27.05.2015, Matthias Wanner
Tags: workshop

Living labs - Tools for transformation on the ground


On May 12th and 13th the first Bonn Conference took place in the former West-German parliament at Bonn World Conference Center. 


Within the programme framework of keynotes and panel discussions participants could choose from a broad variety of workshops. Together with Katleen De Flander from IASS Potsdam (GER), Mônica Picavêa from Oficina da Sustentabilidade (Sao Paulo, BRA) and Tom Henfrey from Schumacher College (Bristol, UK) I offered a workshop on the topic of transformative tools for local change processes. Katleen De Flander set the stage by briefly reflecting on the challenging problems we have to tackle if we want to achieve real sustainability and future viability. Structural change must take place on all levels but is especially necessary and often astonishingly complex on a local level. I took over and cast a glance on three different models and theories, which are designed to support local change: Living Labs, Real-World Laboratories and Urban Transition Labs (see table).


As a fourth example the much older approach of Action Research as a strand of methods for fostering societal change was presented. Besides their differences (e.g. Action Research comprises a social emancipatory impulse while Living Labs rather focus on improving efficiency), all approaches share similarities:


  • They use the term ‘lab‘ not for carefully isolated and highly controlled spaces, but for an open field for social and technical experiments and innovation with high ecological validity, 
  • all are tackling real-world problems (solutionism) with
  • a basic understanding of transdisciplinarity,
  • reflexive cylces,
  • the importance of context and they focus on
  • the creation of niches for experimentation


Tom Henfrey then explained on a more detailed level his experiences with Action Research which felt like applying knowledge from permaculture on scientific processes by which those processes are transformed and reflected themselves. He, together with colleagues, founded the Transiton Reserach Network and worked extensively on understanding patterns of transformation. Katleen De Flander continued by presenting the idea of searching for pressure points for local transformation. Those points with a high momentum of change often open up in situations of crisis or non-equilibriums and should be analysed before designing interventions. Situation-taylored action with a high amount of reflection of local „ingredients“ available should then be taken. Mônica Picavêa supplied examples of local bottom-up transformation in a favela in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She is involved in raising awareness for sustainability issues since many years and co-created a network of more than a dozen interlinked projects. Pressure points in the favela, Brasilândia, are waste disposal, violence and the protection of the nearby biggest urban forest which supplies Sao Paulo with fresh water.


In the second phase of the workshop this example plus a case from Wuppertal (GER) on urban mobility were taken as input for group work on the specific cases. Participants were provided with context information and hand-outs and came up with a variety of basic questions and advice for Action Research and specific ideas for further action and projects. All ideas were reported and discussed at the end of the workshop.  



Berkhout F. et al. (2010). Sustainability experiments in Asia: innovations shaping alternative development pathways? Environmental Science & Policy 13, 261-271.

Evans, J. & Karvonen, A. (2010). Living laboratories for sustainability: exploring the poli- tics and epistemology of urban transitions, in: Bulkeley, Harriet/Casta?n Broto, Va- nesa/Hodson, Mike/Marvin, Simon (Hg.): Cities and Low Carbon Transitions. New York: Routledge, 126-141.

Loorbach, Derk (2010): Transition Management for Sustainable Development: A Prescriptive, Complexity-Based Governance Framework, In: Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration and Institutions 23:1, S. 161-183.

Ozanne, J. L. & Saatcioglu, B. (2008). Participatory Action Research. Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 35,3. Pp 423-439.

Schneidewind, U. & Scheck, H. (2013). Die Stadt als „Reallabor“ für Systeminnovationen. In: Ru?ckert-John, J. (Hrsg.): »Soziale Innovationen und Nachhaltigkeit«. Springer VS, Wiesbaden 2013, S. 229-248. 

Suslab (n.d.). Methodology. http://suslab.eu/about/methodology/

Wittmayer, J., Roorda, C, & Van Steenbergen, F. (2014). Governing Urban Sustainability Transitions – Inspiring Examples. Rotterdam: DRIFT. 

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