Open innovation is becoming well established as an important business model. But can it be used in public services, creating opportunities for citizens to participate in generating solutions for their communities? We think it has a lot of promise – and we’re not alone. Communities around the world are gathering together to solve a wide range of challenges – health, transport, access to technology, energy, food, and more. To demonstrate the positive impact this approach can have, we explore three initiatives based on the concept of ‘Living Labs’ – “user-centred, open innovation ecosystems based on a systematic user co-creation approach integrating research and innovation processes".
1. European Network of Living Labs
The European Network of Living Labs is a project supported by the European Union to establish spaces for open innovation. The network is driven by two central principles: involving multiple users in the creation process; and testing ideas in real-world settings. The initiative has supported a wide range of Labs, across Europe and around the world, each one developing different solutions to challenges that face their communities. These solutions draw on the collective knowledge and expertise of government, industry, academia and the public.
The network provides a set of guiding principles on how each Lab should operate, but the topics covered diverge significantly, depending on the regionally specific issues. For example, the Smart Gastronomy Living Lab, part of the Creative Wallonia project in Belgium, focuses on food innovation, involving members of the public in the co-creation, prototyping and testing of new recipes and products, objects and utensils. The Lab encourages users to take part in different workshops, including the Cooking Lab, described as a “playground for culinary and food innovation”. Individuals and experts come together in this playground to come up with new food-related ideas, take part in classes and tasting sessions, and experiment with new techniques and equipment. Specific projects have focused on developing new food packaging, and using 3D printing for different food types.
A related project is IES Cities. The main goal of this project is to use an open technological platform across different cities in Europe to allow “citizens to produce and consume internet-based services”. People within the communities can interact with government officials, via apps, augmenting the information shared by the public services. The government uses the data gathered from the platform – through smartphones and other aspects of the ‘Smart City’ – to inform the development of services. This combination means that services can be delivered in more efficient and effective ways, and ones that better meet the needs of the community.
2. Fab Labs
The network of Living Labs has been successful because of the spaces it creates to bring different parties together in the innovation process. Another set of initiatives, this time driven by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, provides a different way for the general public to get involved in the creation of public services. The Fab Foundation is a US non-profit organization that came out of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms Program, and incorporates a range of activities that encourage access to “the tools, knowledge and the financial means to educate, innovate and invent… to allow anyone to make (almost) anything”. Fab Labs are being used to help shape approaches to education, and to bring together amateurs and professionals, scientists, engineers and artists into creative communities.
A fascinating development is the Fab Cities project. An international initiative, Fab Cities aim to support “locally productive and globally connected, self-sufficient cities”. The idea is to use citizen input, alongside policymakers and a range of other experts, to change the emphasis in cities so that they become ‘spiral economies’. This means that, rather than importing resources and producing waste, cities become producers of the materials they need, reducing waste by sharing practices and data with other cities around the world. As of August 2017, 18 cities were members, including Paris, Barcelona, Detroit, Boston, Amsterdam, Shenzhen, and Santiago de Chile. The overall objective of the project is to build resilience in cities, by reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions and at the same time increasing local production, entrepreneurship and community involvement.
3. Public Collaboration Lab
Camden Council in London, UK, saw the opportunity to involve its residents in planning decisions to improve local services, and joined forces with the local University of the Arts London to deliver a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Funding Council. This project centered around the Public Collaboration Lab – a space to bring residents, council officials, students and academics together to co-design solutions to local challenges. Drawing on the University’s expertise in design education, the Council saw a way to engage their residents, gather their views, share information, encourage behavior change and re-design services that would suit their residents’ needs. Specific activities included re-imagining public libraries, involving residents in local planning processes, finding ways of increasing recycling rates, dealing with the effects of overcrowded housing, and redesigning youth centers. And the process has fed directly into decision making and priority setting within the Council, with the potential to expand the approach to other councils in the UK, and internationally.
These examples all share important characteristics, each of which contributes to the opening of innovation to the public. Their multi-stakeholder, multi-perspective teams include members of the community, who are involved in participatory workshops and discussions where they can share their ideas and experience of living in that community. The projects have a clear focus on local issues, with solutions that will be specific to the local conditions and challenges. And the approach depends on a ‘real-life setting’, so solutions can be tested in realistic scenarios to make sure they work. What does all this mean? In the broadest of terms, it suggests that a more collective, collaborative approach to public services is likely to be the most effective, enabling the people who are experiencing the challenges to take an active part in developing solutions.