Today saw another PEP-NET Live Chat, this time on the topic “Living Labs”. Experts from across Europe, all of whom are partners in the PARTERRE project, discussed their experiences. (For details, see my previous post.)
We aimed to give people who aren’t so familiar with the Living Labs approach a deeper understanding of what the concept is. After all, you often hear the term when conversation turns to European projects.
What is a “Living Lab”?
It’s a way of involving users in the design process for new products and services — and when I asked whether the concept is user-centric, the answer was a resounding “yes”. It is not simply a test-bed, i.e. taking a finished product and testing it on a group of users; it’s much more about empowering a community of users to solve a problem that affects them. The theory is that because they are the people who will be using the product or service, they know best what they need. They will need help from developers to know what technology is capable of, but the Living Lab environment should allow users to retain as much control as possible. This is a reversal of what happens when people develop something that they think solves other people’s problems. (This isn’t just technology developers — I’m sure we have all done that in one way or another.) Even the term “user” was viewed with scepticism by some: the LL approach is all about creating a community that transcends the usual barriers between users and product developers.
How to set one up?
We talked about the practical steps you need to take if you want to set up a Living Lab. This was by no means uncontroversial, because it seems very difficult to set one up without taking away autonomy from users. On the other hand, you cannot simply give users a blank page and expect them to get on with it.
So you need to define an environment for the Living Lab. Having done that, you establish a community which should have wide-ranging autonomy to work on the product or service. Even the environment, established in the previous step, is not off limits. There was some discussion about how to do establish a representative community: do you select users, or invite them to participate?
After that, you need to guide the process maternalistically, rather than paternalistically; i.e. avoiding pre-determined results.
eParticipation and Living Labs
I am not the only one who noticed a parallel between the discourse around political participation and the Living Lab process. Much of what we talked about seemed very similar to the co-creation of public services and citizen-led service design. We talked about motivating participants, how to strike the balance between giving users enough freedom to influence, whilst offering them the support they need to be effective.
Noticing this parallel, Francesco Molinari asked whether there is an optimum number of participants in a Living Lab — a question that is very relevant to eParticipation too. The answer from Jesse Marsh was that it is not too big; Maurice Mulvenna said it is around Dunbar’s number, 150. [See Maurice's clarification in comments.]
When I provocatively asked whether there is an issue of legitimacy when a small group of users makes decisions on behalf of a wider group, Tiina Ferm answered that the Living Lab is not a decision-making process: it is about creating a solution. The example she used was that developing a video-conferencing system is not a decision; deciding to use it is.
However, I think the Living Lab approach is great for creating buy-in when you are working with the entire community that will use a certain product or service in the end: they are likely to feel more ownership and be more understanding when things go wrong; but if you are rolling it out to a wider audience, I think they may not have the same buy-in. So perhaps you would need some kind of “blind” test-bed for this scenario with users who weren’t involved in the development. I think the same argument goes for citizen engagement: you may be able to engage smaller groups in decision-making and increase buy-in by having small focus-group events, but whether that has an impact on the wider population is a different matter.
Everyone seemed to agree that we had only just started to discuss the parallels between eParticipation and Living Labs, and that we need to think how these two groups of experts can learn from each other.
Thanks to everyone who took part in the discussion, both on the panel and in the audience. If you missed it, check out the transcript at https://pep-net.eu/live-chats/
Watch this space for the next PEP-NET live chat!