Mark SayManaging EditorThursday 28 September 2017

The case for living labs in developing smart places

Feature: Three advocates of the cause have outlined the advantages and ideas for long term sustainability

For something that can be difficult to define, a living lab can have a strong influence on plans for smart places. Some observers will even claim that if you want to develop one of the crucial ingredients, a community of active, small scale innovators, it is close to being a necessity.

Abstract of digitally connected crowdThe subject came up in a discussion at last week’s Smart Summit 2017, with an acknowledgement that there are plenty of variations of a living lab but agreement on a central characteristic, that it involves normal people in testing out the solutions that emerge.

This is going to be a big issue as public authorities and their partners from academia and the tech industry experiment with the internet of things (IoT) and 5G to create the future of smart places. One of the priorities will be in involving end users in the innovation process to ensure that it works for the real world.

The nature of living labs can vary, from a building to an experimental project, a prototype home, a community. There is a strong possibility of universities using their campuses and student populations as the basis for experiments in a controlled environment.

A handful of points were raised to support the development. The need for people to feel comfortable in using the solutions was prominent throughout the discussion.

Touch and experience

“People still need to touch and experience things before they buy,” said Gemma Ginty, urban futures lead at the Future Cities Catapult. “If you were the chief executive of a city you’re not going to just trust on faith. You need to ensure there is going to be take-up and it will respond to people’s desires.”

A similar view came from Anna Stahlbrost of the Botnia Living Lab, run by Lulea University of Technology in Sweden. “It’s so important for us to be part of the smart city development to make sure the citizen’s voice is heard,” she said, relating it to the development of IoT and 5G and saying it could bring users into the innovation process.

That potential for innovation is another big plus point. Living labs can provide start-ups and SMEs – the type of companies who can have big ideas but few resources – with an environment to develop and test solutions.

“If you want to increase the level of innovation for a city you need a living lab,” Stahlbrost said. “This is the playground where everybody comes with different perspectives and have the start-ups, micro companies, bigger enterprises and municipalities coming together to innovate.

“It can increase the amount of ideas and the level of innovation.”

Start-up factor

It can also make public authorities – which are usually risk-averse – more amenable to working with start-ups. Jacob Lundgaard, director of living labs and smart cities for Danish public/private sector partnership Gate 21, said it can provide a testbed that keeps the innovation process in line with the public priorities.

The environment can also ensure that, for projects that stretch over a period of years, the technology solutions remain up-to-date. There is always danger in running a one-off research project that the solution could soon become obsolete, but if companies are involved in a living lab they will continue to bring their latest ideas and prototypes to the process.

“Some of these projects are for 10-15 years, and you need to know how to keep it active in people’s minds,” Ginty said. “A living lab as part of big regeneration project can provide for constant evolution.”

It all stacks up to a strong strategic case, but it needs funding to get going and the speakers acknowledged that making the business case is more difficult. There are often possibilities to obtain funding for the early stages, but if the programme is to be sustained long term other sources of revenue have to be found.

Selling competencies

The lab in which Gate 21 is involved charges companies to use its facilities and visitors for an introduction to its work. Lundgaard acknowledged that the charges have to be limited as most of the customers have little cash to spare, and said the organisation is beginning to add a “competencies layer” to its business. The idea is that visitors can spend longer with the team to pick up its key skills in running a lab and approaching problems.

Stahlbrost said the Botnia lab is funded by its use in research projects – reflecting its role as a university – and that it can provide the value of tools and methodologies to support the work.

Building partnerships in which other organisations take some of the financial burden can also play a part. Larger private sector enterprises could be the most lucrative source, although there is a need for caution to ensure that the labs continue to serve their social purpose rather becoming corporate testbeds.

It is a fragmented picture that reflects the nature of the labs, with no precise definition and no prescriptive solution for how they should be run. But they offer a channel for making a reality of the ideas to support smart places and, with the number growing from a handful in 2000 to about 260 worldwide now, they could become a fixture of even more regions and cities over the next few years.

Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0