Living labs: meeting in the gaps

Georgia Brennan-Scott is exploring living labs methods and practices. Her research will inform the legacy of the INCLUDE+ network, hopefully culminating in a living lab of our own.

In this post, I look into the value of living labs as providing a meeting point for people and organisations, while challenging the idealisation of living labs as a neutral space. In my last post, I shared my thoughts on how a living lab’s limitations positively defines its impact, where you can also read a little more about how I define living labs.

How do living labs bring people together?

Living labs provide an apparatus for testing ideas, including user communities in developing solutions and validating processes through inclusive iteration. Living labs can also bring people together, on both a macro and micro level. Macro—in the sense of bringing organisations together, and micro—bringing together people with different lived experience and expertise. This role of bringing people together is core to understanding the function of living labs, but their influence should not be overstated.

Living labs can provide a space for ‘stakeholders [to] form public-private-people partnerships of firms, public agencies, universities, institutes, and users’ to collaborate (Leminen et al. 2012 in Hossain et al. 2019). In a city, there may be a third sector organisation, a university and a local council all working towards similar goals, but it can be difficult to build bridges between them. An individual lab can serve as a literal or ideological meeting point for these groups (Puerari et al. 2018). While an individual lab often originates from a specific group (such as a university), organisers often take care to establish the lab as distinct from the original organisation to create a space with its own associations and identity. This space, which is central if not neutral, can allow for  discussion and connection which otherwise might not happen (Ahmadi et al. 2020).

So, a single living lab may provide a valuable meeting point for disparate organisations. Further, living labs as an approach have not been claimed by one group. The living lab approach is drawn upon and appropriated by institutions of different persuasions. It’s not an academic approach which is borrowed or built upon by other organisations. This is clear from the diverse application of living labs as they emerged in the early 2000s (Leminen and Westerlund, 2019). The living lab approach is communal, shared and exchanged. In this way, we can imagine the approach as acting in the gaps between these institutions, sometimes bridging them. 

Bringing different organisations together may create opportunities for synergies between projects or approaches. However, living labs’ influence is often idealised.  Much of living lab literature is authored by proponents and even facilitators of labs (Schuurman et al. 2015). There is little systematic evidence of the kind of change living labs can affect. While living labs may provide a meeting point in the gaps between institutions, or a bridge between them, the distinctions between groups remain. Similarly, on a micro level, while an individual lab may offer a space for collaboration between people of different backgrounds and expertise, it cannot produce an equalising effect.

Living lab organisers may strive to create a neutral and open environment, but a lab can never be entirely isolated from its unequal context. To illustrate, let’s imagine a living lab as a perfectly neutral space which can be accessed by everyone. We could imagine that people from typically disparate backgrounds come together, sit in a big circle and solve a puzzle together, hierarchies and expertise left at the door. Even in this ideal scenario, everyone in the puzzle circle still picks their power up on the way out. We cannot expect the living lab to meaningfully change the wider influence or agency of any participant. Every person leaves the room with the same power they had coming into it. Even if a living lab could have an equalising effect, this imaginary space is conceived without acknowledging the ways that no space can be perfectly accessible or neutral, and how discourse is not naturally accessible for all.

So, while living labs may provide a space for discourse (Ahmadi et al. 2020), the ability for recourse is still held in certain hands. A number of people may come together in a room and discuss a problem. They may collectively define it and even determine a solution, but in many cases, it is out of their hands as to how or if the solution is implemented. 

One of the fallacies of collective decision making is that it often still requires someone with the authority to give it the stamp of approval, let alone implement it. Someone with sign-off power has to say, yes, the ideas and opinions of the people in the room are worthwhile and I will listen to them. In some cases that may be the role the living lab plays—of validating the views of their participants by creating a formal environment to which they can contribute. It may be that even then the contributions of participants must be digested by bureaucratic processes before real change can happen.

So, what do living labs offer?

Living labs may offer a central meeting point—both as a concept which can be adopted by different kinds of institutions, and in the case of an individual lab, as a space which is distinct from everyday institutional processes. Living labs can provide a space for coming together. This can be for institutions working towards a common goal, as well as for people from a community coming together with those interested in creating change with an understanding of their lived experience. Living labs cannot make people equal, but they can strive to equalise—through shaking up hierarchies, using arts approaches to make people feel comfortable, through meeting communities in places which are more accessible to them, through paying attention to accessibility in the design of activities, physical and virtual spaces and communication. Living labs are never neutral, but facilitators can pay attention to their blindspots, practice transparency in sharing their practices and decision making processes. Ultimately, through recognising what living labs can and cannot do, we can harness their strengths. 


Ahmadi, M., Eilert, R., Weibert, A., Wulf, V. & Marsden, N. 2020. Feminist Living Labs as Research Infrastructures for HCI: The Case of a Video Game Company. CHI ‘20, April 25-30, 2020, Honolulu, HI, USA. Association for Computing Machinery. Paper 587

Hossain, M., Leminen, S. & Westerlund, M. 2018. A systematic review of living lab literature. Journal of Cleaner Production. 2019(213)

Leminen, S. & Westerlund, M. 2019. Living labs: from scattered initiatives to a global movement. Creative Innovation Management. 2019(28). p.250-264.

Puerari, E., de Koning, J. I. J, C., von Wirth, T., Karre, P.M., Mulder, I.J., & Loorbach, D.A. 2018. Co-creation Dynamics in Urban Living Labs. Sustainability. 10(6). p.1893

Schuurman, D., De Marez, L., & Ballon, P. 2015. Living labs: a systematic literature review. Open Living Lab Days 2015.