Governance of Urban Sustainability Transitions: Advancing the role of living labs

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Geography


European cities face a pressing challenge - how can they provide economic prosperity and social cohesion while achieving environmental sustainability? In response, new 'living labs'- sites devised to design, test and learn from social and technical innovation in real time - are being formed. Individual cases have been studied, but limited work has been done to understand how they work across different national contexts and how we can scale-up their impact or share lessons across European cities. This project brings together leading European research partners and practitioners to investigate urban living labs and enhance their potential for contributing to sustainability transitions.

Planned Impact

This project will support the on-going change processes in Europe towards sustainable, low-carbon urban areas by transforming current challenges into opportunities. It will do so via dedicated research on the role of Urban Living Laboratories (ULL) in the governance of urban sustainability transitions performed by an interdisciplinary team of scholars from four European countries. Project results will inform lead urban actors, decision makers and the scientific community, and support urban sustainability transitions by:

(a) generating knowledge about the role of ULL in sustainable transitions;
(b) enhancing the working and effectiveness of ULL;
(c) supporting European integration and sustainability transition processes;
(d) and improving the design and governance of ULL.

Full details about the approach to impact are provided in the Pathways to Impact document.


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Bulkeley H (2018) Urban living laboratories: Conducting the experimental city? in European Urban and Regional Studies

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Bulkeley H (2016) Urban living labs: governing urban sustainability transitions in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability

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Romero-Lankao P (2018) Urban transformative potential in a changing climate in Nature Climate Change

Description The key aim of the GUST project was to examine, inform and advance the governance of sustainability transitions (ST) taking place through urban living labs (ULL) in Europe. Urban Living Laboratories are a relatively new phenomenon, through which different actors are seeking to develop solutions to sustainability challenges and to create the capacity to learn 'what works' in order to 'scale up' these approaches. Our research focused on how and why ULL have come to be used by different actors and their implications for how the governance of sustainability is now taking place.
Our research has found that there are distinct types of ULL now being implemented. Before our work was undertaken, there was little systematic analysis of ULL and it was often assumed that they were relatively similar to one another - they were usually caricatured as being rather technical projects, led by businesses and knowledge institutions and concerned with developing 'trials' of particular technologies. Our work has shown that ULL contain a much wider variety of actors and approaches to testing new solutions and learning about their effects. To capture these insights, we have developed a typology of ULL in Europe, based on an analysis of 50 different cases across Europe.
One important aspect of this analysis has been the identification of demonstrations and platforms as specific forms of ULL. We have found that ULL have provided an important mechanism for municipal governments, local universities and businesses to work together to demonstrate the potential for alternative kinds of urban futures. This reduces the risk of innovation and enables new forms of partnership to be tested on the ground. ULL are also often created as platforms, which seek to bring together different actors and innovations in order to open up new possibilities for action, where the outcomes are not prescribed. In short, ULL can provide a space for cities to develop more 'radical' innovations, where the desired outcomes and consequences of particular interventions is not prescribed in advance.
Alongside the research results that we have produced (and which are in the process of publication in a series of papers and an edited book), we have also focused on working with practitioners and disseminating our work widely. First, we have produced a series of 'snapshot' reports which provide details of the ULL which we have investigated in an accessible way for other policy makers and users. Second, we have developed a Handbook on ULL which is intended to provide support for those seeking to design and develop ULL in cities in Europe. Third, we have developed a Massive Open Online Course which provides an introductory course on urban sustainability and the role of experimentation and ULL in sustainability transitions. Details of these outputs are provided on our webpage.
Exploitation Route Throughout the project we worked with stakeholders involved in the development of ULL and developed specific events to communicate our findings to them, including a successful event for policy makers & practitioners in the UK as well as website with short films, news and twitter feed. We have also developed the MOOC offering an accessible route to engage with the ideas, concepts and findings developed in the project. These approaches have ensured that the work of our project has reached a wide range of non-academic audiences and those taking the MOOC for education or continued professional development purposes.
We have collated our core findings into a Handbook which is targeted at actors planning or launching participatory activities related to urban planning or other development projects in urban contexts, focusing on municipalities, housing companies and universities, but is equally relevant for private companies, and civil society organisations active in cities. The handbook aims to bring open innovation and co-creation to urban policy makers and change agents in Europe and beyond, by offering an introduction into the basic concepts and principles of urban living labs. In addition, this handbook provides examples of good practices and guidance on the design, operation and evaluation of urban livings labs. Through this channel, our work may be used to shape the development of future forms of co-creation and experimentation designed to enable sustainability transitions.
Our findings may also be taken up by the academic community, particularly those interested in the dynamics of sustainability transitions and those who have identified other forms of experimentation as now central to the governance of urban sustainability. These key findings will be published in a series of papers, a special issue and an edited book.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Energy,Environment,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Government, Democracy and Justice,Transport

Description H2020
Amount € 8,000,000 (EUR)
Funding ID 730243 
Organisation European Commission H2020 
Sector Public
Country Belgium
Start 11/2016 
End 10/2020
Title Handbook on ULL 
Description The GUST project produced a handbook to support research, government and private sector organisations in the development and implementation of urban living laboratories. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact There has been significant interest in the Handbook and it has been downloaded frequently from the website. 
Description NATURVATION 
Organisation Lund University
Country Sweden 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Following from the GUST project, Lund & Durham Universities approached a group of partners across Europe to develop a proposal for the H2020 Sustainable Cities & Communities Call on Urban Nature Based Solutions. We focused on the emergence and development of innovation with NBS in European cities and were successful in securing the project, which involves 14 partner organisations including universities, environmental agencies, city networks and local authorities.
Collaborator Contribution Lund University were central to both the development of the network of partners in the bid and to the writing of the proposal text. They co-led the management workpackage with Durham University and are responsible also for the leadership of the case-study research and for our overall communications plan.
Impact The collaboration is a large transdisciplinary project which draws widely across different disciplines (from biology to political science, sociology to innovation studies). It has to date resulted in a number of outputs all of which are provided on the website (link above). To date, direct outputs from the Lund-Durham collaboration are still in process.
Start Year 2015
Description Policy Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Workshop aimed to communicate the findings from the project with key policy makers and stakeholders engaged in the funding and development of ULL in the UK, who reported afterwards that they had found the findings and insights useful for their practice and strategy development.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017