Author: interview by Frieda Crooy/Nadia Petkova

GUSTfilmII voor interviewUrban living labs (ULL) are proliferating across Europe as a means through which public and private actors are testing innovations in buildings, transport and energy systems. Yet, despite the experimentation taking place on the ground, there is a lack of systematic learning across urban and national contexts about their impacts and effectiveness. One of the ten selected projects in JPI Urban Europe Second Call is GUST (Governance of Urban Sustainability Transitions). The aim of the GUST project is to examine, inform and advance the governance of sustainability transitions through urban living labs. Project leader Kes McCormick from Lund University in Sweden is an enthusiastic ambassador of GUST. During the JPI Urban Europe Projects Meeting in October 2014 in Brussels McCormick (with Harriet Bulkeley, Niki Frantzesaki, Frank van Steenbergen, and Christian Hartmann) presented a project poster with the research approach, methodology and outcomes.

It has been approximately six months since the Projects Meeting presented a research approach for GUST. During a research project, there are both internal and external factors which influence its course. Has this been the case for you so far? How do you accommodate unforeseen turns and how does this affect your research approach?
It is exciting to be part of a European project investigating urban living labs. We are seeing many initiatives in cities across Europe applying a living labs approach to the challenges of climate change and urban sustainability. Our project is on track. We have a great group of partners each with different kinds of expertise in the field so this has helped us with a smooth start.
In the starting six months of the GUST project we have been busy setting the foundations for the project through meetings between the project partners, establishing our website and building up our wiki on urban living labs, and developing our approach to carry out research on urban living labs.
As in any European project, there are challenges along the way, but more so, there are significant opportunities for collaboration with universities, municipalities and business. The dynamic nature of the problems we are looking at means there are always new questions to ask, so while staying focused on original goals is important, we also need to ensure a degree of flexibility.

In the GUST project partners are involved from Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Do you consider this consortium also as an urban living lab, being an example of aligning input and data on an international level?The GUST project can be considered as a research platform to explore urban living labs in Europe (rather than being an example of an urban living lab). All the project partners are involved in urban living labs in their respective countries, which means we have a working knowledge of urban living labs. The GUST project aims to develop a systematic framework for evaluating the design, practices and processes of urban living labs to enable a comparative analysis of their potential and limitations, and to produce new insights into the governance of urban sustainability.

It seems ULL could be any site in a city. Is GUST making use of pre-existing ULL or are you setting up new ULL, perhaps targeting some research variables existing ULL do not encompass? Can you give a specific example of an Urban Living Lab?
Urban living labs can be considered as sites (like buildings, streets, districts) in urban areas that are devised to design, test and learn from social and technical innovation in real time. The GUST project is focusing on existing urban living labs in Europe. Some of these explicitly call themselves urban living labs, while others do not use the term, but have all the features of innovation and learning around questions of urban sustainability. Furthermore, some of these examples are in the very early stages of development, while others have existed for many years. It is important to explore urban living labs in different stages and varying contexts.
In Sweden, we are investigating the impacts and lessons from the Malmö Innovation Platform, which brings together creative forces in business, academia and the community to build a joint innovation capacity in the renovation of existing apartment buildings in Malmö. The aim is to use physical regeneration as a motor for socio-economic development, long-term environmental goals and business opportunities. The Malmö Innovation Platform is an example of a collabrative platform adopting an urban living labs approach.

Aside from substance, many technical matters are involved in the projects. One that attracts attention is the relatively large gap between the project’s budget and grant. How do you and your partners additionally finance GUST? Are there other parties interested in the generated knowledge which provide financial aid? Does GUST produce revenue in the course of its execution?
The GUST project is predominantly funded by JPI Urban Europe. There are certainly many organisations interested in the knowledge generated by urban living labs, particularly local municipalities and business. As a strong consortium, we are also intending to pursue other research opportunities in this area as they arise. Returning to the example of the Malmö Innovation Platform, there are partners from industry, academia, and government. Business partners, include EoN, Schneider Electric, Siemens and IBM, reflecting the growing focus on the development and design of urban areas, and the opportunities to combine smart technologies and systems with sustainability and climate goals.

GUST is one out of ten projects, result of JPI Urban Europe’s Second Call. Do you follow the development of other projects? Is knowledge acquired therein relevant for you? Do you have suggestions for cooperation, exchange of knowledge or bringing together of results?
We are following and communicating with the other JPI projects working on urban living labs. We had the opportunity to meet all of the JPI projects in Brussels in October 2014. The GUST project is organising a session on urban living labs at the up-coming Transformations 2015 conference in Stockholm in October 2015. We have invited all the JPI projects engaged in urban living labs to be part of the session. There are significant opportunities to learn from the different approaches. We are also organising an event at Lund University in May 2015 where both GUST and URB@EXP will present and be part of larger discussions on urban innovation.

For an optimal sustainable transition: do you imagine a city in which each site (each building, each street) has a role in monitoring, learning and improvement? Or are you aiming to enhance the effectiveness of ULL to such an extent that the knowledge they provide is immediately applicable elsewhere in a city?
Urban living labs are valuable as spaces, platforms and approaches for social and technical innovation in urban contexts. There is no blueprint for creating sustainable, resilient and prosperous cities. We can use urban living labs to experiment and catalyse change processes based on learning by doing and learning through collaborating.

On a broader note: European integration is a potential and desired impact of ULL beyond their immediate domain. How do you envision the role of ULL herein? (E.g. maybe ULL transfer and combine national practices or they help consolidate European Research and Development). How can ULL be best employed to this end?
Urban living labs are proliferating across Europe as a means for testing innovations in buildings, transport and energy systems. Despite the experimentation taking place on the ground, there is a lack of systematic learning across urban and national contexts. A key objective for the GUST project is to improve understanding of the processes through which urban living labs create an impact beyond their immediate domain. This is critical in terms of assessing their potential as a means of governing transitions for sustainability in Europe.