Urban experimentation labs are place-based social experiments that test ideas, methods and technologies from different domains in order to better address specific (and complex) urban challenges in a contextualised manner. Experimentation Labs can vary in scope, scale and longevity. These processes all resemble, in one way or another, co-design workshops taking place in real time and in situ. The degree of experimentation, diversity of stakeholders and innovativeness of ideas brought to the fore, all vary to significant extents.
This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.
General introduction to approach
Experimentation labs, in general, constitute new and unconventional ways of participation in urban spaces. Research on urban labs shows that there is still much opaqueness on what constitutes an urban (living, smart, innovation) lab, and what does not. While initially they mainly have included businesses, entrepreneurs and researchers along with city authorities, they also increasingly aim at including citizens at all stages (research, development, testing implementation). Experimentation labs thus can be considered part of multiple stakeholders partnerships processes and knowledge brokerage (co-learning), but they are often ephemeral and non-binding in terms of policy outcomes. However, in certain cases, this co-creation aspect is challenging to achieve in practice, especially when projects aim at developing highly technological innovations, often pursued in the search for smart and sustainable cities.
Shapes, sizes and applications
Experimentation labs are very common in urban settings, and we have observed various types being applied to questions of urban sustainability. Depending on their focus and function they can be found under “Living Labs”, “Action Labs” and “Innovation Labs”, or “Smart (Urban) Labs” or simply “City Labs”. The main idea in most of these remains the co-creation and exploration of emerging ideas, breakthrough scenarios, innovative concepts and related activities or projects. Living Labs focus on creating experiential environments where policy makers and citizens design, explore, experience and refine new ideas (policies, regulations, technologies etc.) in real-life scenarios. The aim is to be able to evaluate the potential impacts of such innovations before their implementation. Living labs can have different aims, for example, to foster learning and collaboration in the development of the city (as in the case of the Eindhoven Living Lab collection of initiatives, TRANSIT (2014-2017) project ), to support Nature-based Solutions (UNALAB (2017-2022) , CLEVER Cities (2018-2023) ), or more generally to encourage transitions to sustainability (GUST (2014-16) ). Specific thematic labs might focus on a concrete (while also multi-dimensional) aspect of sustainability policy, like mobility (Cities4people ), or energy and mobility (Smart Urban Labs - TRANSFORM (2013-15) ). Experimentation labs emerged nearly a decade ago, as a way of innovating in cities with technology and people, and the research conducted to study and proliferate them has followed soon after. They are mushrooming rapidly across the globe and seem to have captured an important part of the discourse around future city governance. However, they are limited in how they include questions of culture and conflict, and struggle with how to include people’s voices beyond data entries or one-off or tokenistic participation structures.
Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice
This approach has largely emerged as an urban methodology (process, environment, or type of governance), applied in real-life in urban spaces of small or large scale. A neighbourhood, a street, a building or a whole city can be imagined and considered as a living lab where new ideas and technologies can be developed and tested. Experimental labs have been predominantly urban. Justice is not explicitly a theme in the content of urban experimentation labs, but notions of justice as a principle arise along the co-creation theme, where local citizens and community groups can have access to fair, open and transparent processes of city making. However, as case findings show, some urban labs (or larger-scale clusters of labs) include membership fees in order to be part of decision making, while in smaller-scale examples the process followed for the selection of participants is not clear and appears to be controlled by research institutes and/or city officials. There is thus the risk of patronising ethics and discrediting of local and situated knowledge(s). Sustainability is addressed at large by experimentation labs. Nature-based solutions (which by definition require innovation and multi-stakeholder partnerships) are common targets for living labs, whereas energy and mobility related challenges are also often tacked as they can involve innovative technologies and systems. As said before, labs assume that engaging “users” in the conceptualisation, design and testing of sustainability solutions (enhanced participatory justice) will enable better innovations with greater uptake and replication. The limitation of conceptualising justice more broadly in the core themes that labs tackle, but also in their methodology and process, bares the risk of such innovation and solutions having disappointing performance in terms of their expected benefits.
Narrative of change
Urban experimentation labs aim to tackle the challenge of designing place-based, relevant and replicable solutions to social and environmental sustainability problems. The underlying premise of their logic is that if more actors are involved in brainstorming about, developing, testing and reformulating such solutions in concrete locations then more new ideas will arise and solutions will be more likely to be accepted and with higher uptake by the local public. This is why they are focusing on co-creative, human-centric and user-driven research, development and innovation, with the commonly expressed goal of developing smarter, more inclusive, more resilient and increasingly sustainable societies. Overall, transition to more sustainable and just futures needs to be collaborative, open to learning and experimental, and city labs aim at being examples of, and providing input for more, such processes.
Starting from the premise that flexible and dynamic approaches that include experimentation and learning are part of what is required for transformation towards social and environmental sustainability, urban experimentation labs have transformative potential, as they are also well-located in inter-connected spaces and actors. However, research shows that this potential can be compromised when its principles (of co-creation) are not followed in the development phase of an intervention/solution, or if this phase is not included as part of the lab at all. The limitations of this research/policy method in relation to shifting power relations, and thus challenging dominant institutions, could be further seen in how citizens are conceptualised by its proponents. The main shift with regard to how citizens are included is from audience/end-users, to co-creators/discussion partners. However, their role in articulating and defining the problems (of urban justice and sustainability) for which solutions are designed remains unclear. Achieving participation dynamics is in itself a challenge, as communities might doubt the extent to which their involvement will have tangible positive impacts. More recent projects seem to take on this challenge. CLEVERcities, for example, is an effort to implement CLEVER Action Labs (CAL) in order to co-design, co-implement and co-manage NBS interventions in deprived districts, starting from specific place-based NBS technologies as impulses. The Cultural Creative Spaces and Cities project  is also exploring new and groundbreaking methodologies of co-creation and of policy development, to override hierarchical organisational structures in favour of horizontal and collaborative approaches.
The GUST project offers a number of illustrative examples where urban living labs of collaboration and innovation have been formed. In Malmö, Sweden, for example, an “Innovation Platform” was created that brought together business, academia and community actors with the goal of renovating existing apartment buildings in the city and through such regenerating to push for socio-economic development and employment while also integrating long-term environmental goals. In another example, the Concept House Village  in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, is a test-bed for sustainable building technologies and new building retrofitting approaches in the Heijplaat area. In this case, the occupant is actively engaged and seen as key for the design, the development and the use of the houses. Actors that enabled and guided this process were two academic institutions, the building industry, branch organisations, the local community and the municipality of Rotterdam (at a later stage). At a higher level, the European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL) is an international federation of benchmarked Living Labs in Europe and worldwide, which acts as a point of reference for public and private organisations engaged in experimentation environments. It includes a wide variety of innovations which can act in many different domains (e.g. health, energy, age) or can have a more territorial character (e.g. in a city) but with a multi-domain approach.