Topic: Exploring the potential of living labs as social innovations to enable change in rural-urban governance
Keywords: Living labs; Social innovation; Experimentalist governance; Rural-urban relations; ROBUST
Within rural sociology, geography and spatial planning, there has been a historical tendency to view ‘the rural’ and ‘the urban’ in binary terms. However, these ‘spatial fixes’ are increasingly challenged because they lack dynamism when set against social and economic challenges compared to new governance innovations and social experiments e.g. the rise of urban food strategies as polycentric forms of governance that connect city and rural hinterlands, the popularity of concepts such as ‘the city-region’ and ‘smart development’, and new spatial frameworks that examine place-based relations as assemblages. Inspired by these new ways of thinking about rural-urban relations, this paper explores the potential of ‘living labs’ as a research methodology that can firstly reflect and work with this spatial dynamism and can secondly enable creative thinking and experimentalist governance to improve synergies between functional ties in a region. The paper starts by reviewing the living lab concept and methodology, including links with social innovation and new forms of creative governance. We then introduce how the framework has been applied in a major H2020-funded project, ROBUST, as a transdisciplinary approach, that involves researchers and practice partners from living labs in 11 European countries. In each living lab, practice and research partners are working together to experiment with new ways to improve rural-urban synergies across three functions, including experimenting with new growth models e.g. circular economy, sharing economy. The living lab work is on-going and in the second half of the paper we present short vignettes of learning experiences captured to date through the project, with the aim of sharing these experiences and reflections to initiate discussion and critique regarding the potential of living labs as enablers of change. This includes analysis of potential pitfalls and challenges, such as how to monitor and evaluate learning and what is realistic in terms of changes to institutional arrangements to improve rural-urban relations.