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Going beyond fancy names, what are Living Labs made of?


Sakariina Heikkanen

Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 26.09.2019

Labs bring up images of white coats and test tubes mixed with the faint smell of disinfectant; sterile, if not even hostile environments for the study and creation of something new and exciting. Open to the privileged few with specific knowledge on and skills in science. What if labs could be living, open to all, a test-bed for sharing, caring and innovation? The concept of a Living Lab refers to the latter but what is it really and what can it be used for? And perhaps more pressingly, will it lead to innovation and solutions to multi-faceted wicked problems?

Living Lab may have different definitions as a concept depending on the evaluator. Usually, however, the following principles are identified:

Living Lab’s main function is to solve real-life problems by engaging end-users to do it in a Living Lab setting. Living Labs are places for open-innovation, and may or may not require a physical place. Living Lab is a user-driven procedure to develop services in a real-life situation. The concept is based on co-creation with end-users, as their involvement is critical for co-creating value. The end-user of a service is often different to the customer of the service. Other crucial actors are the stakeholders in the business, society and academia including enablers (i.e. public sector providing facilities/funding to co-create), providers (i.e. academia acting as a Living Lab orchestrator), and utilizers (i.e. company wanting to solve a problem) (Sources: Neloskierre, ENoLL etc.).

Living Lab can be an excellent platform to not only develop better services but also to create better environments, to find new business opportunities and to innovate. With a brilliant product, which has been developed by its’ end-users in real-life settings, the business has already entered in the market with the best possible product.

Living Lab is an extremely good method to educate students about business. Haaga-Helia has a long tradition of project based learning which is fairly close to learning in Living Labs. Differences between the Living Lab and project based learning are that the Living Lab is an on-going established model, which include all stakeholders’ active participation. The co-creation is based on a real problem that needs to be solved. It is not a platform for product testing but rather it is a platform for developing or innovating iteratively with end-users. Living Lab follows a systematic process of engaging end-users (in user-pools), businesses and other stakeholders. Some good examples of Living Labs include Hague UAS, University of Plymouth, TU Eindhoven and Aalto University.

When setting up a Living Lab there are many aspects to be considered. First of all the need to demonstrate added-value for all participants. It is easier to engage users and the stakeholders when there is a clear answer for the question “what’s in it for me?” Networks and links with businesses and stakeholders can be a valuable reward. Employment opportunities are important for students and employers. The Living Lab can be used to match companies with students and create cross learning. Students learn through real cases and about real trends. Students and teachers learn to be more flexible and face unexpected events and results. Living Labs may give teachers new content, context and viewpoints. Living Lab can be a flexible tool to organise the missing study modules and credits simultaneously bridging the gap between research development & innovation (RDI) and education. Researchers being involved in Living Lab create more value for all participants.

Overall, when setting up a Living Lab, find the right people in your organisation. Early adapters that are crusaders and disruptors themselves. Tackle wicked problems that by definition cannot be solved by single actors alone then carry on to stakeholder analysis. The Living Lab needs an orchestrator who is passionately dedicated to the coordination. Orchestrator is an octopus with many hands to coordinate in the ecosystems. Living Lab usually means stepping out of comfort zones and the orchestrator can help the participants to do that. S/he also evaluates the risks; students and businesses need to co-create in low risk areas so that in case of failure there will not be major consequences. The students need constant coaching to ensure safe environment with reliable businesses. Regarding expectations management, there are no guarantees as attempts may fail; companies need to be aware that this time it might fail but next time may be successful. Long-term plans allowing flexibility and fast actions is the key for Living Lab sustainability. Living Labs need ingenious communication and marketing. The actions have to be transparent, making it tangible by constant sharing. Playfulness and gamification are among popular methods of co-creation. Eventually, let success breed success!

The text is inspired by the Open Living Lab Days (OLLD19) which is a conference organised annually by the European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL). This September OLLD19 was organised in Greece, Thessaloniki with over 400 global participants. The event strongly indicates that as an operational model Living Lab is still expanding and also strongly supports the idea of citizen science which is important in EC funded R&D projects. The event is getting more popular every year and acts as a great arena to bond with global Living Lab experts and to build relevant networks.

Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences

Sakariina Heikkanen

RDI Specialist, Senior Lecturer

Dr. Minna-Maari Harmaala

Principal Lecturer, International Business

Dr. Kati Takaluoma

RDI Specialist