Comparative International Urban and Living Labs

There is a wealth of international learning on the productive potential of activity that seeks to understand, map and shape the future city by linking research scholarship to policy development. In response to a request from the seven research councils and Innovate UK to consider some lessons that might inform the development of the UK Urban Living programme, this 2017 report by Professor Michael Keith and Nicole Headlam summarises a survey of initiatives in this space globally. The executive summary is presented below, but the full report is available to view here.

The following key findings highlight might work and what might not work in the UK context, based on the review:

  • Urban/ Living Labs are well established ways of working in which partnerships and networks between research, industry, civic and community sectors (usually some of but rarely all) harness collective learning. There is an extremely wide array of practice under the loose banner of urban/living labs. Labs may operate at any spatial scale, from neighbourhood to whole world, and are extremely sensitive to context. ƒ
  • Productively they can bring together the research ecosystem and the innovation ecosystem – two areas of activity that overlap but that have significantly different roots in government policy and funding streams. ƒ
  • There are learning points for every level of operation, for projects as they develop into platforms and for programmes and portfolios of urban living labs. We suggest a distinction between: ƒ
  • LIVING LAB PROJECTS could emerge from any sector, be thematic in scope and active over more or less any spatial scale. ƒ
  • LIVING LAB PORTFOLIOS are constructed through the combination of projects or programmes. ƒ
  • LIVING LAB PLATFORMS are locally embedded within policy development functions; the label suggests a maturity of partnership working.
  • LIVING LAB PROGRAMMES refer to either a cluster of projects or platforms, depending on the maturity of the relationships. Living lab programmes are those which seek to curate projects – either through strategic commissioning, themes/areas of interest or a curation of place-shaping efforts within a specific territory (a city-region for example). ƒ
  • To be worthy of the name, labs inherently co-produce urban knowledge; the question of with whom they work to achieve this covers a wide variety of potential partners. Labs may be predominantly commercially-facing, such as some operating in the smart city space, of an activist type, such as ‘Just Space’, or embedded in the policy development circuits of a specific city, such as Newcastle City Futures. ƒ
  • Due to the varied operating contexts of the labs it is important to focus on processes / mechanisms that have worked elsewhere that might be successfully applied in the UK. ƒ
  • Reflecting the distinctive backgrounds of ‘urban labs’, the nature of disruption and innovation they promote varies significantly. Some rely on directly commissioned research to generate tightly specified end goals on a contractual basis. Other models are closer to ‘blue skies’ or fundamental research that depend less on contractual relations and more on trust and partnerships built up between new institutions, research cultures and governance innovation over longer periods of time. ƒ
  • Cities and city governance networks must be viewed as primary partners in the initiatives. A future priority should be the economic drivers for cities, ‘Invest to Save’ principles and budgets of major public sector spending in cities, and the possibility for disruption, experimentation and innovation in improving public services. Furthermore, institutions neither inside nor outside the academy ought to be supported to guard against ‘extractive’ relationships with city partners.