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Urban Living Labs. Co-creating the future at World Urban Leaders Congress 2019 in Durban

Durban International Convetional Center, South Africa. 11-15th November 2019

On invitation by JPI Urban Europe, I was invited to present the Qatar University Living Laboratory in a session on "Urban Living Labs: Experimenting for Sustainable Urban Development" at the World Urban Leaders Congress 2019 in Durban. The Congress brings the United Cities and Local Government Leaders (UCLG) to discuss governance, leadership and implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals to create more resilient communities and environments.


The participation in the UCLG Urban Congress 2019 in Durban was a very enriching experience. It underscored the importance of mayors and urban leaders in implementing the 2030 Agenda and of such gatherings to exchange knowledge and practical strategies, as well as to absorb the latest research, paradigms and reports on urban design topics such as the right to housing, nature-driven solutions to urbanization and the urban-rural divide.



During the workhsop, I presented the M-NEX Doha Research Project funded by the Belmont Forum and JPI Urban Europe, and in Qatar by the Qatar National Research Fund QNRF. This is a research grant which I was awarded at Qatar University with an international consortium of universities and researchers, entitled "The Moveable Nexus: Design-led Urban Food, Energy and Water Management Innovation in New Boundary Conditions of Change".This internationally diverse project, based around urban design and practice, sees urban agriculture as a key facilitator of the Nexus, needing water and energy to become productive. This project will develop innovative and practical design solutions through stakeholder-engaged living labs in six different bioregions, Belfast, Doha, Detroit, Tokyo-Yokohama, Amsterdam, and Sydney. Each group will aim to translate current FEW-nexus research into real projects.

My presentation entitled “FEWSCAPES. M-NEX Doha and the Qatar University Living Lab. Co-Designing Stakeholder Engagement for Nature-Based Solution to the Food Water Energy Nexus” laid out some background on Universities as Living Labs arguing how the campus can be seen as a microcosm of the city. To quote Ariane Koenig “Living laboratories comprise spaces that are owned and managed by key stakeholders in the living laboratory, and, more often than not, universities are obvious partners with the resources to fulfil their institutional and scientific requirements.” (Source: Ariane Koenig, Regenerative Sustainable Development of Universities and Cities. The Role of Living Laboratories.)

The M-Nex project works on co-designing new food futures with a focus on Climate change, Urban communities and the future demand of food, water with urban agriculture as a key facilitator of the Nexus. The presentation focused on the stakeholder engagement and the co-designing of a Food Water Energy Master Plan for the University, with a particular focus on Food Forests, Biodiversity and Soil - coupled with technological solutions and methods including micro-algae, biochar and vertical farming.


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Being invited to participate and present in the Urban Living Labs workshop was an opportunity to share the experimental methods of Urban Living Labs and how they can contribute to sustainable urban development and implementing Agenda 2030, as well as to discuss the facilitation of transnational learning and knowledge exchange. In particular, the session focused on how research and innovation projects can facilitate co-creation of different urban actors (academia, urban administration, business, civil society organizations, etc.) for sustainable and livable urban development. The introductory presentations by the JPI Urban Europe leaders and board members, Johannes Riegler, Jonas Bylund and Sigrun Kabisch, set the stage for the workshop by providing the presenters and participants with the history and recent evolutions of the Urban Living Labs framework. Jonas Bylund talked about the Living Lab as creating Actionable Knowledge, and also brought up the importance of the evaluation of Living Labs, and of monitoring who is learning what, and what is being achieved and implemented.


Another important aspect of these introductory remarks were the discussion of concepts such as resilience and robustness for the co-creation of inclusive public spaces, democratic exchange, and sustainable urban infrastructures in an age of digital transformation. Dr. Sigrun Kabisch introduced the dilemma approach, a setting in which related topics and groups are brought together but where the results are often diverse and contradictory. This dilemma concept can be uses as a connecting point between actors in order to build trust, which is a key foundation of a successful Living Lab.

One important take away for me from the presentations and the workshop was the right to failure, and that research and experimentation undoubtably include the possibility of failure. In the context of a Living Laboratory, when one is a leader facing multiple stakeholders, it is not always easy to talk of failure or to admit failure, whether it is to funders or participants.


It was very informative to learn about the two other Living Labs, the challenges they face and the results expected or obtained. PlaceCity Project was presented by Bahanur Nasya and the C3Places Project presented by Aelita Skaržauskienė. PlaceCity is focused on implementing placemaking tools for the co-designing of public space and C3Places uses ICT for the co-creation of public space, to see how these projects are implemented and evaluated using the Digital Co-creation index. Looking back, it would interest me to have longer workshops with other living labs in order to have a deeper sharing of methodologies, practices and proble-solving, and to discuss more in depth the knowledge sharing in the living labs. For example, could the digital co-creation index be a useful tool for assessing the Qatar University Living Lab?

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The practical workshop with the participants was very engaging and a chance to discover and practice the use of the Living Lab Toolkit. This is designed as a tool for stakeholders to draft or sharpen the outlines of an urban lab, and which helps to raise and discuss key questions that are worth asking and engaging in Living Labs. I moderated one of the workshops, and I found that the toolkit is very useful to kick off a process of reflection and engagement, and it creates and interface which is quite neutral even for the moderator, so the moderator is not imposing or guiding the conversation too much in his own direction or experience. It is intended to open up discussion, not to direct it too much in a certain way. As we are all experts in some field, we can have a tendency to lead discussions in a certain direction. This tool kit is a good neutral ground to begin a process and discussion. Having a local participant from Durban, who works for a local administration and who was very actively engaged in our process, provided an even more interesting angle, as we could engage in problems and issues that the city of Durban is facing. I asked her to present the outcome of our Living Lab workshop, which she did very well, and I believe handing over the baton is important to empower the stakeholders to own the project and questions. Having a diverse culture of participants, including one Indian who is also active in the USA bought up different cultural dilemmas and behaviors that were important to address.


In conclusion, this workshop was very useful to underscore the following points.

• Recognition of applied research in Academia through the Living Labs research projects.

• The Living Lab as a service to the University, the city and Society.

• Co-designing and co-production of locally situated Knowledge by academics of diverse disciplines, practionners and users of the space, who jointly engage to enable the transition to more sustainable technologies and practices through the Living Lab research.

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I am very grateful to JPI Urban Europe and to Johannes Riegler for the invitation to participate in this very prestigious congress and and enriching workshop to exchange research and experiences. I was delighted to meet the Master of Ceremonies for the Opening Ceremony, Nokugcina Elsie Mhlophe, South African anti-apartheid activist, actress, storyteller, poet, playwriter, director and author.

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