete action?

And that’s really where this model of urban living labs I think has gained traction in cities. And they essentially function in terms of this learning loop. The idea that you can stage some kind of real world experiment, whether that’s deploying a new technology, or involving citizens in managing part of a city. Or developing a more collaborative construction model for buildings or designing buildings or public realm, and then the critical part is this experiment is somehow monitored in a rigorous way. So to see what actually works, and that doesn’t just mean in terms of carbon emissions.

It also means in terms of social wellbeing, happiness, satisfaction, and then the idea from that is that it provides an evidence base for some form of rigorous learning. How could we do this better next time? How should we do this elsewhere? They tend to be institutionally bounded, so they take place literally in the specific places, they’re usually groupings, partnerships of specific institutions. So they are bound in that sense, and they’re about making making material interventions.

So this is not just about some abstract “on the internet activity”. They change the city in some way. They change the urbanization process in some way. In some senses they’re very familiar. And I think this is another reason why they’ve become so popular with cities, they fit into a familiar way of doing things. Cities everywhere are having to work in partnership with private industry, with citizens, with universities.

Living labs are very much about this, they’re about bringing together all the stakeholders in a specific place to address a specific problem. A project we tried to do in Manchester around cycling, where we attempted to put a living lab methodology in to practice and consult all the stakeholders in the city around cycling. Identified all of the organizations: public, private, university, NGOs. Plus engaged in the cycling community in Manchester. We had 900 responses to a survey that we made and we were trying really to… Manchester wanted to increase cycling, it had 20 million pounds to spend, it didn’t know what to do. When we talked to them, we found out they really didn’t know what to do. We asked them about previous infrastructure they put in and whether it worked, they didn’t know, they’d never surveyed anyone. We asked them about where people actually cycle in the city to try and find out where you might target investment, they didn’t know that either.

And it was very interesting discovering the evidence gap if you like, the knowledge gap that was preventing any real learning. Or anyway in which to set the urban environment up as a platform to learn what works going forward. A little attempt we made in Manchester, but these things are popping up everywhere. They’re certainly being positioned as the way in which to achieve smart/sustainable cities.

So the latest European Commission calls around smart city funding, sustainable city funding, coming up next year, specify that cities have to use living labs. They have to have living labs in which to do their actions, whatever their demonstration actions are, so they’re kinda becoming hard wired. Into this new form of innovative urbanism if you like, but at the same time they’re being driven in some ways by communities. So often citizens establish living lifestyle initiatives.

A good example at the moment is the Cyclehack. An initiative which brings together interested cyclists in a city, tries to bring together all data and form solutions – often technology based but not always – but to very much user driven problems. They’re also being pushed from the top down by ICT corporate actors, who also quite comfortable with this idea of real world experimentation, which essentially reflects the kind of R&D process whereby you’re trialling a technology and getting the uses to feed back on what works and what doesn’t.

So intriguingly the methodology is quite comfortable for corporations to work with as well. So you’ve got a whole variety of urban living labs, as this survey from John Silver and Simon Marvin shows, addressing different areas, working with different people, driven by different actors. But they share this commitment to trying something in the real world, learning from it in some way.

Some key questions that have really emerged from research so far, they’re predicated on this I guess it was participatory design logic, that if you just involve everyone in the design process, then somehow the outcome will be fine. If we design the collaborative process correctly, it’s the kind of an extension of the communicative ideal of Habermas into a kind of urban intervention. But of course there is no escaping politics here. There is always a choice over who is actually included at what level, at what stage. And that choice is important in terms of determining or influencing what these things produce, what they achieve.

There’s also more fundamental question around whether they work. So they’ve become so prevalent so quickly, based certainly in the area of cities, on extremely little evidence, whether they stimulate even standard things like economic growth, let alone some of these more ambitious goals around transitioned sustainability. A question that the research we’ve been doing here has started to raise is are these things durable over time?

You stage these experiments, they may work or not. The whole logic is based on a continual cycle of learning… how is that founded? Does that require some kind of actual transformation of urban governance, like main stream urban governance, and if we are going to start doing this kind of thing, what can we stop doing?

So there are some more fundamental questions about how cities are managed and run here. And finally, how are they coordinated? This picture here indicates an artists impression of Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates. Suffice to say it doesn’t look like this yet. But some research from my colleague Federico Cugarillo – he calls this a Frankenstein city because it’s comprised of a series of clean-tech experiments all being run by single companies who are invited here with tax breaks, and they’re not joined up in any way.

When we think about sustainability, smart cities as Lena suggested the system’s approach of thinking through the integrated systems is absolutely fundamental. So there’s also this potential disjuncture between these discreet project based experiments, and the ideal that we’re moving towards of an integrated, coherent urban system.

So I just want to end by pointing out three key opportunities in this field going forward.

The first thing is getting back to the promise of urban living labs. There’s plenty of examples where they haven’t really engaged people properly, they’ve been technologically driven, but what is their promise? Ulrich Beck was a German sociologist writing in the 80s and 90s.

And he came up with an analysis of environmental problems like climate change, acid rain and so on, and he talked about them as unintended consequences of modernity.

So modern development, industry, science – all very rational and created progress, but created these huge risks, and he was suggesting that if we’re going to actually cope with some of these problems, we need a reflexive mode of modernity.

A mode of modern development that actually was capable of learning as it went, of incorporating political value, of incorporating social intelligence. And the quote which really caught my eye was this one: “We need institutions that can reconcile the science of data with the science of experience”, and this is really the promise of urban living labs: doing things in the real world, you get in there with the kind of monitoring, technological data, that big data stream, but then you get people in who actually use it, live with it, experience it, and try and shape solutions out of reconciling them.

So that’s the promise, obviously, getting there is a different matter. Certainly one thing that is exciting is urban living labs, and the profusion of funding for this mode of doing cities is creating platforms for new partnership.

Talking to someone in Manchester who’s the CEO of the smart district there about the innovation of actually working more closely with not just corporations like Siemens, but resident groups and so on.

Which is often seen as just work, hard work like this is a barrier. We have to do all this before we can actually fix the city, but we were trying to suggest that actually that mode of working is the innovation in itself. Trying to work with new ways, more closely with partners, and develop solutions together.

So there’s something interesting happening around, whether this constitutes a new mode urbanism, a kind of experimental urbanism if you like, rather than just urban experiments.

There’s a greater role for universities here, going back to that cycling lab project we did a few years ago, there was a need From the stake holders, the evidence. Evidence that can be provided by research, often student led research. There was also an opportunity to take the co-production ethic to a different level though and actually co-produce the research questions. So, the people we consulted, we asked them, we said, if you were given 20,000 pounds to research cycling in Manchester, what would you research?

And we got some great suggestions, but intriguingly, we also got some suggestions that were the same. The police were investigated in the same thing as the cycling pressure group who were interested in the same things as the actual cyclists. Now that sounds like something that actually needs to be, that’s a valid knowledge need, right? When everyone needs it.

So it was fascinating from that point of view. Trying to bring the university resource, all this capacity, students, staff, master students. To bear in a more strategic way.

So I think there’s an opportunity for universities there. I think the real opportunity, the million dollar question, is around whether these experiments in urban living labs can drive some greater urban transformation.

So as I kind of suggested on the way through, we’ve had individual experiments We’ve had demonstration projects in the cities for decades now. They have often worked and yet cities aren’t sustainable still. So there’s a question of: “Okay you’ve done experiments, but so what?”

So the real game at the moment is how to upscale, replicate, roll out, decarbonize, transition pick your verb, but they all relate to how to move from the specific to something more general. And that’s really where the urban living lab methodology holds some kind of promise for cities. Because it offers a way to generate some robust learning to allow cities to do that.

So just to conclude, in terms of the practices I think it’s clear that urban living labs are enabling places, very much places, to host new styles of experimentation. They provide platforms for collaboration, and enable cities to secure funding that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get.

There’s a huge opportunity for cities to involve citizens in urban innovation, and that’s really the critical thing here. There’s an opportunity for us in universities to play a greater role here. I think there is also an opportunity for cities to drive transformation from the ground up and this is very much the place, the actual place of cities. I have a great quote from a policy maker for years who talked about wanting to create learning landscape, a landscape that you could learn through. A landscape that was experimented with that showed the results of its experiment.

So for me, there’s a really exciting, broader question about how we move towards a more innovative form of urbanism. Thank you.