Projects Talk: SmarterLabs

The SmarterLabs project aims to develop a novel approach for participative city development through Living Labs. Living Labs are an emerging tool in European cities to test ‘smart’ solutions to urban problems in real-life contexts.

An interview with Marc Dijk, project leader of the SmarterLabs project from the ENSCC call.

Which stakeholders benefit from this project and how are they involved?
At the end it can be everybody who benefits from a refined concept of citizen involvement: policymakers, politicians, businesses, researchers and of course the citizens themselves. In the SmarterLabs consortium we have all of these groups represented including universities with complementary knowledge, cities committed to implementation of smart mobility concepts, companies developing such innovations, and organisations representing stakeholder interests.

How many cities are part of the project and is there a specific focus?
We are setting up Living Labs in the four cities of Bellinzona, Brussels, Graz and Maastricht and have a special focus on two major risks to the successful, widespread implementation of smart mobility technologies: (1) unforeseen barriers to large-scale adoption and change of socio-technical transport systems, and (2) exclusion of social groups not matching the required ‘smart citizen’ profile. In action research experiments we try to address these issues and learn together with the people.

What are the project results so far, and can you already say something about lessons learned?
The first Living Lab meetings are being organised as we speak (see photo from Bellinzona) and a good number of people attended the first meetings in Bellinzona. After a brief game-like presentation, the participants started to get familiar with some apps triggering the change in mobility choices and to prepare comments and suggestions.
From the retrospective analysis we found that there are various categories of barriers to upscaling smart city living lab results. Often, upscaling has not been considered explicitly in the planning of the experiment, and therefore key stakeholders needed for upscaling (such as the established policymakers) were not involved in the experiment and don’t feel any commitment. Second, there can be a legal or infrastructural ‘lock-in’ in the established practice, for instance regarding parking operation contracts or concessions, which can have a duration of more than 15 years.

“We found that policymakers typically believe that interactions with stakeholders add much complexity to the policy development process and accordingly they have a preference for working with experts…”

Our analysis suggests that an effective strategy to anticipate upscaling can be for actors to convince actors at higher geographical or governance levels to team-up with them, for instance a local government teaming up with the provincial authority. In terms of social exclusion we found that policymakers typically believe that interactions with stakeholders add much complexity to the policy development process and accordingly have a preference for working with experts, especially in the first phase when they are not sure themselves of what they want. It was also remarkable that one small business association of a one district approached the local government to collaborate in the redevelopment of a central street, but was not in favour of inviting the local residents into the process. In other words, processes of co-creation do not open up by themselves and, even if some form of public-private collaboration emerges, there is always the risk of some stakeholders using the opportunity to maximise their own benefit, and exclude others.

What is the expected impact of the project?
As an increasing number of cities install Living Labs and citizen involvement is becoming more popular, with the SmarterLabs project we want to contribute to more successful outcomes of these participation processes. We will deliver guidelines on how to best run a Living Lab and provide a practitioners brief with recommendations: a concise summary of what has been learned about how to organise participation and reflexivity about unwanted effects and sources of resistance in Smart City Living Labs, aimed at any practitioner who considers organising or participating in a Living Lab.
By applying the refined Living Lab approach we expect a better large-scale adoption of smart, low-carbon transport and mobility technologies which will result in reduced fossil energy use and reduced emissions of greenhouse gaseous. In addition, improved social inclusion will be of particular value to the citizens and NGOs representing citizen interests allowing them to influence innovation processes.

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