Why a living lab might be the right approach for community and territorial innovation

At the local level, communities have long been confronted with complex problems around the preservation of their living environments, in both ecological and societal terms. Multiple competing interests operate within the same territory, creating distinct issues that community members as a whole must contend with, so much so that it can discourage them from initiating change. But the socio-environmental challenges that await us will not be solved unless we take action and begin modifying our behaviour. So what methods can we choose to collectively and effectively innovate over the long term? In preparation for its new training program, the MIS is highlighting the concept of living labs and co-creative processes that foster community and territorial innovation.

Innovation by and for users

The living labs approach, which first emerged in the US in the late 1990s and was later developed in Europe starting in 2006, is characterized by a new innovation framework whereby users are no longer viewed as investigative subjects but as key actors in the innovation process.

To achieve this, a living lab assembles a coalition of diverse partners, ideally public, private and civic. They are united by their intention, their values, their willingness to innovate around a collective issue and their vision of collaboration, namely in the sharing of resources and knowledge.

By focusing on user-centered methods, the coalition is set up around an issue it wants to address—for example, this may be environmental, social, or technological in nature. In the case of a territorial living lab, the work also focuses on concerns that are specific to a given territory, be it a city, a town, a neighbourhood, a catchment basin, or any geographically defined area.

The living lab approach

In a living lab approach, different levers are activated, each with its own characteristics and added value:

  • A coalition of partners that acts as an intermediary between all stakeholders despite differences in nature, divergent interests, even a distinct understanding of the issue. Stakeholders are nonetheless united by their shared desire to innovate in the community where they are rooted. The coalition allows new links to be made where perhaps none existed before, and to empower the territory’s partners, thus ensuring the sustainability of the project.
  • A co-creative ecosystem where all types of knowledge come together: informal, activist, experiential, academic, etc., the value of which helps address the complexity of the problem. This knowledge facilitates innovation, and allows culture and problem-solving to take root based on the particularities of the territory.
  • Co-leading by users favours adoption, which is one of the objectives of the living lab. Without adoption there is no innovation. By putting the people who are most affected at the centre of the process, taking action is made easier because beneficiaries adopt an active rather than passive mindset. This creates a context for the transfer of knowledge and thus a vector for behavioural change.
  • Experimentation under real conditions facilitates iterations, helps change preconceived ideas through practice, and allows the reinjection of territory-specific learning. The risks are thus mitigated at each stage of the experimentation process.

Virginie Zingraff

The winning conditions of the living lab framework

Despite its undeniable advantages, setting up a living lab requires a considerable investment of time and resources. It also demands a number of preconditions among the assets of the territory or sector in question, and the collaborative and creative involvement of stakeholders, which is very different from traditional consultation methods. The decision to launch a living lab project must therefore be based on a careful analysis that justifies choosing this model over other user-centred innovation processes or approaches.

“There are a wide range of measures that allow users to innovate or collaborate, some that can be set up relatively quickly and locally. If we take a systemic change approach, the living lab has the advantage of being deployable over a very long term and of welcoming ongoing innovation between a variety of stakeholders within the same community. In exchange, these two distinct elements require specific forms of governance, management and organization.”— Virginie Zingraff, Senior Advisor – Practice Leadership and Transfer

Once the living lab is confirmed as the chosen innovation model, you can begin to implement it. This stage is crucial because a living lab’s success depends on the quality of its constitution—a first step that often requires support and is based on identifying assets and stakeholders within its ecosystem.

“These initial choices are critical. Among the things we’ve learned in our collaborations with different living labs, like AcadieLab or CRIUGM, is that it’s essential to be able to engage and collaborate with the right expertise and to assess and build trust between stakeholders. More importantly, the long term success and credibility of a living lab will depend on how the choice of strategies and methodologies align with the nature of innovation and the kinds of impact the living lab seeks to make. The structuring phase is decisive for the project’s future and that’s why the MIS, which specializes in providing support during the early-phase of innovation projects, is working on a living lab initiation program that will include, over the course of 2022, the publication of a comprehensive guide to implementing a living lab at the territorial or community level.” — Virginie Zingraff

If you’re curious whether launching a living lab to address a complex issue in your area is the right thing to do, or if you’d like help setting one up and gaining the necessary skills to move it forward, get in touch!

Watch our webinar on Place-based Social Innovation Through Living-Labs, featuring our Director of Social Entrepreneurship, Hugo Steben, with Jean-François Jasmin of LLio and Myriam Bérubé of the Tamarack Institute.

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