Urban Living Labs: a new wave of ‘experimental governance’

The coastal city of Panaji will be home to India’s first urban living lab.

The coastal city of Panaji will be home to India’s first urban living lab: the Urban Living Lab in Panaji, which is being set up by Tandem Research in partnership with Imagine Panaji Smart City Development Limited, Oxford Policy Management and The Resources and Energy Institute (TERI). To understand what urban living labs are and why they could be of great significance in the context of Indian cities, some background first.

More than half of the global population currently lives in cities, and by 2050 almost two-thirds of the population is likely to be urban. Although shy of global urbanization trends, India is also rapidly urbanizing—with over 35 per cent of the population already living in cities. Unlike earlier decades which saw the concentrated growth of urbanization in Indian metropolitan cities, new urban growth has been occurring in areas outside the metropolitan shadow. Between 2001 and 2011 alone, small and mid-sized cities in India have grown threefold. Indian cities, however, face inextricably interlinked issues of environmental sustainability, social cohesion and inclusive growth.

Urban development and planning in India remains highly centralized and often fails to account adequately for the needs and aspirations of its residents, and the local dynamics of urban institutions and actors. Grand urban schemes fail due to poor “last mile” implementation in cities. India’s Smart Cities Mission (SCM), launched in 2015, seeks to renew and retrofit cities through the extensive deployment of digitally-driven technologies. While the top-down deployment of technologies are privileged, the social dimensions - changes in behaviour, governance, business models and institutions that need to accompany any interventions, are not addressed. Other non-technological forms of social innovation also get sidelined. How can we plan interventions to address urban challenges that account for people’s needs and local dynamics? Business as usual approaches will not be sufficient, and alternative ways to plan and design cities are urgently needed.

As a response, a new wave of ‘experimental governance’ is taking shape in the form of urban living labs. Urban living labs are ‘early experimentation gardens’ embedded in neighbourhoods and cities, in which residents, governments, private actors and knowledge institutions interact to design, test and fine-tune social and technical interventions in real-time. This collaborative arrangement marks a shift from incumbent efforts based on government-industry partnerships. At its heart is the idea that urban sites can provide a learning arena within which the co-creation of new ideas and solutions can be pursued.

The living lab method has its roots in the Scandinavian participatory design movements from the 1960s and 1970s, though the notion of modern living labs is often associated with Prof William J. Mitchell at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning. He conceptualized a purpose-built lab where the routine activities and interactions of everyday home life could be observed, analyzed and experimentally manipulated, and where volunteer research participants could live in, treating it as a temporary home. The adaptation of this concept at larger scales, for instance, in urban regeneration initiatives undertaken by Barcelona, Helsinki and Manchester in the late 1990s, eventually led to the creation of the European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL) in 2006.

There has been a growing uptake of the living lab method for participatory urban initiatives since, focusing on four key functions: experimentation; engagement; co-creation; and learning.

Experimentation

Experimentation in the context of urban living labs is understood as an explorative and tentative process, aimed at the creation of new knowledge and learning. Through testing and fine-tuning, experiments provide insights into the kind of solutions that are likely to work in a particular context and be supported by societal actors. These experiments are embedded in real places at manageable scales—that of a network of cities, a city, or city-neighbourhoods. For instance, the Climate Adaptation Living Lab is focused on improving the climate adaptability of the Greater Copenhagen area in Denmark; the SmarterLabs project aims to develop smart, low-carbon mobility solutions for four European cities: Bellinzona, Brussels, Graz and Maastricht.

Engagement

Urban living labs provide a space for engaging a range of stakeholders—residents, government, industry and academia—in pilots and demonstrations, where collaboration in the real-world might be difficult due to entrenched interests. As boundary organizations linking different stakeholders, urban living labs facilitate collaboration and information flow. Such breakthrough approaches are critical for bridging existing bureaucratic processes—allowing different stakeholders to find common ground and take initiatives and responsibility in dialogue with local authorities.

Co-creation

The living lab method has a strong focus on understanding the needs and behaviour of residents, due to which co-creation is fundamental to its activities. Rather than designing interventions and gathering passive feedback through public consultations, the involvement of residents at all stages—designing, testing and fine-tuning of interventions—enables urban living labs to develop solutions that keep abreast of user-needs, and the local contexts within which they are to function.

Learning

Since the process of experimentation is aimed at the creation of new knowledge, reflexive, adaptive and multi-actor learning, through both successes and failures, is a key function of urban living labs. Core processes of urban living labs—engagement, innovation development, fine-tuning solutions and experimentation—are all underpinned by feedback loops which enable iterative learning. The development and dissemination of knowledge generated through the activities of the labs help in creating better responses and actions among stakeholders, through enhanced capacities and the development of specific skills.

Panaji is one of the 100 cities being developed as a smart city under India’s SCM. While technology could be a powerful tool to address Panaji’s urban challenges, other non-technological forms of social innovation are just as critical. We will develop Tandem Research’s signature socio-technical perspective that seeks to understand the social dimensions of technological change in future cities. We firmly believe that understanding of the needs, behaviour and actions of the people living in the cities should be the driving force behind both, the development and deployment of technological solutions.

The Urban Living Lab (ULL) in Panaji will engage a range of stakeholders in finding solutions to Panaji’s challenges. By facilitating collaboration and information flow between residents, policymakers, public bodies, businesses and academia, the ULL will generate new knowledge on under-researched urban issues. Interventions will be co-created and tested out in collaboration with stakeholders, adapting to both successes and failures. Recognizing that the resolution of urban problems often needs long timeframes, the ULL will enhance capacities and address specific skill gaps among public officials to ensure that the momentum of its activities is translated into sustained efforts. From its base in Panaji, the ULL will facilitate the adoption of key learnings from its activities to other smart cities in India, and catalyze the growth of institutions that prioritize co-creative and experimental approaches to address urban challenges. We will analyze ways in which the ULL will interact with incumbent modes of governance and institutions in Panaji and beyond.

The ULL team has been mobilized over the past couple of months and is currently focusing on four thematic areas for Panaji: urban flooding, management of water bodies, mobility, and data and urban systems.

We look forward to sharing more with you over the next few months!



Initiative

Future Cities

Authors

Zaheb Ahmad

Zaheb is a Research Fellow at Tandem Research where he leads the Sustainability Transitions programme. His work focuses on governance and social dimensions of transitions in the environmental sector. His Master’s thesis explores the domestic environmental regime in response to global environmental frameworks, and evaluates the effects of the Clean Development Mechanism on communities in India. Zaheb holds an LL.M with specialisation in Environmental Law from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and B.L.S, LL.B from Government Law College, University of Mumbai.

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