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Beyond Urban Living Labs: The making of transformative urban innovation systems


This is an article collection published in Urban Transformations.

Cities and urban areas are in an extreme state of flux, with systemic change and transformation occurring on many fronts. Against the backdrop of continued urbanization at a global scale, pressing sustainability challenges are rising that require urban responses: From decarbonization, renaturation and climate adaptation to economic restructuring, digitalization or epidemic resilience – the range of demands for deep urban change is wide.

Over the last decade, the Urban Living Lab (ULL) has emerged as a new type of intervention format for leveraging systemic urban change, mostly linked to the pursuit of sustainability goals ULLs have been characterized as local settings within which researchers and stakeholders interact  to design and run experiments (social, ecological, technological), generate feedback and social learning, and contribute to a more strategic urban innovation and transformation agenda (cf. Nevens et al., 2012; Schneidewind, 2014; Baccarne et al., 2016; Schäpke et al., 2018). 

As ULLs started to quickly proliferate, many scholars recognized this as a substantive ‘experimental turn’ in urban governance and planning, analyzing the variety of emerging ULL designs (location, organization, governance, methods, etc.) and the particular forms of interaction between science and society they involve, especially considering co-creation, reflexivity and learning (Bulkeley et al., 2016; Evans et al., 2016; Scholl and Kemp, 2016; Voytenko et al., 2016; Puerari et al., 2018; Kronsell and Mukhtar-Landgren, 2018). This has raised various critical issues regarding the politics and transformative impacts of ULLs.

With the first generations of ULLs now completed or coming of age, however, their perception as temporally and spatially confined interventions has started to change, considering their role within wider approaches to develop urban transformative capacity (cf. Wolfram, 2016). Questions are thus surfacing regarding the urban context dynamics within which ULLs are embedded (Torrens et al., 2018), or the strategies pursued by ULLs to enable and initiate a broader diffusion of the innovations generated (von Wirth et al., 2018). Especially among  researchers and practitioners engaged in ULL development, there is now an active debate about emerging models of ‘ULL 2.0’ - a novel approach aiming towards a ‘transformative urban innovation system’, with a wider group of stakeholders, broader portfolio, deeper layers of value, and further links between cause and effect.

Therefore, this special issue aims to build on some of the most significant experiences and lessons from analyzing the ‘ULL 1.0’ phase, in order to identify and outline the contours and likely directions for a forthcoming ULL 2.0 model and way of working. Papers are invited on the retrospective-prospective axis (from ‘ULL 1.0 to ULL 2.0’), taking a local, national, EU and/or global perspective. Comparative studies are particularly welcome. Contributions can be made in any of the five formats of the journal (Review, Research, Frontiers, Perspective, Focus Point - see submission guidelines).

Each paper should ensure to address the following four guiding questions:

  • What is understood so far as an “Urban Living Lab” (i.e. provide a conceptual baseline for the discussion and position it in the scientific debate)? How does this notion of ULL relate to key factors of urban transformation e.g. policy innovation, technology change or social learning?
  • What are the critical lessons from past Urban Living Lab (1.0) experiences? What are successes and failures esp. in terms of their theory of change, politics and governance, sustainability orientation and transformative impacts? Is there evidence of an implicit ‘bias’ of ULLs to look for a linear causality model of urban innovation and change – but not beyond? 
  • What role do the relations between the Urban Living Lab(s) and its/their urban context play in these lessons? What dynamics become relevant e.g. in terms of ULL embeddedness, governance and wider social learning? Are there any factors which are ‘out-of-scope’ for ULLs, e.g. distrust, alienation, or trauma? 
  •  What new understandings of Urban Living Labs (2.0), their conception, design, operation, multiplicity, interrelations, etc. are emerging, and how could these be used to support urban sustainability transformations? What are the prospects for such new ULL models to become adopted widely?

Edited by: 

Marc Wolfram, Leibniz Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development/Dresden University of Technology, Germany

Joe Ravetz, Manchester University, United Kingdom

Christian Scholl, Maastricht University, The Netherlands


Baccarne, B., Logghe, S., Schuurman, D., De Marez, L., 2016. Governing Quintuple Helix Innovation: Urban Living Labs and Socio-Ecological Entrepreneurship. Technol. Innov. Manag. Rev. 22–30.

Bulkeley, H., Coenen, L., Frantzeskaki, N., Hartmann, C., Kronsell, A., Mai, L., Marvin, S., McCormick, K., van Steenbergen, F., Voytenko Palgan, Y., 2016. Urban living labs: governing urban sustainability transitions. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 22, 13–17.

Evans, J.P.M., Karvonen, A., Raven, R. (Eds.), 2016. The experimental city, Routledge research in sustainable urbanism. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London ; New York.

Kronsell, A., Mukhtar-Landgren, D., 2018. Experimental governance: the role of municipalities in urban living labs. Eur. Plan. Stud. 26, 988–1007.

Nevens, F., Frantzeskaki, N., Gorissen, L., Loorbach, D., 2012. Urban Transition Labs: co-creating transformative action for sustainable cities. J. Clean. Prod. 50, 111–122.

Puerari, E., de Koning, J., von Wirth, T., Karré, P., Mulder, I., Loorbach, D., 2018. Co-Creation Dynamics in Urban Living Labs. Sustainability 10, 1893.

Schäpke, N., Stelzer, F., Caniglia, G., Bergmann, M., Wanner, M., Singer-Brodowski, M., Loorbach, D., Olsson, P., Baedeker, C., Lang, D.J., 2018. Jointly Experimenting for Transformation? Shaping Real-World Laboratories by Comparing Them. GAIA - Ecol. Perspect. Sci. Soc. 27, 85–96.

Schneidewind, U., 2014. Urbane Reallabore – ein Blick in die aktuelle Forschungswerkstatt. Pnd Online.

Scholl, C., Kemp, R., 2016. City Labs as Vehicles for Innovation in Urban Planning Processes. Urban Plan. 1, 89.

Torrens, J., Schot, J., Raven, R., Johnstone, P., 2018. Seedbeds, harbours, and battlegrounds: On the origins of favourable environments for urban experimentation with sustainability. Environ. Innov. Soc. Transit.

von Wirth, T., Fuenfschilling, L., Frantzeskaki, N., Coenen, L., 2018. Impacts of urban living labs on sustainability transitions: mechanisms and strategies for systemic change through experimentation. Eur. Plan. Stud. 1–29.

Voytenko, Y., McCormick, K., Evans, J., Schliwa, G., 2016. Urban living labs for sustainability and low carbon cities in Europe: towards a research agenda. J. Clean. Prod. 123, 45–54.

Wolfram, M., 2016. Conceptualizing urban transformative capacity: A framework for research and policy. Cities 51, 121–130.

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