CEresearchNRW: Living Labs – Innovation Spaces for Sustainability and Circularity?

Friederike von Unruh vom Prosperkolleg Team.

by Friederike v. Unruh

CEresearchNRW Web Seminar

On 01.07.2021 in the 14th web seminar of the CEresearchNRW network, everything revolved around the topic of Living Labs, with the question of whether these are innovation spaces for more sustainability and circularity. Julius Piwowar as well as Dr. Johanna Meurer and Michael Ahmadi accepted the invitation as speakers:in the research network and presented excerpts of their research work.

“Combining sustainability and design perspectives.”

After a short welcome from the Prosperkolleg. Julius Piwowar (Wuppertal Institute, Department of Sustainable Production and Consumption) addressed what Living Labs are in general and what challenges and success factors arise when setting up a Living Lab infrastructure. In doing so, he described living labs as innovation structures with a high level of practical relevance that feature active user integration, hands-on experimentation, and multidisciplinarity. They can be used in various innovation areas, such as housing, nutrition or mobility. They also play an important role in sustainability and transformation research with a focus on both consumer and producer behavior. A joint design with users can take place as well as the exploration of their behavior and its changes. In sustainability research, one focus in the study of consumer behavior is on product-service systems, which can use assistance systems to stimulate sustainable consumption. As an example, Mr. Piwowar mentions an assistance system “Piaf” for supporting the energy-saving behavior of users in office and administrative buildings, which is being developed and tested in the current ComfortLab project.

When Living Labs are chosen as a research and innovation approach, different phases of user integration exist. Initially, users are observed, for example to analyze material flows and identify patterns of action. In the next phase, prototypes are developed, in part with users, which are then tested. Field tests will be conducted in the final phase. Throughout the process, sustainability potentials and design aspects can be evaluated, such as usability. Real user perspectives can be gained through such innovation spaces. This is crucial because users do not always express their needs in concrete terms.

To find out what the challenges and success factors are in setting up a Living Lab infrastructure, Mr. Piwowar conducted interviews with Living Lab operators from different countries. Challenges are the financing of the laboratories after the expiration of the funding or also to communicate and market the own laboratory performance. In addition, it is difficult to give flexible processes a structure. Political regulations may also prohibit experimentation in certain areas. That is why it is important and necessary not only to rely on public funding, but also to acquire private funding and, if necessary, to establish a start-up.

“PRAXLABS instead of Laboratory -Sustainability in Regional Research Infrastructures.”

In a second lecture, Dr. Johanna Meurer and Michael Ahmadi from the University of Siegen spoke about “User-centered research on human-technology interaction in socially relevant areas” and presented the Living Labs concept PRAXLABS of the University of Siegen . The aim here is to find solutions that are convincing in everyday use. One focus is on the development of technology and the introduction and use phase of technology. New ideas for end users, households and employees will be generated and evaluated in practice. Different methods are used in each phase: For example, interviews, questionnaires and observations are used to first understand the context, while workshops, focus groups and participatory design are used to generate ideas. Usability tests, workshops or lab and field tests are used in the iterative design process. In the real world, solutions are evaluated using logging, interviews, questionnaires, observations or online participation, among other methods.

In the SehrMobil research and development project, for example, innovative mobility concepts for older people in the Siegen-Wittgenstein region were investigated and co-designed in the PRAXLABS to promote social and ecological sustainability. For this purpose, a multimedia access for the users was developed consisting of smartphone, computer via website and smart TV. Mobility concepts are important in rural regions, as communities are often not well connected by public transport, making the car very important. This can lead to problems, especially in old age. To better understand everyday mobility in the region, interviews were conducted and seven rides were taken. This showed that for many residents, the car is important for their independence. New mobility ideas were then generated and discussed in joint meetings. In an iterative design process, the developed mobility app was made more user-friendly and adapted to its suitability for everyday use. In the last phase, interviews were conducted in combination with digital mobility protocols and found out that smartphones can simplify and support everyday mobility, e.g. with pictures of places in terms of your accessibility. In addition, interviews were conducted in combination with a user study to better understand sustainable everyday mobility.

Advantages of the Living Labs concept are the involvement of different stakeholders (potential users, research institutions, industry, public institutions), long-term evaluation, user integration, monitoring of usage behavior as well as behavioral changes or even the increase of innovation potential. Challenges include motivating users, investing a lot of time, creating social dynamics between users and designing actors, and responding to unpredictable influences in practice.

In conclusion, it can be said that Living Labs can promote the design of circular and sustainable solutions, but that this requires the active involvement of users.