#14: Johannes Riegler, Caroline Wrangsten and Jonas Bylund on... Why experimental methods drive urban transitions: lessons learned from 10 years of programming Urban Living Labs

Published in April 2021.

JPI Urban Europe is an intergovernmental and strategic partnership of countries that addresses the challenge of sustainable urban development through coordinated research and innovation. JPI Urban Europe is currently preparing its upcoming programme, a European Partnership with the European Commission under the Horizon Europe Framework programme called Driving Urban Transitions (DUT). Co-creative and experimental approaches to address urban challenges and to contribute to urban transitions have been an elementary part of the programme since the beginning. In the preparation phase of Driving Urban Transitions, the Management Board of JPI Urban Europe conducted a series of workshops, sessions and events with urban actors such as local public administrations, researchers, and civil society organisations, etc. to find out how experimental approaches can contribute to urban transformation. This article will summarise some of the reflections from this process.


How can urban living labs drive transitions from the perspective of transnational programming?

Over the last few years, experimental methods to co-create urban futures and alternatives to the status quo have gained a lot of traction, primarily in Europe but also beyond. Urban development is such a complex, wicked issue that if the challenges and crises of our time are to be addressed, new approaches that combine stakeholder knowledge, experience, and interests are key to enabling urban transformations.

During the recent decade, about half of the over 100 projects funded by the JPI Urban Europe applied experimental co-creative methods, mainly in the form of urban living labs. We discussed the approaches and potential to do things differently with experimental methods with urban actors around the world: from Europe to BeijingRio de Janeiro and Florianopolis in Brazil, and Durban in South Africa. On a conceptual level, we learned a lot about how urban living labs and experimental models can lead to more sustainable cities, more economic opportunities and a better quality of life for city-dwellers. 


Why does JPI Urban Europe not only fund but also develop the urban living labs approach?

Going the extra mile is worth it. While it might take more effort and time to arrive at concrete, tangible results, the outcomes of open processes more effectively address concrete urban challenges. In light of this, urban experimentation has an important role to play in more systemic urban transformations. 

However, after 10 years of supporting experimental and co-creative approaches to city-making, such as urban living labs, one central question remains: 

If the added value of co-creative and experimental methods has been underlined and proven, how can we integrate it better into mainstream urban development processes? In other words, how can we make experimental approaches the new normal?

There are, granted, still issues to address in order to make experimentation a ‘natural’ and truly beneficial part of urban development. Critics point out the dangers of ‘lab washing’, where too much emphasis is placed on the label instead of the process. Experimentation is also associated with an obsession with solutionism, where the focus is on ‘solving’ complexity, rather than addressing it and trying to understand it holistically. Issues around the inclusivity, accessibility and representation in experimental methods also persist. 

Implemented in the right way, though, urban living labs offer huge potential to bring forth systemic change and transform cities for the better.


What is urban living labs 2.0 and what is JPI Urban Europe doing in this domain?

Urban living labs 2.0 is how we try to enable both various funders as well as research and innovation performing actors to move the approach along.

Through stakeholder dialogues, conference session, projects’ results and outputs, etc., JPI Urban Europe has derived seven specific consideration points which should be addressed to take the next steps towards mainstreaming urban experimentation: 


  1. Experimental approaches and urban living labs can be understood as clearing houses between funding streams.
  2. Results generated in urban living lab projects/experimental approaches should demonstrate how the learnings were taken up in governance.
  3. While experimental projects often have a limited running time, their continuation (through extension, follow up activities, etc) is key for governance integration.
  4. Allow for flexibility in the initial phase of the project to map and identify the needs and requirements of all the urban actors involved and the specificities of the urban context (neighbourhoods, etc) in which the project will operate.
  5. Plan early for follow up funding to support the impact and develop the outcomes further.
  6. Keep in mind that the experimental project/urban living lab is not the goal in itself, but an approach to address a specific challenge/issue. 
  7. Keep the scale manageable: specific urban challenges might be too complex to address them entirely in one project. However, these chunks might well add up to a portfolio of experimental projects.


We would be very interested to discuss these questions further with colleagues and friends in the urban transformation community, as JPI Urban Europe is currently developing its next programme, a European Partnership under Horizon Europe called Driving Urban Transitions. If you would like to shareyour experiencesoropinions with us, join our upcoming discussions and workshops, or simply say ‘hi!’ at: info@jpi-urbaneurope.eu