A note on Living Labs

Given we’ve been travelling the globe extolling the virtues of Living Labs (see News section), it made sense to pen this article around them. It should go some way in shedding light on why we settled on this particular methodology.

A Living Lab is a research and innovation concept and whilst there are many descriptions in the literature, they do agree on a number of features. Most describe them as a tool to combine research and innovation processes in a user-centered, co-creative fashion in real life settings.

The concept first emerged out of Scandinavia in the 1960s with cooperative and participatory design studies. However, it was the work of the late Professor William Mitchell (MIT) that really brought Living Labs into the mainstream and he is often credited with setting up the first Living Lab, MIT’s ‘Place Lab,’ though one could argue this was quite an artificial entity, being a purpose-built house to conduct their research. Much of the work done within Living Labs to date has been around the development of information and communication technology ranging from simple home IT solutions to grander smart city initiatives. As ICT grew in prevalence during this period, it was crucial it was designed with the users in mind for it to embed into daily life like it has. Additionally, ICT in the early days was an ever-changing entity, a highly dynamic environment thus it made sense to study it within an infrastructure that accommodated rapid testing of prototypes and short, agile sprints. Historically the field of health care hasn’t been an obvious candidate for the Living Lab methodology but as we edge ever more into the digital sphere it’s becoming apparent that it too might be served well by this approach.

Distilled to its core features, a Living Lab is an environment within which one can explore the problem and possible solutions with end-users, experiment in real-life settings and evaluate the solutions. The European Network of Living Labs suggests that achieving this requires a number of steps: User engagement, Co-creation, Multi-stakeholder participation, Real-life settings and a Multi-methods approach to evaluation.

Those of us in the health care sphere can’t have failed to notice the recent vogue for co-production with citizens. As cynical as I am, I am inclined to think this isn’t just another fashionable cyclical trend for the NHS. I truly believe this is the rational, logical conclusion to answer many of the tough social-economical-political challenges of our era. So, when you factor this and the dynamic, ever-changing landscape of digital health, the Living Lab methodology surely becomes the most obvious candidate for success. Perhaps the real question is, why isn’t it being used more often?