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Living labs as enabling platforms for inclusion and serendipity

Per-Anders Hillgren, Ph.D in Interaction Design and researcher at Medea responsible for running the Living Lab the Neighbourhood.

This post was originally published in the Medea publication Prototyping Futures.

What is a living lab?

The basic principle behind all living labs is to set up and run platforms where universities collaborate with citizens, business partners, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) or other stakeholders on a long-term basis to create new services, products or ideas for alternative futures. There are several hundreds of living labs in Europe, and they are very different in comparison to each other. Most living labs seem to be driven from a business and industry perspective where the ideas start with their needs. The living lab that I’m involved in is more community-driven. According to researchers that have been studying living labs around the world, there are actually rather few living labs that work from a community perspective. From my point of view, I believe that the community perspective is very relevant and interesting, since they of course see both problems and opportunities in a very different way compared to academia, the public sector or the business world.

When you say community perspective, do you mean starting from a grassroots perspective?

Yes, when we set up the Living Lab the Neighbourhood some years ago, we started to explore what kind of ideas, needs, everyday problems or opportunities could be found among local NGOs in Malmö. You can view these NGOs as creative communities. I’m very inspired by the work done by Ezio Manzini and his colleagues at the Politecnico in Milan. They have been studying and working with creative communities consisting of people that organise themselves in the local neighbourhood to solve a specific problem or deal with everyday issues. I believe that there is a huge creative potential in these creative communities. If you look at the NGOs in Malmö, many are dealing with interesting issues, and they have a lot of energy and good ideas. If you start to collaborate with them, some of their ideas could be scaled up and spread and both inspire and influence the municipality, the industry and also of course the university.

What kind of societal problems or challenges are you talking about here?

It could be helping to solve social issues, for example. Five years ago, we started to collaborate with the hip hop community RGRA (Rörelsen Gatans Röst och Ansikte). They are, among other things, working with questions around how young immigrant kids can increase their sense of belonging and feel as though they are a part of society. For example: how can they be included in the new media industry or in new exciting projects that are happening in the city? RGRA has a lot of interesting ideas for how to work with inclusion. When we started to collaborate with them, the mixture between our competencies and perspectives was very generative and many ideas and projects came out of that.

Another example is our collaboration with the NGO Herrgård’s Women Association. They constitute quite an extensive network of women and do a lot of important work. For example, they handle a lot of things that could have turned out to be honour-related violence, but through their network they solve many problems for society in secret. Together with Herrgård’s, we have explored a digital mentorship platform and how combinations of on- and offline meetings between the women and orphan refugee children can ease the burden on other societal institutions and make the children feel more at home in Sweden. The same thing goes for the Somali NGO Hidde Iyo Dhaqan. They have this very interesting project going on at the moment about identity called “Egna röster Egna bilder”. A lot of young Somalis feel lost between their Somali history and not becoming a real part of a Swedish society reinforced by prejudices (for example, how they are depicted as pirates in the media). Their project constructs and rebuilds a new narrative, rooted both in the Somalian history and in new contemporary perspectives among young Somalians, through which they can feel proud and build an identity.

I believe that the people that have the capacity and skills to see the solutions for these kinds of social and societal problems will be found at NGOs like the three examples I just mentioned. They have the perspective and the knowledge. If you are a civil servant or a researcher you see it from other perspectives. To get a collaboration going between these different stakeholders and their different perspectives is very generative.

From a researcher’s perspective, what is your research approach? Do you start with open-ended questions?

To have some general questions from the start to help steer a project’s direction is always of great help: for example, a question like how to deal with social inclusion, which is asked in a very general sense. But I think it is good to have an open-ended approach when you enter a collaboration, because how will you know beforehand what specific questions, fields and stakeholders will be the most relevant? We have also seen that if you enter a situation with an open-ended approach, you can allow things to really emerge from bottom-up and see connections between different stakeholders. If you define everything from the beginning, what you should do and how to do it, then a lot of things might get lost. I really believe in serendipity and in creating situations where you allow serendipity to happen (a concept that is explained further in this article). Of course, it is very hard to work that way because you will never know how things will end or how to do something and you need to be prepared. It is easier if you have a detailed work plan, you know who you will work with, and from the start have a clear agreement upon how to run the project. That is more comfortable, but I don’t think it is as generative as an approach where you try to navigate between different stakeholders and their needs and perspectives on-the-go to see how the matchmaking process between stakeholders could generate future solutions.

One of the concepts that you often mention is “infrastructuring”. What does that imply?

That actually implies all this. Don’t define everything in advance: instead, you try to build relationships with different stakeholders on a long term basis and experience how one project could evolve into something else after, for example, a new public experiment or when you set up meetings between stakeholders. It might be that you end up somewhere else than anticipated (the concept infrastructuring is explained further in this article).

At Medea you have primarily been working with Living Lab the Neighbourhood and issues on social sustainability, social innovation and digital media. There are also two other labs: the Stage and Fabriken. Can you give us a brief description of the different directions of the three labs?

All of the three labs are based upon the basic idea of working with citizens, NGOs and creative communities, trying to make space for different perspectives and the innovative potentials among all involved stakeholders. The three labs have a slightly different focus. The Stage focuses on cultural production and digital media in fields such as art, music, film, literature etc. Fabriken has a focus on new kinds of open and alternative productions formats, where you provide tools for people who want to innovate themselves and go from only being consumers to the realms of production and design. All of the labs work as ways to enable platforms, facilitate meetings and connect people and competencies.

In our research, we also aim to explore what kind of enabling platforms our labs could actually be, who could run them, and how and what issues will emerge. Of course we are also interested in seeing what kinds of new services and products might emerge, but maybe even more interested in the meta-level: how to set up enabling platforms for inclusion and meetings between sectors.

Further reading:

– Björgvinsson, Erling, Ehn, Per, & Hillgren Per-Anders (2012). Agonistic participatory design: working with marginalised social movements. CoDesign: International Journal of CoCreation in Design and the Arts, 8(2-3):127-144.
– Björgvinsson, Erling, Ehn Per, & Hillgren Per-Anders (2012). Design Things and Design Thinking – Contemporary Participatory Design Challenges. Design Issues MIT Press Journals, 28(3): 101-116.
– Björgvinsson, Erling, Ehn Pelle, & Hillgren Per-Anders (2010). Participatory design and “democratizing innovation”. Proceedings of Participatory Design Conference, Sydney, Australia.
– Hillgren, Per-Anders, Seravalli, Anna, & Emilson, Anders (2011). Prototyping and infrastructuring in design for social innovation. CoDesign: International Journal of CoCreation in Design and the Arts, 7(3-4): 169-183.