More than half of the world’s population lives in cities. According to the United Nations this number will rise to around 68% in 2050. This urbanization trend has been accelerating for decades. With this in mind, it is not surprising that cities have become centres of knowledge and innovation around the world. Cities are constantly experimenting and trying to improve their quality of life. 

One way to do this is through living labs. In a living lab, experiments are conducted in a real-life setting. This means that innovative solutions are tested in living spaces like neighbourhoods or shopping areas. The goal of a living lab is to find innovative solutions to problems in society. An example of such a living lab can be found in Amsterdam and is called ‘Circulair Buiksloterham’. In this living lab, citizens, private parties, knowledge institutions and the (local) government jointly create a new city district through experimenting with different principles from circular economy such as trying to live ‘zero waste’ and using renewable energy to become ‘energy self-sufficient’. 

The cooperation with other parties is essential to the living lab approach. An important characteristic of the living lab approach is the co-creation that takes place. Co-creation is a form of cooperation that goes further than a consulting or advisory role for other parties in a government project. All the different parties are involved from the start and they have a true and equivalent seat at the table. Co-creation enables municipalities to step into a more facilitating role and to give other parties a sense of ownership. For example, in the municipality of Haarlem, citizens take the lead in various living labs concerning the gas emissions of traffic in the city. In this specific case, the municipality plays a more facilitating role, while citizens and other relevant stakeholders experiment with their own ideas, such as reducing the nuisance from package delivery services by bundling deliveries. 

For co-creation to work, decisions need to be made in consensus with the end-users which usually results in more support when the actual innovation is implanted. In this process, all the parties involved need to listen to each other carefully and make sure that their plans also accommodate the needs of others in order to build a constructive cooperation and plan. In living labs which concerns people’s housing, listening and mutual trust are very important to eventually reach a solution. Living labs often directly affect the living environment of people. Especially when their own houses are involved. To make sure living labs don’t invade these living spaces, citizens need to be included in the decision-making process. 

As mentioned before, the goal of a living lab is to find innovative solutions to problems in society. Therefore, living labs use a solution-oriented approach. An example of this are the living labs in the municipality of Waalwijk. In this living lab, citizens can sign up for different living labs that focus on various policy areas. In these labs citizens work together to define the problems and find innovative solutions. For example they tried to make their living spaces more sustainable, thought about different ways to promote a healthy lifestyle, and focused on preventing poverty in their neighbourhoods. The sessions are pragmatic in nature and are set up to find solutions in specific policy fields. 

In the process of searching for innovative solutions, living labs actively use evaluations to constantly improve their ideas. Initial ideas are re-used and improved with the knowledge gathered from evaluations and the involved parties. Although the experimental method of living labs can be regarded as a new approach for municipalities, living labs still build upon the knowledge and policies that are already present. This can be linked to the stability of Dutch local governance. Although the experimental method of living labs seems unconventional for municipalities, it does build upon knowledge that is already present. Policies will not be overturned just because municipalities are trying to be innovative. Instead living labs builds upon these policies and try to create additional knowledge. 

Read more about VNG International's expertise and projects on Involving Citizens in Decision Making and Developing Sustainable and Resilient Cities and Communities


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