Living Labs – a tool for inclusive urban innovation

FEEM Fall School “Souths of the World”

November 2019, Milan


Living Labs – a tool for inclusive urban innovation


Luca Garavaglia

Università del Piemonte Orientale



1)    Urban Living Labs: from theories to practice

Urban Living Labs (ULL) are a tool for urban innovation which is rapidly proliferating across cities internationally in the effort to provide economic prosperity, social cohesion and environmental sustainability. The notion of ULL is very broad, and it has been interpreted in many different ways: rather than a comprehensive review of theories and methodologies, the intent of this paper is to provide a basic overview of Urban Living Labs, discussing their main features and their role in urban innovation projects, as well as an introduction to the argument for Phd students and practitioners of urban studies lacking a strong background in social sciences. In this first chapter a definition of ULL will be provided, summarizing the most recent contributions by urban scholars and experts, while in later chapters some operative examples of ULL in cities of the Souths of the World will be described. Since ULL are complex processes, requiring a certain degree of organization and the coordination of different urban actors and interests, the final chapter of this paper will give some hints and warnings about their management from the literature on community planning and inclusive urban governance.


1.1 Origins of Living Labs

The concept of “Living Lab” is credited to William J. Mitchell, a professor of Architecture and Media Arts and Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who, reflecting on the innovation possibilities offered by ICT, suggested that “living” spaces such as a city or a building can be laboratories to generate and test hypotheses by monitoring users’ interactions with new technologies (Dutilleul et al., 2010).

The technique of Living Lab was soon adopted in the US and Europe by the corporate sector, and in particular by ICT firms, to organize more open and rapid innovation of products and services whose potential applications could not be fully anticipated without the inclusion of end users (Chesbrough, 2003; von Hippel, 2005; Bilgram et al., 2008).

Initially the focus of living labs was to test technologies in a homelike constructed environment (a good example is MIT’s own Living Lab, “Spacelab”, an apartment specially equipped to observe its inhabitants and their interactions with technologies[1]), but more recently the concept has expanded to include real world context, aiming not only to produce technical innovation but also to foster civic involvement and co-creation (Brask, 2015). In particular, this approach attracted the interest of the European Commission, which in 2006 funded two projects – CoreLabs[2] and Clock[3] – to promote a common European innovation system based on Living Labs (European Commission, 2009), in order to sustain the Lisbon Strategy goal of enforcing the economic competitiveness of the Old Continent. Those actions led to the creation of the umbrella organization ENoLL – “European Network of Living Labs”[4], an association including (in 2019) over 150 active Living Labs worldwide. ENoLL defines a Living Lab as a real-life test and experimentation environment where producers and users co-generate innovations, exploring emerging usages, behaviors and markets. Importantly, the concepts tested in the labs are evaluated to ensure learning and progress. This definition of Living Lab  integrates both user-centered research and Chesbrough’s (2003, 2006) notion of open innovation, and involves four main activities (Schumacher,2012):


  • co-creation activities to bring together technology push and application pull (i.e. crowd sourcing, crowd casting) into a diversity of views, constraints and knowledge sharing that sustains the ideation of new scenarios, concepts and artifacts;
  • exploration activities involving all stakeholders, especially user communities, at the earlier stage of the co-creation process for discovering emerging usages and behaviors through live scenarios in real or virtual environments;
  • experimentation activities, implementing technological artifacts in live scenarios with a large number of users, to collect data to be analyzed in their context during the evaluation activity;
  • evaluation activities, intended to assess new ideas, innovative concepts, technologies in real life situations (considering many dimensions such as socio-ergonomic, socio-cognitive and socio-economic aspects) and to make observations on the potential diffusion of new concepts and related technological artifacts through a confrontation with users’ value models.


To sum up, the concept of Living Lab is associated with many interrelated meanings (Dutilleul et al., 2010): it may refer to the monitoring of experimental technologies in real-life systems, to an approach to the development of technologies bases on the involvement of users, to an innovation system consisting of structured multidisciplinary networks fostering interaction and collaboration, or to the organizations facilitating those networks. In practice, most initiatives labelled as ‘Living Labs’ adopt parts of the multi-faceted concept and operate according to different interpretations of it (Følstad, 2008).


1.2 Definition and characteristics of ULL

The term Urban Living Lab (ULL) has emerged to describe Living Labs set up in urban areas seeking to address issues occurring there[5]. In the transition to the urban context, Living Labs emphasized the importance of inclusion (to actively engage citizens in urban research projects with socially oriented research agendas: Franz, 2014) and the focus on the development of place-based solutions, embedded in the particular socio-economic dynamics of each city. The real-world setting promises to produce more useful knowledge than experimentation performed under more controlled circumstances (Evans and Karvonen 2011), and could also inspire social and technical transformations of the city (Brask, 2015).

In recent years, ULL have been widely used, in Europe and worldwide, as forms of experimental governance whereby urban actors develop and test new technologies and ways of living to address a variety of challenges, from sustainability and climate change to energy and transportation systems, social innovation, quality of life, quality of the built environment (Evans and Karvonen, 2011; Bulkeley and Castán Broto, 2013; Franz, 2014; Evans et al., 2016; Voytenko et al., 2016).

In the current scenario of strong urban competition at national and global level, cities are in need of governance forms which are able to produce innovation and sustainability connecting public institutions, research organizations, associations, private sector and communities. Towards this goal, ULL are often seen not only as “protected spaces” for experimenting new ideas and projects, but also as ways to enable collaborations and gain public support, stretching and reforming existing regimes (Smith and Raven, 2012, Voytenko et al., 2018). Thus, involvement of the users is considered a central element of ULL (Voytenko et al. 2016): generally, the users are urban populations who would be affected by the product or service tested in the lab, lending credibility to the success of potential future applications. They play a big part in the operation of the lab by giving feedback and being an active partner through the whole innovation process (JPI Urban Europe 2013), negotiating with key stakeholders “in a strongly reflexive manner” (Nevens et al., 2013).

The ULL model also highlights the public element of urban innovation, based on the quadruple helix model, with a crucial role of knowledge partners (universities, private or public research institutes, etc.), and the importance of intermediaries (organizations operating between social interests and/or technologies) in the production of place-based solutions, in the absence of a “one best way” to innovation and sustainability.

But such processes can take different forms, and may involve many different actors: all ULL seem to share some basic features (the place-based approach, the emphasis on experimentation and learning of new technologies and solutions in real world conditions, the involvement of end users and communities in all stages of the project), yet at least three distinct models of ULL can be distinguished (Marvin et al., 2018), with important consequences on their organization and their goals (tab.1).


Table 1: different ULL models

Strategic ULL Civic ULL Organic (or grassroot) ULL
Lead actors Innovation agencies, supra-local governments,

Corporate business

Local authorities, universities, local companies, SMEs Civil society, NGOs, etc.
Primary purpose Innovation and technological priorities Urban economic and employment priorities Social, economic and environmental priorities
Organization form Competitive (urban selected as a site for experimentation) Developmental (partnership formed by local actors) Micro/single (multiple forms of community organization)
Funding type One-off/competitive Co-funding/partnership Improvised
Urban imaginary Urban as a test-bed that can be replicated or generalized Urban as a contingent and historically produced context urban understood in particular ways by local communities
Governing responses Governing by authority / governing with provisions Governing by authority and through enabling Self-governing
Translation / scaling up No plans on scaling up Policy plan on translation Policy plan on scaling up
Similar to… National innovation programs Urban innovation policies Grassroot innovation projects

Source: adapted from Marvin et al., 2018; Mai, 2018.


”Strategic” ULL are characterized by some degree of conditioning by national or regional authorities, and are often organized with multi-level mandates: as a consequence, they are less place-embedded than the other ULL models. They are usually activated to test and develop experimental applications which later will be diffused elsewhere. Cities are considered to be optimal test-beds for those innovative actions, and are expected to compete with each other for state funding, assembling partnerships with local stakeholders and global enterprises. Investments for such ULL are often awarded as a lump sum for specific activities and for short periods of time, since the priority is on supra-local diffusion strategies.

“Civic” ULL are instead the product of collaborations between local governments (usually acting as project leaders) and universities and private companies, which pool their resources to intervene on specific, place-based urban priorities, often regarding the transfer of research into demonstration. These ULL may take various forms, from one-off experiments to long programs taking place over a long period of time and supported by ad-hoc local agencies. In every case, they aim to embed new knowledges, infrastructures and benefits in the urban context, and to sustain urban competitivity.

“Grassroot” ULL show a strong bottom-up nature, and emerge from the demand of particular urban communities, regarding highly contingent local problems (i.e. social needs, pollution, lack of infrastructures, unemployment), looking for experimental solutions by the activation of local resources, tacit local knowledge, social capital. They are focused on the self-governing of urban dynamics (Mai, 2018), yet they often propose radical innovations, which can be diffused in other areas or cities. The budget of those ULL is often limited, relying on municipal or supra-local funding programs and on volunteer’s engagement.

Overall, a socio-technical split exists between different ULL models: strategic ULL generated by top-down programs tend to be techno-centric, while, at the opposite, grassroot ULL are much more socially grounded and include a wider variety of actors. Civic ULL can be situated in the middle of this spread, depending on their specific characteristics and goals (Mai, 2018).

Evaluation is another discriminating characteristics across ULL models: grassroot ULL are often subject to constant evaluation from funding agencies and programs (in particular, the social impacts of these initiatives is commonly considered to be a decisive component of their evaluation). On the other hand, in civic and strategic ULL evaluation can be less important and more informal (except for procurement procedures conducted by leading public actors on private project partners) and self-evaluation is rarely produced, outside mechanisms for policy learning.


1.3 Critical aspects of ULL

ULL are often described as a mean to provide responses to critical urban problems involving sustainability, quality of life, urban development. However, the extent to which ULL can address those urban challenges has yet to be proved. The strong enthusiasm for ULL by institutions like the European Union sustained their diffusion, but an extensive critical analysis of the practices and impacts of Living Labs has not been undertaken by scholars until very recently (Marvin et al., 2018; von Wirth et al., 2019), nor it has been cleared if they can facilitate comprehensive urban innovation and sustainability (producing outcomes that would not have been possible by other processes: Evans and Karvonen, 2011; 2013) or exchanges of best practices among cities: scalability is certainly very limited for the solutions developed in many “grassroot” ULL (see par. 1.2), due the their strong embeddedness in the local socio-economic and geographical context (May, 2018), but also in “civic” and “strategic” ULL evidence of take-up is limited, even in presence of an explicit intention to translate innovations into other places or to scale them to upper levels of governance. This is a consequence of the absence of learning structures and evaluation across individual programs (Marvin et al., 2018). So far, ULL in different cities and countries produced a fragmentation of the singular discourse of the sustainable city, developing new urban imaginaries which are rooted in locality and experimentation rather than on comprehensive and replicable programs. Such fragmentation may be a sign of the need for a novel approach to the “smart” or “sustainable” city, focused on a scale lower than the metropolitan one, which will require a re-thinking of the traditional concepts of ecological modernization, economic growth and social justice in the urban environment: the diffusion of ULL in cities of the Souths of the World will surely be a decisive step in this process.

Another aspect of ULL that should be more deeply questioned is their approach to urban governance: ULL are often presented a completely new phenomenon, but they share many similarities with already existing inclusive arenas (urban forums, strategic plans, grassroot innovation initiatives, community planning, etc.:). In a certain sense, they merely represent a new stage in the diversification of partnership-based governance modes organized by cities in the last decades, as a response to the increasing limitations of municipal funds and financial transfers from national governments (Percy, 2003; Brenner, 2004). Yet, in the European Union, ULL had an important role in the development and diffusion of innovations in urban sustainability, thanks both to the financial and policy support from the European Commission and to their capacity to accelerate the adoption of new technologies through experimentation in real setting and end-users involvement (Voytenko et al., 2018; von Wirth et al., 2019). But some authors (Marvin et al., 2018) argued that ULL often bring to a redesigning of existing urbanity rather than to radical transformations: given the strong role played in many Living Labs (namely, in “civic” and “strategic” ULL models: see par. 1.2) by existing economic or political urban partnerships and by traditional urban priorities <<there is a tendency for initiatives to undertake forms of experimentation “on” the context and users rather than working co-productively and symmetrically “with” context and users. Consequently, the urban is constituted as a test-bed according to external priorities and processes>> (Marvin et al., 2018, pp. 255-256). In order to avert the threat of “constrained experimentation” and to allow for a real and effective integration of communities and users in the development of new place-based solutions for urban problems, designers and facilitators of an ULL should pay attention to local factors, in particular when the process takes place in the urban and social contexts of the Souths of the World, where operative conditions may be very different from the ones in which ULL methodologies have been originally developed and tested. Inclusive participation often requires citizens with high levels of education, and the organization and outcomes of the process may be strongly affected by the capacity of communities to voice their interests and needs in formalized, visible ways, which depends on power relations and social practices (par. 3 will provide some hints about techniques and methodologies which could be applied to ensure effective participation and organization in an inclusive process).

Moreover, concepts like “smart city” or “sustainable city” cannot be utilized without regards to the local context. Castán Broto describes the difficulties encountered by “smart city” programs aimed to improve energy efficiency in Asia and Africa (Castán Broto, 2018): in the city of Maputo (Mozambique) the public utility Electricidade de Moçambique tried to improve accessibility to electricity with the implementation of a pre-paid system through which local people could control their consumptions and fraction the payment in relation to resources available, but this new technology had only little impact because many families were not connected to the electric grid, and those who were only utilized electricity for lighting and communication purposes, relying on charcoal-fueled stoves for cooking. A more effective approach to the energy problem in Maputo has been developed by local NGOs and community leaders, with programs intended to connect households to the grid, and to improve cookstoves performance in order to reduce indoor pollution and domestic accidents caused by cooking. In such contexts the vision of the “smart city” focused on technologies and infrastructures which are not accessible by all citizens may have only a limited impact on economic growth, quality of life or environmental sustainability, and it could even produce new forms of inequality between urban populations. For a better consideration of user needs, ULL aimed to make cities “smarter” should adopt an enlarged concept of “innovation”, focusing less on novel technologies and more on the potential for social innovation, cultural innovation, innovation in the public and voluntary sectors.


2.     Case studies of ULL in the Souths of the World

This section provides a description of five cases of ULL organized in Asia, Africa and Latin America[6]. Those projects are not always explicitly labelled as ULL, mostly because in many countries the term has not become popular yet, due to the differences from Europe and USA in official science and technology’s agendas and in public financing models for urban initiatives (Duarte Masi, 2016; Mai, 2018). Nonetheless, the case studies presented in this chapter adopt an approach to planning and decision-making which is very similar, if not identical, to the ULL’s one, based on the inclusion of end-users and on the open nature of the process. The differences with European experiences are caused by the social context of the cities of the Souths of the World, where inequality is larger and problems are bigger: “when Living Labs started to focus on identification and solution of social issues in countries, regions and communities of Latin America, Africa and Asia, they managed to include a new and interesting way of humanitarian aid development and assistance in order to achieve social development from an integrator point of view. Through this vision, beneficiaries participate actively on the identification of their problems and the search for solutions making easier the implementation of those solutions and the innovative creation of alternative ways to reach their goals” (Duarte Masi, 2016). Such an approach, focused less on technological innovations and more on social issues, could greatly contribute to the construction of more open societies, conceiving original governance models for the XXI century’s cities.

Case studies have been selected with the intent of presenting some examples of the variety of forms taken by ULL experimentations in the Souths of the World, including strategic, civic and grassroot models, as well as different urban problems, ranging from sustainability to housing and economic growth. For each case, a brief description of the process objectives, organization and actors will be followed by some critical remarks, highlighting in particular the role of communities and end-users in all phases of the ULL, and the problems the process had to face.


2.1 the Green Source Program


location Shenzhen, China
ULL model Grassroot ULL
Lead organization Shenzhen Green Source Environmental Protection Volunteers Association
Partners NGOs, municipal and district government, community centres, schools, professionals
Funding sources Donations, membership fees, service provisions incomes, government subsidies
running time 2013-present
Topics Sustainability, education
Sources; Mai, 2018


The founding objective of the Shenzhen Green Source Environmental Protection Volunteers Association (from now on: “Green Source”) was the conservation of mangrove wetland in the urban region of Shenzhen. Local mangrove forests not only have a value in terms of biodiversity, but also play a vital role in the natural protection from coastal erosion. Nevertheless, in the last decades they were increasingly threatened by urban growth and pollution. A few local environmental activists took interest in that problem, and in 2013 founded Green Source to call on local volunteers to monitor and collectively safeguard some mangrove areas which were not given any form of protection by the municipal government. Regular patrols proved to be crucial, given the need to protect mangroves from solid wastes dumped in the coastal areas, yet they were not sufficient to ensure the forest survival and biodiversity. Then, the Association started a program for the incubation of mangrove seedlings, and identified suitable sites for new plantations. Green Source also organized activities for community-based environmental education, and gathered a team of scientists and expert to produce periodic surveys and studies on local mangrove, diffused with the help of volunteers, local media and political groups to raise social awareness on environmental hazards and to change urban management practices.

The grassroot initiatives of Green Source soon emerged as an alternative solution to public programs organized by municipalities and universities, which had already been formulated but never reached implementation. Meanwhile, the local government started an administrative reform, based on the national doctrine of “administration streamline and power delegation”, to transfer functions from the public sector to civil society organizations: it assumed the role of facilitator, empowering, connecting and funding local NGOs to incubate and design a new generation of societal changes, including the ones regarding urban sustainability.

This recognition allowed Green Source to activate a new project to monitor water pollution and to report illegal discharges of wastes, which resulted in administrative penalties for polluting enterprises. Even more importantly, it helped Green Source to devise collaborations and cross-sector initiatives with other NGOs, creating alliances which were able to deal with more challenging tasks, involving strong urban actors: Green Source and the China Mangrove Conservation Network (an NGO founded in 2001 and operating in all five provinces of southeastern China) worked together to monitor the environmental changes caused by the extension of the Shenzhen metro system, contrasting the policies of the powerful municipal office of metro system construction. The same two associations experimented with new ICT technologies, launching an online geo-location platform named “China Mangrove Alert System” which allows volunteers to organize improvised patrols on mangrove locations all over China and to share information about observed risks.

The Green Source initiatives show many of the defined characteristics of  ULL working on urban sustainability (Voytenko et al., 2016), starting from the importance given to the involvement of volunteers and communities and from the capacity to organize networks for collective actions, both at local and national level. The Green Source is an example of the recent growth of grassroot activism in Shenzhen, supported by the best practices and technical transfers from the neighboring Hong Kong, where the social innovation sector is very active and strong, due to the different political system and democratic tradition. The proximity and exchanges with Hong Kong also encouraged the emergence of expert community leaders in Shenzhen, helping the organization of many community associations focused in particular on urban sustainability and social innovation (while initiatives led by governments or private enterprises are more focused on technological innovation). These associations are completely redesigning and redirecting, from the bottom-up, the processes of urban change in the area, “introducing new techniques for lobbying and agenda setting with local authorities” (Mai, 2018, p.211). They are rapidly gaining legitimation at local level, but in most cases they still lack dedicated resources, given the absence, in China, of the community development trusts which are common in OECD countries: they are dependent on alternative financing (Green Source has been often financed by “green” local enterprises), public sector’s grants and contributions of volunteers.


2.2 Stellenbosch’s ULL


location Stellenbosch, South Africa
ULL model Civic ULL
Lead organization University, municipal government
Partners Urban stakeholders, professionals, urban communities
Funding sources Municipal funds
running time 2011-2015
Topics Urban governance and planning, sustainability
Sources Davies and Swilling, 2015; 2018; Davies, 2016


In spite of the municipality’s vision to became the “Innovation Capital of South Africa”, Stellenbosch, in the Western Cape Province of South Africa, was in the early 2000s a city of great contrasts, with an internationally renowned university, well-developed agricultural and tourism sectors and a growing tertiary sector, but also many problems of poverty and social inequality. Also, the lack of strategic coordination between urban stakeholders and the absence of long-term integrated planning programs hindered all projects for urban change:  insufficient provision for future demand led to deficiencies in urban infrastructures (mobility infrastructures, water and electricity supply, waste management), and ad-hoc spatial development projects caused spatial exclusion and economic disparity (Davies and Swilling, 2015; Davies, 2016).

A decisive step towards a new model of urban governance for Stellenbosch was taken in 2005, with the organization of a joint forum between the municipality and the local university, the Rector-Executive Mayor Forum (REMF). This forum represented a new strategic commitment by the university towards more meaningful interaction with local society, while for the municipality it marked a new policy of receptiveness to collaborations and partnerships. The REMF soon became an important learning arena: monthly meetings, alternated between being hosted in university venues and in municipal spaces, were the occasion for researchers, municipal officials and politicians to discuss issues of mutual concern, sharing ideas, exchanging information and organizing collective projects for urban development. Informality was a key factor (informal drinks regularly followed scheduled meetings), and allowed all participants to share a common language and sensibility on urban problems, overpassing the preexistent mistrust and antagonism between the university and the municipality (Davies, 2016). REMF activities were organized as an open process, without strict procedures to follow and without pre-designed objectives: as a result, the REMF developed a “solutions-oriented approach to transdisciplinary research in developing world contexts that are characterized by high level of social fluidity, where the research process is designed as it unfolds and where the goal is to co-generate knowledge applicable to specific, complex social challenges” (Davies and Swilling, 2018, p.98). In 2011 the experience of the REMF resulted in the establishment of two sub-committees participated by local institutions, associations and private sector players:


  1. the Integrated Planning Committee (IPC), which applied Appreciative Inquiry methodologies (Cooperrider and Srivasta, 1987; Cooperrider et al., 2001) to organize an inclusive “idea gathering campaign” (“Shaping Stellenbosch”) directed to urban stakeholders and citizens: stakeholders were engaged in workshops with experts from the university and the municipality, while citizens could submit their ideas for urban development via an online form, or at gathering points in public libraries (the public engagement process was introduced by an information campaign in the three local languages, Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa, diffused via website, local media, flyers and posters: Davies, 2016). Combining “top-down” and “bottom-up” inputs, the “Shaping Stellenbosch” campaign produced the “Stellenbosch Spatial Development Framework” (2015), a formal planning program for the city;
  2. the Infrastructure Innovation Committee (IIC) which, after a dense program of interviews, workshops, formal and informal meetings of 6 working groups (dedicated to Finance, Energy, Water and Sanitation, Solid Waste, Transport, Administration), and with inputs from the “Shaping Stellenbosch” program, produced the “Stellenbosch Quo Vadis” report (2014), a strategic document based on the vision of a compact, inclusive and sustainable town, supported by a public transport-oriented, infrastructure-led development logic, that transcended the preexisting tensions between the ultra-conservative approach focused on heritage and conservation and the developer’s driven one based on urban sprawl.


The “Quo Vadis” report produced by the IIC was intended as a guideline to the implementation of the Spatial Development Framework put together by the IPC. Together, the two documents posed the foundations for a large-scale program of collaborative innovation and experimentation of the city over the coming years, which linked spatial planning and infrastructure development to urban problems like traffic congestion, housing, social cohesion.

However, changes in leadership in both the municipality and the university, and conflicts between different municipal departments and political factions, led to the suspension of most REMF activities in 2015. The forum, which never had a formal or institutional role in the city government structure, remains a recognized actor in urban governance, but since then its operativity has been limited.

Stellenbosch’s process is an example of an ULL focused not on technological innovation, but on the development of new social and administrative practices. It succeeded in the definition of a new governance model for the city, based on collaboration, inclusion and collective learning, which have proved capable of addressing context-specific, complex social challenges. The initial activities of the REMF only included the two most powerful and resourceful urban actors, the municipality and the university: inclusion of other stakeholders and citizens came only after a long learning-by-doing process had been undertaken by those two institutions. Stellenbosch’s ULL is also a clear example of the impossibility to a-critically transplant inclusive planning projects typical of OECD countries in a developing country, where the material and social conditions are different and where the social context is very fluid (Davies and Swilling, 2018).

Another significative aspect of the Stellenbosch case is the importance of mediation in urban change processes. One of the main achievement of the REMF was the creation of trust and understanding amongst the stakeholders (Davies, 2016), which allowed for a higher level of collaboration in the governance of the city. This couldn’t have been possible without the support from both the municipality and the university, nor without the full commitment of their leaders. When they started to dwindle (in particular on the municipality’s side), the whole process came to an abrupt end.



2.3 URBZ


Location Mumbai, India (and other cities)
ULL model Grassroot ULL
Lead organization URBZ
Partners Citizens, associations, private firms, local governments
Funding sources Various (service provision incomes, local development programs, etc.)
running time 2008-ongoing
Topics urban planning, housing, creativity


URBZ is an experimental action and research collective including architects, designers, urban planners, anthropologists, economists and policy makers, founded in 2008 to promote social and urban innovation in the Dharavi area of Mumbai, one of the largest and more densely populated slums in Asia, counting between 600.000 and one million inhabitants (estimates vary widely).

URBZ is specialized in the design of “user-generated cities” which consider the existing condition as a starting point for future development. Its approach is based on the recognition that residents’ everyday life experiences constitute an essential knowledge for urban planning, development and policy-making. URBZ activities are strongly rooted in local communities: the collective is engaged in the organization of researches and workshops with local residents and non-local experts aimed to produce more knowledge of the specific urban context and to start projects for housing, education, cultural and economic development. Information sharing and public participation  are intended as the main tools to bring together local and global knowledge, and to re-think the urban space according to the citizens’ visions and needs. The most important projects realized by URBZ in Dharavi are the ones on sustainable housing: providing technical competences (about home design, materials, financing) and mediating with small building constructors (who are crucial local actors, with the capacity to work in the difficult environment of Dharavi) and providers of building materials to fulfill the needs of the residents (usually, the demand is for a renewal and rising of the existing house, often comprising the family’s shop or artisan workshop). These micro-interventions on the urban space produced an alternative to the development vision of the Municipality of Mumbai which, considering the whole Dharavi an “informal settlement zone”, have placed it under the responsibility of the Slum Redevelopment Authority, who is envisaging a complete destruction of existing buildings to make space for big, low-cost housing complexes. The Slum Redevelopment Authority’s “Dharavi Redevelopment Project” plans to concentrate the actual Dharavi residents in 20% of the redesigned space, allowing developers to construct expensive new building and attract new residents and economic actors in the area: the slum is located in the center of the Mumbai metropolis, and land value could potentially be sky-high. Yet, this project will destroy all the existing social context and the dynamic circular economy of Dharavi, where thousands of small activities grew up and prospered in the last decades (Echanove and Srivastava, 2014): it is estimated that Dharavi boasts 5,000 local businesses and 15,000 single-room factories, accounting for at least 1 billion USD of Mumbai’s revenue each year[7] and playing an important role in the urban economy (including a quasi-monopoly on plastic waste recycling, with 250-300 recycling businesses and 10.000-12.000 employees in Dharavi). On the opposite side of the Slum Redevelopment Authority strategy, URBZ vision, looking at Dharavi as an “in-formation neighborhood”, is focused on the progressive improvement of the existing context, envisaging solutions which won’t force the residents to relocate elsewhere their lives and activities. Apart from building renovation (adding more stories to existing houses in order to accommodate new residents, new activities, roof gardens, etc.), the collective is active in Dharavi with low-cost, user-centered initiatives for the design of public spaces and green areas, for the improvement of infrastructures (water and drainage, electricity), for the organization of community governance arenas, for the development of local economic activities (including projects for the design of market stalls, new farmer markets, and the creation, in collaboration with Dutch and local partners, of the “Dharavi Design Museum”[8] to showcase local talent through a nomadic exhibition space).

Another important activity of URBZ is dissemination: conferences, seminars and exhibitions are held both in Dharavi and in international venues to spread information on realized projects and to promote the collective’s approach to urban planning. URBZ has been invited to exhibit its work at the Design Biennial of Istanbul (2008),  MoMA in New York (2013 & 2014), MAK in Vienna (2015), Chicago Architecture Biennial (2015), CAPC in Bordeaux (2016), HDA in Graz (2016), MAXXI in Rome (2016), the Art Center at the International School of Geneva (2016) and Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai (2017). Starting from his small office in Dharavi, the collective now has offices and teams operating, with the same methodologies and approach, in Bogotá, São Paulo, Geneva and Seoul.

URBZ is a good example of a ULL capable of developing a grassroot vision of urban planning in a city of the Souths of the World, without resorting to “standard” models and techniques but focusing instead on place-based issues through projects co-generated with the users. The role of the experts (architects, designers, urbanists, sociologists, economists) is vital not only at the local level, where they are asked to provide knowledge, technologies and ideas to implement the resident’s visions of development, but also, through their professional and academic networks, in the dissemination of the approach in other cities and in the global communities of urban planners and designers.


2.4 Quiero mi barrio


Location Urban areas in Chile
ULL model Strategic ULL
Lead organization Ministerio de Vivienda y Urbanismo (MINVU)
Partners Local governments, local communities
Funding sources National funds
running time 2006-ongoing
Topics Quality of life, security, sustainability


The Neighborhood Recovery Program “Quiero mi barrio” (“I Want My Neighborhood”) was created in 2006 by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development  of Chile (MINVU) with the aim of improving the quality of life and security of people living in vulnerable neighborhoods. Unlike precedent MINVU programs, the Programa Quiero Mi Barrio (PQMB) is not focused on housing projects, but on the recovery of public spaces and the strengthening of the social fabric: it supports the building of infrastructures such community centers, telecentres, green areas, sports fields, playgrounds, and the improvement of street furniture. Another primary objective of the PQMB is the funding of social projects to empower local communities and to support their associative capacities and their activation to improve the identity, security and environmental sustainability of their neighborhood.

All investments in public spaces and urban infrastructures are chosen and prioritized through a participatory and inclusive process: a Consejo Vecinal de Desarrollo (CVD, “Neighborhood Development Counsel”), involving the municipality, community leaders, neighborhood boards, local cultural associations and citizens, is created in each “barrio” and is charged to produce a Plan Maestro (“Master Plan”) describing the vision and long-term development strategy for the area, and a Contrato de Barrio (“Neighborhood Contract”) detailing  the physical works and the social initiatives that will be activated in the three years of the program’s execution. The CVD is also required to organize the monitoring of physical interventions and to strengthen the organizational capabilities of the local community.

The neighborhoods to be part of the program are nominated by the municipalities and selected by the MINVU. Initially the PQMB was set out to intervene on 200 neighborhoods, fluctuating in size from 100 to 3.000 homes each, with a budget of 1.2 million USD for the period 2006-2009. Since then, the program grew to encompass 570 neighborhoods in all 16 regions of Chile, reaching over one million people and realizing more than 3.000 urban projects. In 2015, the PQMB was recognized as one of the “best practices” worldwide by the Dubai Prize of the UN.

Being a ministerial program, the PQMB is subjected to many evaluation procedures: after the selection of the neighborhood by the MINVU, the evaluation ex-ante of the projects is realized by technical teams from the ministry and the municipality, supporting the CVD in its strategical choices, while the valuation in itinere, during the implementation phase, is managed by the local actors, according to the provisions of the Contrato de Barrio. Ministerial ex post evaluations and researches by sociologists, planners and scholars of urban studies don’t only address the physical results of the program, but also investigate its capacity to generate effective improvement in the quality of life of the residents: for example, while positive results have been obtained in issues like security and use of public spaces (even if a recent study on the city of Quilpué highlighted that differences still remain in the behaviors of different groups of citizens, in particular between men and women: Mora et al., 2018), in some areas, starting from Santiago (Link et al., 2017), the program did not promote important changes in the social interaction patterns of residents, with poorer neighborhood still loosely connected with the rest of the city.

The originality of the PQMB lies in its capacity to intertwine infrastructural and social projects, but also in its attention to user-generated urban change, which led to a strong focus on the inclusion of residents in the decision-making process and in the implementation of the projects. Those characteristics are very similar to the ones of strategic ULL (see par. 1.2), yet the difficult social context of many Chilean barrios required an extra effort for the empowering of local communities, which is typical of initiatives for urban and social development in cities of the Souths of the World. In this sense, evaluation activities carried out both at local and national level proved to be central in the learning process towards the re-adjustment of the objectives and procedures of the program.







2.5 Başakşehir Living Lab


Location Başakşehir, Turkey
ULL model Civic ULL
Lead organization Başakşehir municipality
Partners Private firms, universities, NGOs, citizens
Funding sources Municipal funds, private funds
running time 2014-ongoing
Topics Smart city, health, education
Sources ;


Başakşehir is a municipality of the metropolitan area of Istanbul counting about 380.000 inhabitants, with quite high levels of education and entrepreneurship but also with a significative presence of poverty. In 2014, the municipal government, in partnership with ICT firms, local firms, research centers and universities, created a research facility based on the Living Lab approach to support its vision of becoming a “City of Applied Information Technologies and Innovation”. The mission of Başakşehir Living Lab (BLL) is the development, testing and production of ICT innovations towards a livable, efficient and environment friendly urban environment. The facility is open to all the citizens and SMEs in Başakşehir that have limited resources but innovative ideas: the BLL and its partners provide business management support,  technical competences and the equipment needed to develop new product or service ideas, while citizens visiting the center are invited to participate in testing activities of new technologies (either produced in the BLL or elsewhere).

Innovative ICT services developed by the BLL for the city and citizens of Başakşehir include:

  • a Geography Information System, an app for mobile devices integrating e-map technology and location data from the Municipality to provide location based information;
  • a “Support Card”, a smart card for people in need providing credit which can be spent for certain products and services in a number of local shops;
  • an Outdoor Security System (Mobese) consisting of a network of full HD street cameras for urban security, connected to the offices of the municipality and to the local police department;
  • A mobile health kit accessible by mobile phone to measure and report basic health parameters;
  • “Biopipe”, a sustainable waste water treatment system;
  • “Metroplus”, a software app for the optimization of urban public transport system;
  • “Duyum”, home automation technologies for deaf people;
  • “Gadron”, an application for real estate value determination;

The BLL also works on market-oriented innovations in various technological fields, from unmanned aerial vehicles, toothbrushes and paper made from calcium carbonate and biopolymers (“stone paper”) to software applications for mobile phones (virtual shopping, social media platforms, educational apps, etc.).

The BLL center,  built according to green principles and mostly powered by solar energy, include both facilities for the development of new products and services (an electronic laboratory, a design factory, consulting services for business development and commercialization, a music studio and a video production studio) and areas dedicated to the end-users and to the local community: a conference center, an education center, an open office space, a lounge area for social events, an healthcare station (where users can monitor their most important vital parameters without assistance, using simple applications developed by BLL) and the “user experience showroom”, a 900 square meters area where citizens and investors can see and test new technologies and services produced in the lab, giving their feedbacks to the developers.

BLL is a member of the European Living Lab network ENoLL, and joined international innovator networks to support the diffusion and marketization of its researches. One of its near future objectives is also to replicate similar Living Labs in other Turkish cities, and to inspire similar projects in other countries.

Başakşehir’s project is a good example of an civic ULL centered on the diffusion of ICT innovations in a difficult area of a great metropolis: it provides citizens with local collective competition goods (Crouch et al., 2001) to develop their ideas and to test them in real-life environments, supporting creativity and entrepreneurship with the ultimate goal of improving the quality of life and the sustainability in the urban environment. Although similar to a business incubator, the BLL is also committed to educational purposes, encouraging the diffusion of knowledge and providing basic services for citizens without means: in this sense, the BLL innovation center acts as a seed for the development of a bottom-up approach to the “smart city”, making up for market failures and encouraging the activation of the civil society towards a better diffusion and use of new technologies.


3.     Methodological notes for inclusive urban development projects

Like in many other projects for urban development experimented by cities in the last thirty years (Evans et al., 2016), inclusive decision making has a central role in ULL: it allows for a better consideration of all variables and interests involved, and may help the gathering of all knowledge, information and resources needed to fulfill the project’s objectives (Susskind and Cruikshank, 1987). It may also be useful to reduce opposition to policies and projects by specific social groups, or the risk of the “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) syndrome, which often arises when a decision threatens to generate a negative impact on a local community. Yet, when it comes to urban governance, the temptation of “deciding alone” (or to involve only a small group of selected stakeholders in the decisional process) is always strong, in particular for public actors legitimized by democracy and having the strength to enforce their solutions: the choice to enlarge the number of the actors involved in a decision causes higher decisional costs, in terms of both time and resources. Also, inclusive processes are often quite hard to manage, since they require the coordination of many public and private actors: they need to be carefully organized and planned, in particular in the fluid socio-economic contexts of the cities of the Souths of the World. The following paragraphs will point out the main critical aspects of inclusive urban processes, and provide some guidelines and hints for their successful assemblage, management and evaluation.


3.1 At which stage of the process should inclusive methodologies be started?

Actors willing to organize an urban development project, and in particular public administrations, are often tempted not to include end-users and communities in the decision-making process from the very beginning, but only after some key steps and choices have already been taken: typically, after the initial idea or concept has been fully defined, and after a technical analysis has been produced.

This tendency can be easily understood considering how development projects are usually generated: when an urban problem (or an opportunity for development) is perceived by a public administration, it starts a cognitive process, usually a technical study of the current situation, which produces possible solutions and a first analysis of their feasibility. Technicians, experts and politicians are not inclined to present the project to the public before they identified a viable solution or course of action, or at least without a well-defined idea, which could withstand criticism. Such technical-based approach is based on a just sense of responsibility towards the public and the end-users, but sometimes it may pose some serious threats to the realization of the project: once the idea has been defined, radical modifications are very difficult to accept. The proposal may be integrated, and some changes may be made, but completely different options or actions proposed by the community are not likely to be welcome, since they would require a step back, and a waste of the time and money the technicians and experts spent on the project (sunk costs). The attention is no more on the original problem, but instead on the proposed solution: other possible options may not even be considered, or may be disregarded due to the partiality of the proposing administrations towards their project (i.e., the protest against the project of an incinerator may distract the city from a more ample and generative debate on waste reduction and recycling).

Even worse, when presented with a project in which the critical choices have already been made, the public and the target community may perceive it as a “take it or leave it” proposal, in which their decisional role is marginal, thus raising the risk of disengagement, exit, social or political protest, as it happens with the “Not in My Backyard” syndrome.

Another possible risk concerns the implementation of the project, in particular when other public administrations are involved in that phase: the operators and executives within those organizations may not be committed to a project in whose design they had no part, and may find it difficult to understand its objectives and goals.

In order to avoid all those risks and inefficiencies, Living Lab methodologies propose a completely different approach, recommending, when an inclusive process is needed, to start the public debate as soon as possible: i.e., not on an already designed (or even sketched) project, but on the possible options to confront a particular problem or opportunity. This choice allows for a better considerations of all processual choices, for a better understanding of the problem itself (with a direct representation of all interests involved) and even for the emergence of creative, unimagined solutions generated by a different approach to the debate topic.

Another advantage in earlier inclusion is the possibility to build trust between participants, and to let criticisms and oppositions emerge in a phase when negotiations are still possible, avoiding the waste of time and money.

On the other hand, the choice of starting inclusive processes as soon as possible implies some risks: it is important to carefully choose who should be included in the decision-making process. Involving local actors and communities at such an earlier stage may be difficult, since people and interests are easily activated by the protest against a possible threat, while may be reluctant to spend time to join an open debate around a problem whose solution is still to be defined. A careful choice of who should be included in the decision making process (par. 3.2) and the adoption of techniques for good communication and organization of the process (par. 3.3) are crucial to realize a successful ULL.


3.2 Who should participate in the inclusive process?

Choices about the number and characteristics of the participants in an inclusive project are always complex and important, and have a direct correlation to the capacity of the process to produce good results. The rational choice is usually to include in the decision-making all people and groups interested by the object of the debate. Yet, it’s often practically impossible to include all end-users and target communities: in a typical ULL, thousands of citizens should be involved, and it’s obvious that no table nor room could be large enough to allow a place for them all. As a rule of thumb, all efforts should be made to include all stakeholders involved, making should no one is excluded a priori: doing so, no one will be able to de-legitimize the process ex post, lamenting its unjust exclusion from the ULL. But more definite criteria should be envisaged, in order to allow the inclusive process to start and to have a chance to produce solutions and to make choices. A preliminary research on the field may be necessary in order to determine which stakeholders are involved, analyzing all possible impacts of the project (on the local society, on the economy, on the environment, on the urban setting) and the subjects best qualified to represent them in the ULL, building a “map” of all relevant actors. Some interests and stakeholders are usually easy to spot: public administrations and organized groups (labor unions, trade unions, local interest groups, citizen committees, cultural or sports associations, etc.) can be easily invited to join the process. But problems may arise when there are no organized groups to represent some of the interests which could bring their voice to the decision-making process: in such cases, a well-planned preliminary research, including an information campaign and outreach techniques (Wates, 2000), may help the communities to organize themselves, making new actors emerge in response to the call of the ULL. When dealing with diffused interests without any form of voice, it is also possible to resort to a call for volunteers or to a drafted group of citizens, with methodologies experimented by consensus conferences, Citizens’ Juries (Stewart et al., 1994; Cosby, 1995), Planungszelle (“Planning Cells”: Dienel, 1991; 1999) and Deliberative Opinion Polls (Fishkin, 1991).

A common objection to the inclusion of spontaneous groups or citizen committees is the question of their capacity to truly represent diffused interests: local administrators are often weary of those groups, whose representativeness and legitimation are very hard to prove, fearing them to be merely vehicles for protest. In inclusive ULL, problems regarding representativeness can be ignored, given that all participants are willing to contribute to the project. Stakeholders desiring to bring their voice to the table, even the most conflictual ones, should be included in the process, not only because every knowledge and opinion may be important but also because ULL are designed to make disagreement emerge and to cope with it in productive ways, in order to produce better and shared solutions to complex problems. Even when there are opposite positions on a topic, the underlying interests may be brought to an agreement, through discussion and negotiation (Bobbio, 2004; Fisher et al., 2011) and with the help of neutral mediators (Forester, 1999). And if some participants should show an irreducible hostility to the project, at least their opposition will be immediately revealed during the early phases of the process: discovering it later stage be much more dangerous and costly.

A different situation happens when there are groups refusing to join the process (usually for political or ideological reasons). These groups should be formally invited nonetheless, and they should be allowed to join the ULL at a later stage, if they change their mind. But it is also important to inform all other participants of the existence of other positions and ideas, not represented in the debate, taking them into consideration: sooner or later, the project will have to cope with them.


3.3 Basic principles for the organization of inclusive processes

Managing an ULL involving many actors with different languages, interests, sensibility, may not be easy. The participants should receive good information to enable them to understand the discussed topics. They all should have the opportunity to fully express their opinions. Conflicts need to be managed until an agreement is found. Timing and progress of the process must be kept under control. A poorly organized process may not only be a waste of time, but may also have a negative social impact, deluding the citizen’s expectations and shattering trust among local actors.

An extended review of all techniques to ease the process, to encourage productive cooperation between its participants and to solve conflicts is well beyond the scope of this paper: detailed information can be easily found in many manuals dedicated to consensus-building (i.e.: Susskind et al., 1999; Fisher et al., 2011) and community planning (i.e.: Wates, 2000). But all those techniques share some common principles that can be adopted in any ULL, as guidelines for the effective organization of an inclusive decision-making process:


  1. Avoid complex language and technical terminology: to manage an ULL, it is important to be aware of the presence of actors (in particular citizens and end-users) which have no knowledge of the technical language usually adopted in urban development processes. All concepts should be explained, even the ones that are obvious to urban studies experts. Graphics, images, model and examples should be used, and an effort should be made to translate complex concepts in order to make them understandable to all participants. The development of a “common language” shared by all actors of the ULL will greatly improve the chance of success, and will lead to a more profitable debate and to more shared and detailed projects.
  2. Set up explicit and shared rules to organize the process: an ULL is not merely an assembly, where a promoter presents an idea trying to make other participants agree with it: it’s an arena for the development of shared ideas and concepts, in which everyone should be able to play an equal role, regardless of his power in the urban chessboard. In order to avoid endless discussions and the subsequent frustrations, some organization is required: the first step is to present the “rules of the game” and to have all participants agree on them, before the real work starts. The process should be clearly divided in phases, with a well-defined timing for each phase and for each meeting of the Lab. Rules and timing should be flexible enough to adjust the process according to the circumstances, but should also be rigorous enough to give a clear indication of the effort required to all participants and to regulate the process activities towards the expected results, without unnecessary delays. Also, a long-term view of the process should be adopted: even if short-term marketisation of the innovations produced by ULL is usually one of the mail goal of their promoters (private companies, urban and regional governments, etc.), successful innovation often needs time, and in many ULL long periods of discussion, contestation, experimentation and testing have been necessary before new solutions or new technologies could be embedded in the local context and stabilized, through a difficult trial and error process requiring many adjustments to satisfy all the actors and interests involved (Marvin et al., 2018).

The spaces utilized for Lab activities should be carefully cured, preferring a set-up which could encourage interaction (i.e. a round table) and avoid distractions. When possible, meetings and visits could be arranged in the areas where the project will take its effects, to provide a more immersive experience and a better contact with the “real world” where the testing and implementation will be realized.

  1. Encourage informality: an ULL is not a formal event, but a process intended to build capacity for collective actions: it is important to make all participants feel welcome and relaxed, in order to encourage the development of trust and cooperation between them. The meetings should be held in an accessible and neutral place, not strongly linked to any of the powers and interests involved in the process. Invitations should be accompanied by personal contacts with the organizers, to explain the process and to point out the importance of participation. Welcome procedures should be well organized, but should be also very informal, avoiding distinctions between participants based on their status or on the importance of their organizations. Whenever possible, the meetings should not involve large numbers of participants, in order to allow everyone to express his opinion and to develop personal relations with all other actors (if many actors are involved, multiple, “parallel” tables can be organized: information and exchange between them will be cured by the organizers). Participants should not be forced to speak, if they prefer to stay silent – but they should always be aware of the possibility to express their voice, as many times as they want. The more informal the meetings are, the more the participants will be encouraged to take an active role, and the easier will be to resolve eventual conflicts.
  2. Ensure the transparency and fairness of all phases, activities and decisions: participants lacking resources or power (i.e. common citizens, associations, local committees) may be suspicious of inclusive processes where “strong” actors are involved. They may feel their role as merely symbolic, while important decisions are taken elsewhere without their voice. In order to reassure them of their importance to the ULL, all information relevant to the process and all knowledge needed to analyze the topic and to produce solutions should be shared to all participants. Everyone should be encouraged to honestly express statements and opinions: even if this could lead to conflicts, it’s the only way to produce an open debate and to build trust. Procedures and decisions should be transparent in all phases of the process, and no participant should be allowed to negotiate his interests in a “separate room”. If privileges are accorded to some participants, others may feel cheated and demotivated, endangering the whole process.


3.4 Evaluating the process and its outcomes

Given the learning by doing nature of ULL, it is vital to evaluate the effects of such experiments in urban transition processes (Sharp and Salter, 2017). To this end, a threefold typology of “direct, indirect and diffuse impacts” to understand the success of urban living lab projects has been proposed (Schliwa et al., 2015): but while direct impacts can be easily measured from an economic (i.e. costs of the product, job creation, reduction of bills, lifecycle costs), ecological (i.e. resource efficiency, energy efficiency, reductions of pollution) or social perspective (i.e. acceptance of technologies, quality of life, number of participants involved in the project), and indirect impacts could be estimated analyzing follow-up activities of diffusion, knowledge transfer (to the academic sphere, but also, and more importantly, to the society and the market), or policy reform, diffuse impacts are more difficult to detect, since they often refer to changes in normative or cultural values which may influence the perception of problems and the design of future urban infrastructures, and such changes require some time to stabilize and may be hard to link to their generative causes.

Another important aspect of an ULL to be evaluated, other than its impacts, is the quality of the process. Was the decision-making process efficient? Were the resulting decisions wise, fair, practicable? Did the process improve the relationships between the stakeholders? Did it generate trust among them? Did community empowerment (Iscoe and Harris, 1984; Laverack, 2001) grow? Did the organizers learn some original tools to innovate the urban context? Although it may not be easy to answer those questions, all information about the quality of the process, in particular the one collected directly from the participants, will be useful to modify the procedures and the objectives of the Lab, adapting it to the real-world scenario and actors (in itinere evaluation), as well as a learning tool to better organize future activities (ex post evaluation).
















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[5] With a definition echoing the one from ENoLL cited in par.1, the funding body Joint Programme Initiative (JPI) Urban Europe defines an ULL as “a forum for innovation, applied to the development of new products, systems, services, and processes, employing working methods to integrate people into the entire development process as users and co-creators, to explore, examine, experiment, test and evaluate new ideas, scenarios, processes, systems, concepts and creative solutions in complex and real contexts.” (JPI Urban Europe 2013).

[6] An extended collection of (not only Urban) Living Labs, listed by topic and by country, is available on the ENoLL website ( The ENoLL database comprises mostly European LL, although some cases of programs in other continents are present.

[7] Source: Kempner, R. (2017, Dec. 7), “Dharavi, India: The Most Entrepreneurial Slum In The World?”