Getting our cities right #2: From Living Laboratories to urban healthscapes

Last changed: 04 November 2022
Text: Getting our cities right.

In October 2022 SLU Urban Futures teamed up with SLU Think Tank Movium and brought together international researchers and practitioners to explore research and experiences of Living Labs and urban healthscapes, in the second of three conferences on a theme that springs from the following statement:

“The future of our planet depends on getting our cities right”
Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director, UN-Habitat

The second conference of SLU Urban Futures’ series Getting Our Cities Right took place at SLU Campus Alnarp and focused on Living Laboratories as new formats for research, teaching, and societal interaction. Among the participants were some of the most esteemed practitioners within the field of Living Labs in a campus setting. They each presented their work and took part in the discussions reflecting upon the possibilities and challenges for living labs. Their inspiring projects demonstrated developments on campus over the last 30 years, from which there is a lot to learn in terms of both experiences and inspiration when thinking about what campus development can look like today and in the future. Through this conference we wanted to take the opportunity to ask ourselves and the participants: what role can the university campus play in shaping sustainable urban healthscapes; and how can the campus be part of transdisciplinary research for societal change?

SLU Urban Futures is a strategic platform working with and facilitating transdisciplinary research, education and cooperation in relation to sustainable urban development. As such we are interested in new methods and approaches that support this mission.

“The purpose of living laboratories is to experiment with novel processes and practices that would be otherwise impossible in conventional urban settings, and to carefully monitor the social and physical impacts of these process experiments to provide a robust, transferable, knowledge base for further learning.”

SLU Urban Futures, 2022

The conference offered a platform for weaving together thematic areas of the urban world, from Living Laboratories to urban healthscapes, crossing geographical boundaries, from international perspectives to local initiatives.  The two days involving different ways of thinking and doing, from interacting with experts, discovering a new book about a long standing campus lab, to visiting different labs in situ.

Below you can find a resume of the main take-aways and reflections from the conference, in addition to information about the keynotes and experts involved.

Transformative science demands new roles and processes

The world around us is constantly changing and so too are the nature of the problems that researchers and practitioners are trying to address. The conference saw a range of innovative place-based solutions to questions dealing with the dawning effects of climate change, trying to apply a holistic perspective to account for all aspects of sustainability. It is evident from the invited researchers’ perspectives that there are situations where Living Labs can offer promising new ways of approaching and working with complexity, which other methods have thus far failed to solve.

“We don’t know, for instance, what climate change may bring – but we know we have to act, and we have to act fast!”

Anja Steglich

To gain new knowledge, sometimes one might have to unlearn what is already known (or thought to be already known). This process of unlearning is a thought-provoking idea, and as an approach, it suggests that knowledge acquisition isn’t always a cumulative process. Instead, it places emphasis on the iterative process, where failure and retrial are essential phases of learning and knowledge production. Exploring ways to unlearn, challenge assumptions, and experiment are important aspects that form the basis of transformative thinking and innovative Living Lab methodologies. The nature of so-called “wicked problems”, that the world is currently facing implies that humanity does not yet hold the answers or know the way forward. What is known is that the current path is no longer one that is progressing in the right direction; and there is therefore a need to transform the way we understand and act upon sustainability challenges, which likely will focus on several pathways that need to be synthesized instead of aiming at a single one.

Integrating knowledge both across disciplines and sectors can help better understand complex challenges and their contextual settings. So-called transdisciplinary methodologies aim to create a synthesis of intellectual frameworks that go beyond disciplinary perspectives to develop a “transcending” area of both knowledge and practice. By involving academia, industry, and government, and acknowledging that their relationship to civil society takes place through interaction within a socio-ecological environment, it is possible to gain a better understanding of the roles of researchers in relation to the context they are a part of.

Why campus as a living lab?

One important aspect that was discussed during the conference was the distinction between a campus with a Living Lab and a campus as a Living Lab.  The former suggests that there are Living Lab facilities, projects, and experiments taking place within the boundaries of the campus that exist as individual entities or in collaboration with research projects. The latter approach, however, takes the whole campus as an open arena for research, teaching and collaboration. Both can have local effects as well as offering knowledge to be transferred elsewhere. However, the scale of impact, organizational models, opportunities for management, and sharing of resources is likely to be different.

“Campus as a Living Lab is not a project!”

Michael Bossert

A campus can be viewed as a “micro city system” - with workplaces, homes, places of consumption, production and recreation - and therefore offer opportunities to transfer knowledge to a larger scale urban setting. However, there are also distinctive differences between a semi-controlled Living Lab environment and the real world which can offer important insights for how to ‘scale-up’ or translate experiences, which can inform approaches and methods for Living Labs. To illustrate this;  a student-dense environment whose engagement and interest in co-creation and shaping their own environment can easily be canalized towards a “scene” to try out and showcase new mode(l)s of research; it could show that the university can and wants to be a frontrunner involved in pro-actively making a change on a societal level; it can build trust in both participants and stakeholders which later can be used for upscaling or as references when attempting to transfer a similar approach in another context; it has the possibility of offering openness and democratizing data; it is a method that promotes collaboration rather than competition.

“It’s all about creating win-win situations and building trust.”

Michael Bossert

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are considered one of the most trustworthy institutions in society. Representatives of HEIs are therefore in a unique position to act as good examples of innovative models of transformation. By collaborating with other “trusted” partners, it is possible to operationalize sustainability work, building long-term sustainable platforms for collaboration to work with long-term sustainability challenges. The urgency of climate change and sustainability challenges requires academia to engage with both top-down and bottom-up perspectives simultaneously and to identify suitable partners that can influence change from within existing settings but can also create conditions for large-scale transformational change.

Learning from SLU’s (potential) Living Labs

Alnarp’s Landscape Laboratory is a great example of what creative minds with long-term visions can manage to accomplish if given the opportunity and resources to work and think “outside of the box”.  Its success is also directly related to the hard and continuous work of a handful of enthusiasts who have been motivated and engaged over the past 30 years. What would’ve happened with a similar project if Professor Roland Gustavsson would have given up or shifted his focus elsewhere within the first five years? And what would the Landscape Laboratory look like today without the ongoing management, maintenance, care and creativity? Alnarp’s campus has examples of abandoned experiments. The so-called China Fields which originated as a project in the early 2000’s was a site where the hardiness of plant species from China were to be tested in Swedish conditions. However, the project has since has been abandoned and the area is still fenced off and has at times been used as a testing ground for maintenance courses for students.

“Too important for indoors!”

Björn Wiström

A hands-on approach and relative proximity to a project site, as is the case with the Landscape Laboratory which is only a short walk away from the indoor research facilities on campus, of course helps to enable long-term thinking, because it ensures a strong link between theory and practice. When important decisions have to be made, observations visualizations or documents offers one perspective, compared to actually visiting and engaging (being; seeing, touching, smelling) with the site in person. Both methods have their benefits and limitations but it’s safe to say that the Landscape Laboratory would not be what it is today without the possibility of the latter.

Out of the Living Lab projects discussed at the conference, the Landscape Laboratory and Alnarp Rehabilitation Garden both offer a lot of food for thought. The knowledge from both examples can be said to have been “implemented in society”, although in slightly different ways because of the replicability of the research and knowledge that they offer. Questions can be raised about how much of the knowledge is situated in situ in the site; how relevant are these physical manifestations for the research? What happens to our idea of a Living Lab as something that should, or even has to, continue to stay “alive”? In this sense, if there is one thing (and there is of course much more than just one thing!) that the Landscape Laboratory has proved to the world, it is that sometimes you have to be the one who creates your own references - your own good examples! Examples that still has only just begun to be identified, extracted and transferred by landscape architects and urbanists alike. The woodland character, or rich diversity of characters rather, of Alnarp’s Landscape Laboratory does not stand in opposition to parks and other types of urban green infrastructure. Nor is it incompatible with forests aimed at timber production. Instead its’ structure simultaneously offers not a place for recreation but also values in terms of research, production, biodiversity and aesthetics. In addition to this it promotes the idea that design, rather than being seen as something definite and decided beforehand, is an ongoing dialogue between humans and the surrounding environment where the existence of surprises and the evolution of living materials is something that adds qualities in themselves. The knowledge gained can be translated into the establishment of urban forests that can act as core components of sustainable development in the context of climate challenge, offering nature-based solutions, green infrastructure, ecosystem services, biodiversity, climate adaption and liveability in an urban setting.

During the site visit to the Landscape Laboratory on the 6th a discussion arose about the management of (green) public space, with more or less similar characteristics to that of Alnarp Västerskog, and how knowledge about creative management can be shared. Everyone who took part in the tour acknowledged the possible benefits of using a similar approach but some of the practitioners raised doubts concerning the ability to translate this knowledge to a municipal setting. Maybe a Living Lab in a less “laboratory” environment could open up for a more inclusive process where similarities are easier to identify for the people in charge, with the actual power to make the transition from an academic to a social civil environment. And experiences from that transition could in turn be translated into new iterations, more or less similar depending on what new questions needs to be answered.

Looking ahead

A Living Lab is not the solution for every given problem, on a university campus or elsewhere. The conference offered the opportunity to listen to a variety of speakers sharing their different experiences of living labs; and created a valuable forum for speakers to receive input and critical reflections from members of the audience and fellow academics and practitioners. However, the question remains when and where a Living Lab approach is the most efficient way to achieve intended goals - utilizing complex learning processes leading to tested and explored solutions in real-life environments.

The answer to the rhetorical question implied above is “here” and “now” but that is not an excuse for getting carried away by hopes and dreams. A Living Lab is neither “organized irresponsibility, nor the holy grail”, as Annika Herth summarized it in her presentation, but rather a realistic yet imaginative working method that can be found by exploring its’ possibilities.

What implications does a Living Lab approach have on the way research is performed and perceived? Does it call for new organizational and financial models? New theories and methods? The answers could be found if there’s a will and a way to give it a try! It will be a step towards a new way of thinking needed to cope with transforming society into a more sustainable future.


Conference Programme

Getting our cities right #2 - Programme-web.pdf

If you are interested in the presentations shared by the keynote speakers during the conference, please contact

Getting our Cities Right #3 - Umeå, 2023

The next event in this conference sequence will take place at Umeå Campus in 2023. Keep an eye out!

Getting our Cities Right #1 - Ultuna, June 2022

Read the summary from the first conference in Uppsala: Getting our cities right: from critical urbanities to sustainable foodscapes.

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