The Evolution of the Living Lab

Associate Professor Ruth Barcan reflects on the origins of the ‘Living Lab’ model of sustainability — as a vibrant innovative ecosystem celebrating diversity, experimentation and co-creation through every-day practice and research.

University of British Columbia in Spring. Image by Aditya Chinchure, via Unsplash

Sustainability, claims David Owen bluntly, is “one of the least meaningful and most overused words in the English language”. The term is “notoriously vague” – beset by “longstanding definitional ambiguities.”1-3 In fact, there are hundreds of definitions of sustainability!

Some scholars see the multiplicity as useful; others seek the ‘right’ definition; and others think the whole business of looking for a ‘best’ definition is wasted effort.4-6 So it’s important to look at what is done in its name – especially at universities, where practice should, in an ideal world, be progressive, effective and based on research.

In 2018, I spent some time at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, to study their sustainability profile. I spoke to staff at the University Sustainability Initiative (USI), joined a campus green buildings tour and a UBC farm tour, and spoke to academics engaged in sustainability teaching, research and education. I was impressed with what I saw and heard.

The University of British Columbia is a world-leader in sustainability. The recent Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings ranks it as number one in the world for energy use and research on climate change and number one in Canada for making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.The University has won innumerable sustainability awards, including Canada’s Greenest Employer in 2017.

This history of innovation and leadership goes back a long way. UBC was among the inaugural signatories of the Talloires Declaration, a 10-point action plan for universities launched in 1990. The influential concept of the ‘ecological footprint’ was developed there in the early 1990s by Mathis Wackernagezcn and William Rees.8 UBC was the first Canadian university to adopt a sustainable development policy (in 1997) and to set up a sustainability office (1998).9 Today, sustainability is core business.

The model they draw on is the so-called ‘Living Lab’. This concept was developed by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and taken up withinspecialist tech disciplines like ambient intelligence research. A living lab is a “user-centric innovation milieu built on every-day practice and research”.10 It is understood as a vibrant ‘ecosystem’ in which diversity, difference, experimentation, participation and co-creation are celebrated as enablers of ‘breakthrough ideas’.11 Crucial elements are that innovations are ‘user-driven’ and take place in real-life contexts.12 Core principles are that all stakeholders are engaged, that a diversity of views and approaches are welcomed, and that the community is committed to exploration, experimentation and evaluation.13 Bergvall-Kåreborn and colleagues note five principles: continuity, openness, realism, empowerment of users and spontaneity.14

In the rather technical prose that characterises writing on the living lab, Marc Pallot describes it as “a user-centred open innovation ecosystem integrating concurrent research and innovation processes within a business-citizens-government partnership.”15 What this means in a university context is, in essence, that the university is understood as a community committed to growing and changing together, simultaneously experimenting, testing and showcasing the research that goes on there and welcoming insights and innovations from researchers, students and the community.

At UBC, this co-creation approach is distilled in three potent principles: the campuses should act as a living lab; the university is an agent of change; and sustainability is an all-of-university enterprise. Thus, sustainability straddles the academic and the operational, and is at the heart of the university’s physical presence, branding, teaching, research, commitment to students and community outreach. The university understands sustainability beyond ecological issues, including social values like inclusiveness, placemaking, belonging, and First Nations centrality. It is trying to move beyond a harm minimisation model towards ‘regenerative sustainability’ – a ‘net positive’ approach in which businesses and organisations try to be active agents for good.

Sign at UBC Farm, photo by Ruth Barcan.

So, what does this actually look and feel like when you walk around the campus? A living lab is, after all, meant to be a ‘milieu’.

Well, most university campuses look joyful and inviting when you are on study leave, and for me, UBC was vibrant. No doubt for staff hurrying to meetings and lectures, students worrying about exams, and visitors late for an appointment, it functions less as a place of creative experimentation than one of duty. And no doubt many of the thousands of people moving about the campus aren’t thinking about sustainability at all. But not-noticing is part of the point: it should be unremarkable that none of the cafes has single-use plastic and that you find composting or battery recycling at every turn. It should be unremarkable that water is captured for re-use, that science labs aim to minimise water and power use, that cleaning products are non-toxic or that cycling is easy because of the campus showers, the bike share schemes and the bike repair shop. It should be unremarkable that student environmental groups are invited to regular student feedback forums.

Moreover, visibility is not always crucial to effectiveness. Much infrastructure is hidden behind the scenes as policy and procedures: facilitating carpooling by allowing shared parking passes; enacting fair trade and green leases across all university systems; or mandating minimum gold-star LEED rating for all new buildings. This hidden policy infrastructure is as vital as the visually impressive green buildings it produces, like the platinum-rated Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability or the new gold-rated Aquatic Centre or the prize-winning First Nations Longhouse that is the hub of indigenous learning and events on campus.

Only an insider could tell you how thoroughly, democratically, dynamically and minutely these innovations filter through the university. But it would be hard to argue that the living lab model doesn’t have a beneficial effect on lived experience. The international environmental design student who led our green buildings tour (itself an example of the living lab principle in action) told me that she found the university’s commitment to placemaking and socially inclusive design to be crucial to why she felt “at home” on campus.

Investing in a vibrant campus sustainability practice is, in essence, displaying one’s faith in the future – especially the future of the students whom it is a university’s privilege to help form. It is exciting that the University of Sydney is taking up the living lab as the model underpinning its emerging sustainability strategy. For it to work, though, we all have to own it – to understand it, embrace it, celebrate it, communicate it, and hold it accountable.

1. David Owen, The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse(Melbourne: Scribe Publications, 2012), 107.
2. Julianne Lutz Newton and Eric T. Freyfogle, “Sustainability: A Dissent,” Conservation Biology,19, no. 1 (2005): 24.
3. Eloise M. Biggs, et al., “Sustainable Development and the Water-Energy-Food Nexus: A Perspective on Livelihoods,” Environmental Science and Policy,54 (2015): 389.
4. Robert O. Vos, “Defining Sustainability: A Conceptual Orientation,” Journal of Chemical Technology & Biotechnology, 82, no. 4 (2007): 334.
5. Leslie Paul Thiele, Sustainability(Cambridge: Polity, 2013), 2.
6. Robert Costanza and Bernard C. Patten, “Defining and Predicting Sustainability,” Ecological Economics15, no. 3 (1995): 193.
7. Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings 2019, accessed 28 August 2019, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/rankings/impact/2019/overall#!/page/0/length/25/sort_by/rank/sort_order/asc/cols/undefined
8. Mathis Wackernagel, “Ecological Footprint and Appropriated Carrying Capacity: A Tool for Planning Toward Sustainability” (PhD diss., The University of British Columbia, 1994).
9. UBC — Who We Are
10. Birgitta Bergvall-Kåreborn, et al., “A Milieu for Innovation –Defining Living Labs,” Paper presented at the 2nd ISPIM Innovation Symposium, New York, 6–9 December, 2009,
11. Marc Pallot et al., “Living Lab Research Landscape: From User Centred Design and User Experience towards User Cocreation,” First European Summer School “Living Labs”, Inria (ICT Usage Lab), Aug 2010, Paris.
12. Birgitta Bergvall-Kåreborn, et al., “Concept Design with a Living Lab Approach,” Proceedings of the 42nd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences – 2009, accessed 28 August 2019, p 2.
13. Marc Pallot (2009) “Engaging Users into Research and Innovation: The Living Lab Approach as a User Centred Open Innovation Ecosystem.” Webergence Blog 25 May 2009, accessed 28 August 2019
14. Bergvall-Kåreborn, et al., “Concept Design,” 2.
15. Marc Pallot, “Engaging Users into Research and Innovation: The Living Lab Approach as a User Centred Open Innovation Ecosystem,” Webergence Blog, 25 May 2009, accessed 28 August 2019.

Ruth Barcan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies. Her teaching and research are centred on embodiment, the senses and everyday life, with a particular interest in everyday practices of sustainability. Along with Dr Fiona Allon, she is part of an Australian-German research collaboration exploring the sociocultural dimensions of waste in an urban context. Her project for this research is on the revival of domestic chicken-keeping in Sydney.

The Living Lab Series aims to highlight sustainability here at the University of Sydney. From native gardens and recycled asphalt to the new Sustainability Strategy and beyond, this series aims to highlight the range of projects championing sustainability on campus, and to celebrate everyone that has been working behind-the-scenes in this space for years. Each month we will sit down with researchers, teachers, students and campus staff to celebrate these incredible achievements and learn how we can continue to do more.