An Experiment with Living Labs

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What is a Living Lab?

For about three months we in the enkel collective, a group of Western Australian changemakers, have explored the potential to set up three so-called ‘living labs’.

A living lab is a research concept. A living lab is a user-centred, open-innovation ecosystem, often operating in a territorial context (e.g. city, agglomeration, region), integrating concurrent research and innovation processes within a public-private-people partnership.” (Wikipedia)

We were very interested in this concept as our organisation is founded on the collective intelligence, knowledge and skills of people from various sectors and organisations – both public and private.

It wasn’t easy to facilitate this process. Collaboration is a beast. And cross-sector collaboration in a voluntary living lab is even harder. Here are some of my reflections as an insider and part-facilitator. The whole series of co-creation workshops (our living labs forum series) was skilfully facilitated and led by my colleague and enkel Ambassador for Collaborations Jordan Ivatts.

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Food Lab excursion

On Collaboration

“A good partnership is not so much one between two healthy people (there aren’t many of these on the planet), it’s one between two demented people who have had the skill or luck to find a non-threatening conscious accommodation between their relative insanities.”

This is a quote from The Book of Life, and is obviously meant for a marriage: A partnership between two demented people. But this can also be used for a team of people working together. Everyone in the group has their personal challenges, delusions and worldviews. Everyone has their fears, underlying drivers and ways of doing things. Everyone is there for a particular reason.

That’s why we wanted to “extract” as much as possible from people as early as possible. What are your values? Why are you interested in joining this series of workshops and living labs? What do you want to achieve when this is over? These and other deeply personal questions were asked in the first workshops.

After finding commonalities in various areas (which took many weeks for some groups) the collaboration in the groups started to happen. But not until one person in each group stepped up as a leader.

This was one of the many things we discussed in the ‘team of curators’, which oversaw the living labs process: The balance between individual drive and collective input. When a person steps up to lead a group, other group members will leave the group, as the direction suddenly changes to be focussed on one individual rather than the group. This might be impossible to avoid.

The balance between the individual and collective is one of many challenges we identified.


Education Lab flyers


Collaboration that works is probably to find the right balance between different things:

Individual gain  Collective gain
Face-to-face meetings Virtual platform discussions and decisions
Closed group to get things done Open group to allow further diversity
 Clear manifesto, purpose, vision, theme Uncertainty to allow a living lab emerge naturally.
 Clear outcome Open-ended. No outcome – the process is the valuable thing
 Defined process Experiment
 Intellectual Property Open Source


 Individual Labs

After starting with eight different labs, we narrowed down to three:

  1. The enkel Food Lab is exploring the idea of introducing scale-able, automated, local food production to WA. We are currently looking to hack current hydroponics systems in order to build a small, modular, automated hydroponics system for suburban homes.
  2.  The enkel-powered Education Lab aims to improve student learning through developing better tutoring methods. This will be approached by tutoring disadvantaged students at no cost; creating a user-provider open research relationship.
  3. Community Lab is a group of people interested in developing a concept for using under-utilised assets in the community for the benefit of connecting and growing neighbourhoods. These assets can be after-hours use of schools, community halls, libraries etc.

We in the curators team also discussed how the level of participation depended on ‘tangible gratification’, i.e. whether a lab worked better if there was more fun, hands-on work and “action”. We noticed that the food lab, which worked with research followed by building a prototype of a hydroponics system attracted most people at times, but the education lab after the Living Lab series came to an end.

In general both head, hands and heart must probably be present for success.


My lecturer in Strategic Foresight at Swinburne University, Dr Peter Hayward, often spoke about Snyder’s theory of hope, and how that is key in his teaching of the future. From Wikipedia:

“His theory of hope emphasizes goal-directed thinking, where a person uses both pathways thinking (the perceived capacity to find routes to their desired goals) and agency thinking (the necessary motivation to use those routes).”
Dr Hayward said that his role (as program director and teacher) was to give us students pathways thinking. But he said that he was no Yoda, i.e he could never give us agency thinking.

I think there’s something similar in the facilitation of these living labs (and in our role to help each other in the enkel collective). We can give pathways by inviting people in to participate in the collective emergence unfolding in enkel.  But we cannot give them the agency to act – the entrepreneurial drive and inner will to create their individual journey.

I think the individual / collaborative dilemma is a good example of this.

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Vic Park Mini Lab

Living Labs Continued…

The projects we did were technically not Living Labs, as per the formal definition. We were not doing “real” government-business-academia partnerships. We had people from all these sectors, but not in an official capacity. They came as curious individuals and many of them stayed – but not representing their organisation.

 So what were we doing?

Well, all of the three labs decided to steer clear of various models based on dependency of external funding, such as grants, government funding etc. In today’s economical environment in Western Australia (our ‘resource boom’ is over, which has lead to a downturn in the economy) and globally (Grexit and Chinese stock market crash happened during this series of workshops) this seemed short-sighted. Instead, the discussions on how to fund the labs were focussed on self-sufficiency and social entrepreneurship models.

I started to think that perhaps living labs can simply not work here in Western Australia, as there is no culture of cross-sector collaboration. In Europe, where the living labs concept is pretty established now, with The European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL) there is a tradition of funding these types of experimental initiatives by government partnerships or innovative EU programs. This does not exist here yet. Nor does the culture of collaboration to great extent.

For the next iteration of these multi-disciplinary open research labs, I therefore thought we had to move away from the Living Labs model and work together with the MakeSense network – a global network of local “labs”, which help social entrepreneurs solve their challenges, and accelerate their impact.

If academics and governments business partners wanted to join, we could always reconsider labelling these labs living labs again.

My recommendation after the enkel living labs forum was to wait. Neither enkel nor partnering academics, governments or businesses are ready in my view.


In parallel we worked to find a space for the enkel collective. We spoke to local governments in various parts of Perth, and were fortunate to find a space in East Vic Park, where we could host our workshops, events and activities for 12 months – courtesy of Town of Vic Park. This was mainly thanks to local community organisation The Vic Park Collective.

After being open a couple of weeks we had a university institution coming in to the space. The Architecture Department at Curtin University wanted to collaborate with us.

So suddenly we had a public-private-people-academic partnership between Town of Vic Park, Curtin University and the Vic Park Collective.

We had a real living lab!

And this living lab – The Vic Park MiniLab – has now started to operate. I’ll update our reflections and learnings as we go.

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