<img height="1" width="1" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=1483239291704574&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">


"Living labs" is a label applied to an array of very different innovation infrastructures that did not make it in the Jargon Madness finals of Forbes, however, it is nonetheless “trendy, but confusing.” In this post, you will learn what it means and how living labs is a useful concept for open innovation programs.

Where’s the confusion you might ask?

A living lab is, after all, just a living lab. Well, according to journals, business magazines, conference proceedings and Tweets it is not. I have seen innovation cluster/ ecosystem (see Haydn Shaughnessy’s post and my older one), community, network, test bed, live labs and living labs used interchangeably without remorse.

Perhaps the authors did not realise they were doing something wrong. Luckily, some experts are mending the injustice. I felt refreshed to read the esteemed Joel West’s option on the difference between innovation networks, communities and ecosystems the other week. As he would have it: nuances matter. Trust the practitioners on this one. After all, it takes quite different skill sets and expertise to build and maintain an informal network versus a government-led ecosystem with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, doesn’t it? I’m glad you agree. Now, please take a seat and join me on a journey to the core of the living lab philosophy.

We will start by clarifying what a living lab is, continue with what makes it an exciting space for open and user-driven innovation, and add a few notes about the roles found in a living lab setting. We will then point out the essential processes and conclude with examples of what innovation magic – I mean results – these spaces can render if managed correctly.

A definition of living labs

What is the first word that comes to mind when hearing living labs in a conversation?  If you are a space enthusiast like me, an image of Biosphere 2 will immediately pop up. You remember Biosphere 2, don’t you? The study designed to test whether humans could raise a self-sustaining colony in preparation of inhabiting other planets? Ironically, the living compromised the lab in this case. Lesson learned in terms of physical infrastructure vs. the unpredictable human component in innovation.

The analogy to Biosphere 2 is not entirely correct though. This facility was not, as far as the definition is concerned, a living lab for one very important reason: though clearly a collaborative endeavour – the crew worked with physical equipment, other living beings i.e. animals in the biomes, and Mission Control – not all its participants were held equal.

Living Labs = innovation networks based on the philosophy of open innovation where users become equivalent to other participants.

According to the paper Actor roles and role patterns influencing innovation in living labs, living labs are are mostly ICT-driven innovation networks based on the philosophy of open innovation where users become equivalent to other participants. Hence the following distinction: within living labs, users shape the innovation in their daily real-life environments, whereas in traditional innovation networks or labs, users are observed and their insights are captured and interpreted by experts.

It follows that Biosphere 2 was “just” a traditional innovation network yet a marvel in other respects. Real living lab examples will be presented in part 2 of this article.

(Reading tip: In the mood for the full story? Asbjørn Følstad offers a comprehensive review on the origins and use(s) of the term)

Before moving on, we certainly need to mention the work of the late Bill Mitchell, former dean of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, and widely considered a pioneer of the future. There is little arguing that Mitchell was the one of the most prominent masterminds of “smart city” theories and the father of the living lab concept. Hence, living labs originally referred to spaces built to observe how technology and humans interacted. As his obituary notes: “He likened tomorrow's cities to living organisms or very-large-scale robots, with nervous systems that enable them to sense changes in the needs of their inhabitants and external conditions, and respond to these needs.”

Today, the innovation infrastructures labeled as “living labs” fully share these characteristics of adaptability and responsiveness.




Types of living labs, actors and roles

According to the same Asbjørn Følstad, who wrote a comprehensive review on the origins and uses of the term, living labs can be classified in three major types:

  • Living Labs to experience and experiment with ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) established at a number of research organizations from the late nineties onwards (a present day example, not selected by the author, is Disney Research's collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich (ETH) and Carnegie Mellon University)
  • Living Labs as open innovation platforms (or Public Private Partnerships (PPP) of firms, public agencies, universities, institutes and people, collaborating for the creation, prototyping, validating and testing of new services, products and systems in real life contexts; the European Network of Living Labs provides an excellent overview of these specialized institutions)
  • Living Labs exposing testbed applications to the users (delimited environment to test software and services outside production environments – for example in the defence industry)

(source: Living labs for innovation and development of information and communication technology: a literature review, 2008)

Naturally, it is the second category - living labs as open innovation platforms - that interests us the most. (Further reading tip: To understand the link between living labs and open innovation, as well as the efficiencies and limitations of these special structures, Esteve Almiral & Jonathan Wareham’s work is the ideal place to start)

What about the role/ role patterns in living labs, where by roles we understand the behaviours expected of parties in particular situations? How is innovation organized within these physical or virtual borders? Referring again to A. Nyströma, S. Leminen, M. Westerlund and M Kortelainen’s work there are - brace yourselves - seventeen (17) identifiable roles.

These roles are, in no particular order:

  • Coordinator (coordinates a group of participants)
  • Gatekeeper (possesses resources)
  • Planner (participates in development process; provides intangible resources)
  • Messenger (forwards and disseminates information in the LL network)
  • Integrator (integrates heterogeneous knowledge)
  • Contributor (collaborates intensively with other actors)
  • Webber (the relationship promoter/ initiator)
  • Advocate (distributes information externally)
  • Accessory provider (promotes its products, services, expertise)
  • Facilitator (offers resources for use of the LL network)
  • Informant (brings users’ understanding & knowledge to the living lab)
  • Co-creator (co-designs a product, service, process)
  • Instigator (influences actors' decision making processes)
  • Producer (contributes to development)
  • Builder (promotes emergence of close relationships)
  • Orchestrator (guides and supports networks activities; establishes trust)
  • Tester (tests innovation in real life environments)

(source: Actor roles and role patterns influencing innovation in living labs, 2013)

As you will agree with me, this is a very nuanced approach. It sounds a bit like listing the various shades of the colour blue: Medium blue, Spanish blue, Egyptian blue, Ultramarine, Dark blue, Midnight blue, Independence, Space cade… Colour theory aside, the pallet of roles is a useful reference when sorting out the architecture of one’s own open innovation infrastructure, whether a living lab or one of a different nature. 

Now that we have covered the roles too, it’s time to look at the ideal practices for managing a living lab. These are much more straight-forward, I assure you. Below, a helpful excerpt from the innovation management literature describing the five (ideal) categories of processes within a living lab:

  • Innovation initiatives management, or the core processes for accessing and involving user communities
  • Technical development, focused on the engineering of solutions developed at the lab

  • Monitoring and evaluation, processes for tracking the success of lab initiatives and practices

  • Organizational management, which includes: strategy management and governance, technology infrastructure management, knowledge management, and stakeholder management processes
  • Deployment and operationor processes for managing the user communities

(Source: Living Labs for User-Driven Innovation: A Process Reference Model, 2013) 

As the authors note, this Process Reference Model provides a formalized approach to guide user communities, research organizations, and technology providers in the process of creating a self-sustaining living lab. In addition to having a comprehensive overview of the processes, these types of lists allow benchmarking between various living labs – e.g. measuring the degrees of adoption, and can also come in very handy when designing KPIs.

Examples for living labs

As this crash course on Living Labs 101 nears an end, I would like to leave you with four exciting living lab setups from around the world. I hope you feel inspired to create, support or even orchestrate a living lab yourself. In the end, it all boils down to meaningful connections – where the connections are not the end themselves, but rather means to an exciting end. Happy (open) innovating!

Example 1: The National University of Singapore Living Lab

The NUS Living Lab was born out of the National University of Singapore’s ambition to become Asia’s Stanford. According to the press release, by turning the University’s Kent Ridge campus, into a giant petri dish for tech start-ups, researchers, and larger companies, the NUS Living Lab would facilitate the emergence of an Intelligent Campus that integrates the latest technological advances to improve the quality of life of people who visit, work, study, and live on its premises. The campus would therefore serve not only as a complex test bed for innovations in applications and services at NUS, but also as a vibrant learning environment that enhances the way in which students interact with their peers and with faculty members over time.

Example 2: The MIT Living Lab

The MIT Living Lab are some of the most well established facilities of their kind in the world. Their goal is to conduct real-time research on a number of relevant topics like mass personalized products, mass personalized housing, mobility-on-demand networks, city design dynamics etc. To take a sample project, the goal of the Home Genome Project (within the mass personalised houses category), for example, is to establish a user-friendly online apartment design configurator. According to the project’s website, the configurator will allow consumers to design their own interior room layouts through an intelligent search algorithm which matches their personal living styles to hundreds, and eventually thousands, of unique apartment layouts.

Example 3: The Future Classroom Lab

The Future Classroom Lab, led and managed by European Schoolnet, a network of 31 European Ministries of Education, is a living lab created to assist its stakeholders and industry partners (e.g. Adobe, LEGO Education, Oracle Academic or Panasonic for Education etc.), and observe how conventional classrooms and other learning spaces can be reorganized to support new styles of teaching and learning. The Creative Classrooms Lab, a parallel project (2013-2015), for example, is is working with 45 schools in 8 European countries to collect evidence on the implementation, impact and up-scaling pedagogical approaches using tablets.   

Example 4: The African Living Lab

Last but not least, The African Living Lab ISEG/UNIDAF is a consortia of organizations supporting technology, competence and know-how transfer to the benefit of the African universities, enterprises and organizations. Unlike the previous examples, The African Living Lab takes an active part in the development of knowledge for urban and rural African populations, often confronted with numerous economic and social difficulties. The main focus fields include: promoting digital communities and cities, sustainable development and environment durability, training, e-learning and capacities building for young people, e-health and telemedicine. 

OK, living labs, got it. But what about the fun? Check out our report on humor and fun at the workplace and how it helps drive business:


Jump to Section
Oana-Maria Pop

Oana-Maria Pop

Oana is the Head of Open Innovation at HYPE and specializes in the science of durable intra- and inter-firm relationships/collaboration. In her work, she combines academic insights with industry exper