The living lab: a place for smart city experimentation
In recent decades, a wave of innovative tech solutions have radically improved our lives in incredible, diverse ways – and a current focus of this trend is our urban spaces. More and more, cities are focussing on integrating technology as a means to increase efficiency and convenience. The living lab: a place for smart city experimentationWide ranging initiatives, loosely coupled under the term ‘smart cities’, are currently underway around the world. Copenhagen is at the forefront of this movement, with an award-winning smart city plan and various projects underway.
The potential within this area is overwhelming and has been widely recognised. Opinions vary, however, on how best to develop this potential – especially when it comes to established cities. Care must be taken to ensure that any technology implemented in our urban spaces doesn’t negatively affect or exclude those already living and working in the city. The inherent complexity of urban environments adds an extra challenge when developing sustainable technical solutions.
As a way to manage this complexity, many cities use living labs to experiment with smart city solutions. Living labs are localised areas of experimentation within urban environments in which stakeholders can collaboratively and iteratively develop new, technology-enabled urban solutions. Within an urban living lab citizens, businesses and government can come together within a real-life environment, over an extended period of time, to exchange knowledge and build ideas. Copenhagen has recently launched its own living lab, Street Lab, within the city centre, and a first wave of technical solutions is currently being tested there.
Strength in Diversity
The meaningful inclusion of a diverse range of urban stakeholders is widely perceived as essential for the development of useful urban technological solutions. By including stakeholders outside of the IT industry in solution development, products and services can be made relevant for diverse urban demographics and can find improved acceptance and greater ownership among end users. Economic solution sustainability, a major challenge for many smart city solutions, can be greatly improved by ensuring that the social dimension and supporting context are focussed on as much as the technology itself.
Additionally, including diverse stakeholders helps to educate them on the technology being implemented in their living spaces, and allows them to take fuller advantage of this technology, as well as to maintain better control over their data and privacy. It also ensures that the smart city vision develops according to a user perspective, and not just according to the goals of large IT infrastructure corporations.
Inclusion Initiatives Today
Of course, involving a large range of people and businesses in the development of technical solutions is a lot more easily said than done. Smart cities around the world are experimenting with a diverse range of initiatives, with many different overall aims. These can be roughly mapped along two axes, the project goal and participant type.
Participation in a living lab initiative can be completely open, attracting many diverse stakeholders. It can also be specifically targeted towards a few more intrinsically motivated participants. The ultimate goal of the initiative can be focussed on developing new technology, or the aim can be more towards the education of citizens and businesses on smart city topics. There are specific challenges and rewards for each approach.
‘Crowdsourced ideation’ is commonly referenced as a democratic way to steer smart city development. These types of initiatives involve a web platform on which any citizen can suggest ideas for smart city development – usually with motivation provided in the form of contest entries. Ghent, for example, ran the initiative ‘My Digital Idea for Ghent’, in which citizens were asked, “how might ICT improve everyday life in the city”. The initiative received thousands of site visits, and hundreds of ideas were generated. In an interesting study from Ghent University, however, these ideas were compared to the ideas of a panel of smart city ‘experts’, and though citizens’ ideas were more pragmatic, they were also very repetitive and not very ground-breaking. Lacking the insight of the experts, citizens’ ideas often described existing municipal goals or initiatives. This research suggests that to get really useful diverse stakeholder input, a more targeted approach could be beneficial – an approach in which ‘expert’ stakeholders in a particular area could be recruited and deeply embedded in the design process. This way they could be given the opportunity to gain the contextual oversight required to develop truly innovative solutions.
On the opposite side of the above matrix there is another category of diverse stakeholder inclusion, ‘facilitated DIY’. In these kinds of initiatives, stakeholder education is the focus, and participants choose their own smart city projects. Amsterdam Smart Citizens Lab is an example of this kind of initiative. An open call for participants recruits a diverse range of citizens, who then self-organize into groups based on interest and are supported over a several-month development process in creating their own technical smart city solution. The citizens involved in the first wave of the Smart Citizens Lab did produce some interesting smart city solutions. As they weren’t technical experts, however, the solutions were far from implementable at the conclusion of the program. Furthermore, not all of the developed solutions aligned with Amsterdam’s prioritised smart city goals. For living labs with limited resources, an approach like this, resource-heavy but with limited quantifiable outcomes, is impossible.
A user-centred living lab toolkit
From February until August of this year, I worked collaborated with the Danish Design Centre in the writing of my Master’s thesis in Service Design. The focus of the work was on looking into various ways to include more types of people in urban living labs. By leveraging the empathetic techniques of design research, I hoped to identify real issues – relevant from a variety of perspectives. Then, using the ideation and concept development techniques of service design, I hoped to develop practical solutions.
As I explored the challenges living labs face when it comes to diverse inclusion, I realized the need for a low-level, basic toolkit which could help Street Lab (and other living lab organisers) design an appropriate, targeted, user-centred foundation, both at the initiation of a new living lab and ongoingly as initiatives are developed. As a final deliverable I developed a toolkit to provide this foundation by guiding users through a series of steps.
As a first step when designing a new living lab, the various possible stakeholders must first be identified. As such, the toolkit begins by guiding users through basic user observation, identification, and categorization processes. Documented observation sessions (nicknamed ‘safaris’) can be used to gain a feel for localised urban spaces. Of course, this is an extremely simple technique, but the effects of getting out of an office and into the streets can be transformative – with participants gaining insight into everything from the variety of urban stakeholders using a space, to the effect on usage patterns of various types of weather.
To be used together with these initial observations is a simple interview guide, designed to give users a basic overview of the needs and wants of stakeholders found in an urban area. The information from these interviews can be used to categorise urban stakeholders into groups with similar key traits. To make these groups more human, personas can be used. The kit contains four example personas based on people found in the area of Copenhagen Street Lab, as well as a template for creating more.
In order to move forward with designing cohesive solutions, strong problem statements must be synthesised. Based on the qualitative data gathered in the first few steps described in the kit (as well as any other research activities a team may have engaged in), these statements can begin to be built. The process of creating ‘how might we’ questions, a well-known design thinking tool developed by IDEO, is summarized in the kit.
As discussed above, when teams move into actually ideating upon potential solutions to problem statements, it is important that urban stakeholders themselves are invited to join in. In order to keep the process focussed and work within reasonable resource constraints, however, participants must be prioritised carefully. Two tools are included in the kit to help with this task.
Finally, it is essential during living lab development that the voices of diverse urban stakeholders are safeguarded in the governance process. A citizen’s panel, recruited carefully to include divergent voices, is one solution. The final tool in the toolkit is a series of blueprints describing the recruitment and operation of a citizen’s panel for Copenhagen Street Lab. Though the blueprints specify this particular living lab case, their contents can also be extrapolated to other living labs around the world.
This toolkit is shared here. Please feel free to download, share, and use it, and join the discussion on use cases and possible improvements. Enjoy!
Lara Casciola is a service designer, currently living and working in Copenhagen. She comes from an educational and professional background in product design but has moved into the less tangible – though often more impactful – business of designing our interpersonal and technological interactions. Lara Casciola has a service design master’s degree from Aalborg University, and these days works at Bang & Olufsen – where, among other things, she helps research and conceptualise the services we’ll use to enjoy music in the future. Feel free to get in touch here.