Urban Living Labs in China?

How are urban living labs set up in Chinese cities? What are the framework conditions? Who are the urban actors in the Chinese context? Questions for a joint workshop organized by Chinese Academy of Urban Planning (CAUPD), the Trans-Urban-EU-China project, and JPI Urban Europe which took place on 4 September in Beijing, PR China.

In Europe, the Urban Living Lab (ULL) approaches are becoming more and more established as arenas for innovation and transformation delivered gainful insights into transition dynamics, both, in terms of governance and multi-stakeholder sociotechnical learning and testing in single issue or more systemic innovation. Nearly half of the 73 projects funded by JPI Urban Europe engage with ULLs. With the first pilot projects of the joint JPI Urban Europe and National Natural Science Foundation of China Call about to be granted within the next months it was the time to learn from cases in Europe and China and to create a common understanding of Urban Living Labs as a method and its benefits in different contexts.

The workshop was started off with keynote presentations by European and Chinese experts for setting the scene of the discussions. Drawing on JPI Urban Europe projects, Lindsay May and Denis Caraire presented their insights gained from the GUST and CAPA.CITY project. Lindsay Mai elaborated on three types of urban living lab type of experimentation in contemporary China. Although not common in the Chinese urban development context yet, these examples highlighted cases where experimentation and participation is used to tackle urban challenges. Denis Caraire, drawing on the French leg of the project and the Lab InVivo, gave examples on the possibilities of the urban living lab approach to boost city authority innovativeness and work with tackling challenges. The Chinese keynote speakers underlined the potential for applying the ULL approach in China and the need for small scale interventions. Zhang Zhenshan from UN-Habitat highlighted the need and relevance of new approaches in urban development to meet the needs of the residence in Chinese cities. Duo Jia, Vice-mayor of Yiwu, Zhejiang outlined how the development of Chinese urban areas are determined by global trends and how they manifest in the Chinese context. On the contrary, to the big scale, Liu Yu presented the very local case of a “rural lab”: towns in the fringe of large Chinese cities are revitalized in a cooperative model with the citizens and by systematically building the urban development on the local culture, industry, geography and history. The key note presentations highlighted the similarities and differences, needs and potentials of applying the ULLs in China and Europe.

The workshop proceeded with exchange in small groups around specific issues. In these discussions, it was made clear that, apart from common issues across Europe and China (such as the particularity of each setting and the difficulty or questionable rationale for scaling up specific outputs right-away as ‘solutions’) the need to build public administrative capacity to work with this kind of innovation approach are elementary. Another commonality where the positive senses of ‘failure’, which are important feature of experimentation and contribute to learning experiences. However, the reasons why projects and cases which did not go according to the initial plan are in many cases not discussed and shared.

Another interesting point discussed in the workshop was that the pure implementation of technology is relatively easy and that common understanding between Europe and China was established. Hence, the real challenge is civil society inclusion in projects and actions concerning sociotechnical innovation (such as ULLs) and implementation for urban transitions. Participation in urban development processes is a desired also in China, and seemingly as tricky as in Europe to achieve.

Urban Living Labs aim providing the test grounds in a real world environment and, thus, are very context specific by definition. As the diversity of cultural, geographical, historical, etc. contexts in high among Chinese cities, the application and upscaling of knowledge generated in one specific ULL requires contextualization and translation to other urban realities. Additionally, there is a broad variety in and among Chinese cities on what the purpose of applying ULLs are which asks for a more defined understanding on what kind of ULL can make a difference.

The workshop brought together experts from Europe and China to create a common understanding of Urban Living Labs as a method and its benefit for urban transition in Chinese urban areas. It highlighted the experiences with ULL in China and Europe, brought together the lessons learned and prepared the way for deeper discussions on applying ULL in joint projects which involve Chinese and European partners. More joint activities with CAUPD (Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design) with whom JPI Urban Europe has been collaborating as part of the Internationalization Strategy.

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