Smarter living labs - Tips for SmarterLabs

Ever heard of a living lab? A living lab is not just using the city as a laboratory to do experiments. And citizens are not just guinea pigs.

In a living lab, the users of the city steer the research.

They put scientific theory into practice and experiment for and through the city. The goal is social innovation, an improvement in the lives of all.

Sounds like something for BRAL? That's right!

Many living labs fail to work in an inclusive way and only attract one particular audience. Or their living labs can only be applied to a very specific place. Too bad, isn't it?

Cosmopolis of VUB set up an international consortium to bypass these pitfalls with a 'smart' living lab. BRAL joined in. We set to work with a living lab that involved certain groups from the outset and focused on the urban level.

A Brussels lab on air quality

For the last three years, BRAL has been working on a living lab to measure air quality in Brussels, AirCasting Brussels. We did this together with Cosmopolis of VUB and with the support of Innoviris. BRAL's priority was to sustainably mobilise citizens for healthy air in Brussels. A scientific lab with citizens on air pollution was essential for BRAL to achieve this goal.

An important step was to attract people who wanted to participate in our research to measure the air quality in Brussels. We already noticed in the ExpAIR project that the attraction for a participant can be immaterial: the pleasure of discovering, learning and thinking together on a specific issue.

BRAL's role was therefore not that of an expert. We came to the citizen with the message: "We want you to become an expert".

With a mobile measuring device and an app on the smartphone, the civil scientists could quickly get down to work. Volunteers registered more than 500 hours of concentrations of PM2.5, and collected more than a million data in ten months' time.

These data were collected on an interactive map showing the daily experience of the inhabitants of Brussels. That's how we met the need for scalability of our project. Wherever you are, you could see what your exposure was. Because you also step outside of your own home. And then you are also exposed to air pollution.

We started with three groups of action researchers: residents living in the heart of Brussels, expats working for the EU and bicycle militants. Each time we adapted our lab to the lives of the volunteers, their pace, their lifestyle, their availability. We grew from three groups to about ten. BRAL learned that as a facilitator we could be very flexible according to the expectations and needs of the groups.

Gathering, measuring and combining knowledge was the key to success.

Gathering, measuring and combining knowledge was the key to success. It greatly accelerated the collective knowledge, the sense of responsibility towards the group and the empowerment and desire of the action researchers to mobilise.

For the scientists and for us, too, the process of experimental learning, the exchange of knowledge, proved to be crucial in order to improve our project.

An international consortium Smarterlabs

We weren’t the only ones organizing a living lab. For the European project SmarterLabs, three other cities (Maastricht, Graz and Bellinzona (Switzerland)) created their own living labs.

But what does a living lab mean? And how do you start one yourself? You can find our lessons learned in the guidelines (short and long version) and a video. We hope it will help anyone who wants to set up a living lab in the future: citizens, researchers of practitioners!

SmarterLabs was supported by the Urban Europe Joint Programming Initiative of the European Union. You can find more information on the project here.

If you want to cite this document, you can use the following reference: Dijk, M., da Schio, N., Diethart, M., Höflehner, T., Wlasak, P., Castri, R., Cellina, F., Boussauw, K., Cassiers, T., Chemin, L., Cörvers, R., de Kraker, J., Kemp, R., van Heur, B. (2019). How to anticipate constraints on upscaling inclusive Living Lab experiments, SmarterLabs project 2016-2019, JPI Urban Europe.

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