Nowadays, citizens and urban policy makers are experimenting with new collaborative approaches to tackle persistent urban issues, such as climate change adaptation, quality of life, and urban inequalities [1
]. Regular policy-centric approaches fail to address the root causes of such complex persistent problems; practices in the existing urban regimes are not able to give answers to the new demands and needs arising from these problems. Hence, new approaches are explored that help to ensure that the city is and remains a healthy place to live, providing a high quality of life, without depleting natural resources. In search for more effective action plans, citizens, public institutions, private sector, and knowledge institutions are increasingly teaming up in formal and informal networks. Such networks address various urban development topics, aimed at weaving different types of knowledge together while differing in their socio-spatial contexts and respective purposes. The emergence of these new urban networks is driven by two major trends. On the one hand, for decades, public bodies have been opening up towards different participation practices, described as governance through communities, ‘third way’ approaches [3
], public-private-partnerships [4
], or public-private-people partnerships [5
]. On the other hand, the various urban actors outside the government have become more vocal and assertive. They do not only want to contribute to tackling social problems, but also expect and demand to be heard and take action themselves if they are dissatisfied with policy responses. In many cases, citizens, social entrepreneurs, and other societal actors do not wait for help or consensus of public bodies, but they take matters into their own hands and act. These emerging societal responses to urban challenges are characterized by the engagement of various public, knowledge, and non-governmental organizations, and citizens and social movements directly, and offer potentially effective and fruitful contexts for the development and implementation of products, services, plans, or policies [6
]. Several examples of urban activism are arising around the world, as illustrated in the contexts of urban regeneration, do-it-yourself urbanism, public space and housing [7
], place-making [9
], and civic ecology practices [10
The strong need for collaboration across institutional boundaries is highlighted by the actors’ willingness to combine different types of knowledge to better deal with complex issues, exploring visions, possibilities, and finding agreements between the different parties involved [11
]. However, urban actors from different societal domains and sectors still do not necessarily meet, understand each other, or cooperate immediately. They often engage only with those actors from their own social networks, professional backgrounds, institutional settings, or spatial contexts. These social and spatial disconnections have been identified as a key barrier to new collaborative forms of developing urban futures. Some scholars state that suitable spaces and transition arenas for collaborative forms of urban governance are required, where the connections among actors can be established and the boundaries between sectors, interests, and contexts are subject to further exploration [13
]. An emerging form of such arenas are the Living Labs in cities [15
], also known as Urban Living Labs (ULLs).
ULLs currently proliferate across European cities, and they are claimed to be a particular form of spatially embedded sites for learning, as well as for the co-creation of knowledge, products, technologies, and service innovations in local experiments [16
]. Experimenting in urban laboratories is seen as an instrument for urban and territorial innovation, being able to offer space for adaptive and multi-actor learning environments. Within this real-world context, new practices of self-organization and (infra-) structures can be tested [17
]. Moreover, ULLs are intended to promote the collaboration between a variety of actors and, with their experimental sites, are also considered to have value for long-term sustainability transitions [20
]. Despite recent theoretical and empirical explorations of the ULL concept, some aspects are still understudied, such as its theoretical underpinning, the mechanisms and procedures of ULLs to facilitate effective interventions that create impact in cities and beyond, as well as their potential to become co-creative transformative arenas. More precisely, the role and characteristics of co-creation, as an inherent element of these three understudied issues, needs more attention. Hence, this paper addresses the essential role of co-creation in ULLs as multi-actor processes of developing and experimenting with new strategies, agendas, and actions towards sustainable cities. First, the paper unravels five elements that characterize co-creation and illustrates them by examining six different real-life cases of ULLs. The goal is to reflect upon co-creation and the related issues within ULLs, and to better understand how they can potentially be effective instruments and become mechanisms for systemic and institutional change.
1.1. The Concept of (Urban) Living Labs
Over the last years, several scholars have been active in identifying the potential and the challenges of Urban Living Labs (ULLs) [18
]. ULLs [22
] have been understood as geographically embedded, context-driven environments, in which user-centered research and development activities are carried out in an open innovation ecosystem, with the aim of experimenting and learning based on multi-stakeholder partnerships that are framed within a specific socio-spatial boundary (e.g., a city or a neighborhood context) [14
]. ULLs can be both collaborations settled with the purpose of experimentation, as well as collaborations arising from new forms of urban insurgent activism (i.e., social entrepreneurs, civic volunteers, grass roots initiatives).
The concept of ULLs is derived from the broader Living Labs concept. Living Labs were designed to open up the innovation process, mainly within the corporate sector, to involve other actors. The focus of these early Living Labs was on how end users experience products and services in their daily life context. Their aim was to make their design a user-centric process, as opposed to a product-centric process. Living Labs emerged from a need for new methods, as well as new settings, that allowed further integration of the work of some frontrunners; those that were exploring open innovation theory [23
], the ‘prosumer’ concept as a key actor of the markets in the Web 2.0 era [24
], and the ‘lead users paradigm’ [25
]. The idea of Living Labs was originally developed at the end of the 1990s at the MIT Media Lab by computer science scholars. The concept complemented user-driven, human-centered, and participatory approaches to design challenges. For example, Living Labs were employed for exploring human-computer interactions in the implementation of technologies based on the involvement of users (firms, organizations, and consumers) in the design process. These early applications of the concept stimulated a variety of reviews of the different design methodologies used within Living Labs [26
Nowadays, several definitions of the concept of Living Labs exist, but commonly they are understood as using several methodologies and tools aimed at the co-creation of innovative solutions (i.e., products and services) in real world environments with users, who meet in real life contexts and share experiences, while envisioning their own future [27
]. Often the concept of Living Labs refers to a “multi-stakeholder platform as a (voluntary or statutory) body, comprising different stakeholders, who perceive the same problem, realize their own respective interdependencies, and come together to agree on the best action strategies for solving it” [30
] (p. 133). Living Labs consider people not only as users or consumers in a narrow sense, but as direct contributors to or co-creators in an innovation process. The aim is to move from Triple Helix [31
] to the Quadruple Helix [32
] co-creation, where public and knowledge institutions collaborate not only with private bodies, but also with civil society to innovate services and products. The actors within Living Labs test innovative solutions on a daily basis, allowing for observation of innovation processes in self-organized [33
] real-world environments where people play different roles. Some authors focus on the role of different actors in co-creation processes to identify different types of Labs, referring to the principal promoter or to the most active participant [27
Svensson et al. [34
], in line with the European Network of Living Labs (ENOLL), consider a Living Lab not only as a methodology, but also as an organization, an environment, a system in itself, where innovation might take place. Recently, the concept of Living Labs is expanding, from research contexts at knowledge institutions or in private sector research and development, towards complex socio-spatial contexts [24
]. The recent attention for Living Labs in urban environments comes from the fact that within Living Labs, collaboration happens in a real-life setting and expected outcomes (e.g., products, processes, learning) are emerging within the participants’ daily life. In this sense, they are considered potential triggers of innovation in urban environments. It has been demonstrated that Urban Living Labs contribute significantly to the production of local knowledge in relation to the development of relational capital [35
], which is of importance for experimentation with new practices, relationships, and governance arrangements. Hence, ULLs stimulate processes of reflection and questioning, triggered by “experimentations [that] may induce changes in individual and collective mental models, transforming the feedback and results of the trials into sources of behavioral change and learning for systemic change” [36
] (p. 761). In this way, ULLs may create changes that are valuable for a group of people and pressure existing regimes, but it is not yet demonstrated how and if they contribute to changing the overall system. Mulder and Stappers [24
] pointed out that Living Labs could make far better use of the promised ecological validity of a community-driven innovation approach. This is especially relevant for the understanding of ULLs. However, research that describes actual co-creation practices in ULLs is still hard to find, even though scholars do address this issue and mention co-creation as a typical value of ULLs.
For Bergvall-Kareborn and Stahlbrost [37
], co-creating sustainable values is the aim of a Living Lab. They regard it as a user-centric innovation milieu built on every-day practices and research that facilitates interaction, engaging all relevant partners in real-life contexts. Here, co-creation is not only a methodology to achieve (product, service, or process) innovation, but a way to create values that are shared between participants. Hence, (Urban) Living Labs are not only places where people come together that share the same values, but also a means for the co-creation of shared values [38
] that might activate innovation and broader systemic change. Due to the complexity arising from the social infrastructure within different multi-helix consortia, different co-creation dynamics emerge, which we will describe in this article based on observations made in ULL in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. This introduction continues with an exploration of the term co-creation and its key elements.
1.2. The Concept of Co-Creation
A widely accepted generic and literal definition of co-creation is ‘making something together’. However, when the term is specified in more detail, a common conceptual agreement is not apparent [39
]. The understandings range from a business and customer centric logic [40
], focused on mutual value creation through specific interactions, to a focus on creating partnerships in public service delivery with citizens [42
] as well as relations of joint responsibility [43
]. Considering the context in which this research is done, the latter direction seems more fitting. However, the body of literature coming from the field of business and marketing has produced a variety of methods and understanding of co-creation that are equally valuable. Hence, both bodies of literature are taken into account in this section.
Nowadays, co-creation has become an almost ‘magical concept’ [44
] that is assumed to be able to achieve a variety of positive effects. It is said to be able to reform the public sector [42
] to enable creativity and stimulate innovative solutions [45
], as well as to make change processes more effective and meaningful [49
]. Co-creation is currently used in several sectors, such as urban and regional planning, public management, transition studies, design, and innovation. Given this diversity of application contexts, there is a differentiated understanding of the constituting elements of co-creation and a need to find appropriate ways of how to study their dynamics in practice. In this section, we identify five common elements of co-creation based on a review of the comprehensive literature on the subject. These are (1) the purpose of the co-creation; (2) formal and informal co-creation; (3) the ownership of the co-creation process; (4) the motivation and incentives for co-creation; and (5) the places/spaces of co-creation.
The first element of co-creation described in the literature is the purpose of the co-creation. In the urban planning domain, already described in Friedman [51
], participation (or co-creation) and empowerment became goals to be attained, rather than methods to be used [6
]. According to communicative planning perspectives, participation is at the roots of planning [52
]. To plan, according to this view, is to communicate, argue, debate, and engage in discourse for the purpose of aligning attention and defining the possibilities for action [12
]. Co-creation can have two distinct goals here. The primary purpose of the co-creation can be making
], a situation where people work together towards a goal or output of a product, service, or process innovation. Or it can be learning
together, a situation where people collaborate towards building knowledge, learn from one another, and create networks between people. Frequently, both goals are sought after simultaneously, though often one of them prevails. In addition, the innovation subject of making or learning can vary. The innovation spectrum is categorized by different levels in various fields. In systems engineering, often four levels are identified: The system, subsystems, element, and component [57
]. In the context of the Transition management framework, it is distinguished between the landscape, system innovations, process innovations, and product innovations [58
]. In the design domain, the levels can be referred to as the societal system, socio-technical system, product-service system, and product-technology system [57
]. When making
is the primary purpose, often a specific innovation goal or output is sought after. In the service marketing or product development literature, this is also referred to as the envisioned value creation. In the case of learning
as the primary purpose, co-creation is more focused on creating knowledge and innovation and changes on the levels of the socio-technical or societal system. This can be connected to the purpose of the co-creation being participation itself. However, the link between knowledge production and learning, as well as the link between the purpose of ULLs and their effects on the different systems, is not obvious and needs to be explored in practice.
Second, the literature describes forms of formal and informal co-creation. This is also related to the intensity of engagement: Heavily engaged versus short-term engaged [59
]. Formal co-creation refers to processes that are deliberately set up by the initiator(s), which can be one stakeholder or a group of stakeholders. Such co-creation processes are characterized by defined procedural steps, timing, participants, and audiences. This also encompasses the often-discussed selected or non-selected forms of participation. With formal co-creation, the participants are often selected, since it considers specific people (e.g., lead-users, frontrunners) valuable for co-creation activities [60
]. On the other hand, informal co-creation refers to processes of collaboration that emerge out of shared goals or the necessity to work together. These can, but do not necessarily have to, turn into formal co-creation processes. Selecting participants requires extra effort to identify and invite the right people, and is challenged with questions of broader legitimacy [62
]. Informal co-creation processes are often characterized by less official planning, non-selected participation, short-term engagement, as well as practices and rules that unfold over time. Non-selected participation considers everyone as potential valuable participants [63
]. It requires less efforts of identifying and selection, because broad samples of stakeholders can be addressed. However, it can be challenged with change-averse perspectives and legitimacy resistance [65
]. Additionally, there is often a greater need to find stimuli to motivate participants to contribute and to be involved, since they are not specifically selected for certain motivations, ideas, or shared values [66
]. In the urban context, this relates to the city as a complex system that reaches a level of internal organization that is always (with different degrees) beyond people’s direct control [68
]. It has emergent and unintentional characteristics that are the result of processes of self-organization [69
]. Hence, those self-organization processes might give rise to interactions and co-creation process that are not the result of planned procedures, but the result of unplanned action. Therefore, co-creation in cities will always consist of a certain degree of informality [71
The third element of co-creation is the ownership of the co-creation process. Conducting processes of co-creation requires specific skills, such as defining different roles, stepping in and stepping out of these roles and processes, and providing the right tools at the right moment to the right people [72
]. Depending on who is providing these roles, the co-creation process will differ in set-up and thus has consequences for the practices. If there is a clear initiator group, this group will probably dominate the practices and rules of the co-creation process. If the group of initiators wants to open up the procedure to a broader group, to share ownership, more deliberation is needed along the way to create consensus on how co-creation will be practiced [73
]. This requires additional co-creative steps in which it is discussed how each and every one envisions the co-creation, as well as more time for aligning the views of the different participants.
Fourth, is the element of motivations and incentives for co-creation. Co-creation processes involve several types of costs (i.e., time, monetary investments, management etc.). To be engaged in such processes, individuals compare these costs to the benefits they get in return [75
]. Participants’ motivation to engage relates to their goals, resources, and expectations of the value of the outcomes [76
]. This includes motivations beyond the monetary ones [77
]; social, cultural, technical, and psychological factors also all play a role [78
]. One common distinction in motivations is between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation [76
]. Intrinsic motivation refers to the motivation to engage in an activity primarily for people’s own sake, without obvious external stimuli. In contrast, extrinsic motivation is activated by the intention of obtaining a desired outcome or avoiding an undesired one. It is associated with external incentives, such as monetary compensation, or recognition by others, separate from the activity itself. In co-creation processes, incentives can be very concrete and clear for all parties, but there are also situations where the benefits are less tangible, unclear, or not equal for all participants. In the policy making arena, this is acknowledged as plurality of interests. When the interests or benefits (especially the extrinsically motivated ones) are characterized by plurality, it might be difficult to motivate those groups of people for whom the benefits are less clear. For example, when co-creation is practiced as a form of feedback or test situation, when there is no shared ownership, or no direct apparent change for all participants. In these cases, it is not uncommon that the initiator (often a firm or government actor) provides a compensation, discount, or offering to lower the threshold for participation [79
Fifth, is the element of spaces and places for co-creation. Co-creation does not take place in a vacuum, but always occurs within socio-spatial contexts. Hence, this element closely connects to the literature on place-based innovation. The concept of place-based innovation is related to the development of industrial clusters and districts, as well as to the literature on regional development and policy innovation [80
]. The connection between innovation and its spaces became a case for the analysis of the specific conditions for innovation to appear. In the studied cases, proximity is the relevant condition that facilitate the interaction and access between actors that bring innovative ideas and resources [82
]. However, spaces and places are also catalysts of interactive learning and innovation [83
]. Place-based innovation is claimed to lead to “the wide adoption of ideas developed as resources and behavioral guidelines by and from situated communities of innovation” [84
] (p. 2194). Creating the physical (and mental) spaces for learning and experimenting is a necessary condition for fundamental change [85
]. Spaces and places facilitate visionary collaborations for making and learning together through co-creation practices [86
]. They enable collaborating actors to systematically and deliberately explore solutions across sectorial boundaries. Moreover, they constitute interventions within socio-spatial contexts themselves. Spaces and places of co-creation are found to affect their socio-spatial environment, e.g., by providing meeting places, creating visibility for local sustainability issues [87
], or by becoming “vehicles for innovation in urban planning processes” [88
] (p. 89).
To conclude, taken together, these five elements influence the overall dynamics that are associated with co-creation. The five individual elements do not completely stand alone, they interact, relate, and influence each other. They should be regarded as a basis for understanding co-creation in practice, as will be done in this paper for the specific case of ULLs. In the next section, our methodological approach and empirical data are presented.