Urban Living Labs in India; will they work?

Rahul Das
11 min readApr 24, 2021
Representative Image: Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

“Innovation processes are highly important in solving the big societal challenges which exist on a global scale, such as climate change, ageing cities, health and mobility issues. The role of cities and the urban context is crucial in this aspect. Urban Living Labs and Living Labs, in particular, is a great methodology to solve these modern city challenges, by the complex integration of multi-dimensional solutions.”

-Lars Coenen

City of Melbourne Chair of Resilient Cities, Melbourne Sustainable Societies Institute, The University of Melbourne

The developers of Urban Living Labs (ULLs) at the University of Lund in Sweden, define them as ‘sites which are devised to design, test and learn from social and technical innovation in real-time. It is a form of experimentation, a laboratory demonstration, or a trial where an alternative form of innovative urban governance exists’ [1]. They have extensively stressed on mentioning that these are locations where applied research or research in practice is not undertaken. Rather, there exists the evolution of action-based investigation, and co-creation of ideas across different stakeholders such as the civil society, local governments, industry and business experts, etc. to expand and enhance on previous deductions [2].

Figure: The REPAiR Peri-Urban Living Lab which pinpoints problems for sustainable urban development like urban sprawl and extensive land consumption, fragmented local governments and planning systems as well as excessive use of resources and waste production in peri-urban areas [3].

ULLs have several characteristics based on geography, domain, technology, participation, and governance. They are strategically embedded into systems, which learn from shortcomings of previous experiments and innovate in creating more sustainable solutions. Based on geography and domain, ULLs in Europe have been categorized into 7 types; the most prominent ones being the Strategic, Civic, and Grassroots Living labs [2]. Strategic and Grassroots Living labs concentrate on more focused problems. For example, the city government receiving funds from an Industry group to develop an ULL, and establish a platform for experimenting with the energy efficiency of buildings. Civic Living labs, on the other hand, are collaborations by several governance-based organizations to focus on stand-alone projects with funding on a partnership between the governments [2].

Urban Living Labs is a developing concept, the idea for which has been evolving in Europe, and other developed nations such as Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. There are more than 50 ULLs in Europe alone, and collaborations are on way to learns and grow into other countries and continents across the globe for the collective development of major cities [1]. India has been an emerging market for such experimentation, with collaborations with the US on cleaner energy such as hydrogen and biofuel, with the European Union supported Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) for Wind Energy, with Uzbekistan in the field of Solar Energy, and with Nordic nations to develop newer technologies to reduce carbon footprints and evade extensive climate change.

Figure: The Urban Living Lab Breda is based in a Municipality in the Netherlands and engages with several stakeholders such as the government, citizens, students, etc. to work in the transformation of resource use, and create a Transformative Urbanism — Lab (TransUrbanLab) [4].

URBAN LIVING LABs IN INDIA

Urban Living Labs in India are of two types, based on their institutional framework. They are either based on collaboration that has been made with international governments or partnership between organizations based out of India. There are 2 examples of type 1 ULLs in India that have been mentioned here. The Imagine Panaji Smart City Development Ltd (IPSCDL) in 2019 collaborated with the Govt. of Denmark and ideated the possibility of exchanging the latest technologies as well as work on capacity building for the engineers of Corporation for the City of Panaji (CCP). They are creating India’s first ULL in Panaji, also Panjim, to create sustainable systems in 3 key areas; protection against floods, regeneration and protection of water bodies, and mobility challenges in the city [5]. Also, the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Denmark Embassy in Delhi are in talks to establish an Urban Regeneration Lab in Kolkata [6]. However, the idea is still in a nascent phase.

There also exists the seeds of emerging ULLs in India without any international collaborations. The Sensing Local Foundation is an ULL based in Bengaluru, which works in city observation, learning and innovation with a specific focus on improving the state of the environment and public health. It uses the simple model as defined in Europe, to formalize the learning and experimentation in the urban context, with interactions and involvements of several stakeholders [7]. Sensing Local collaborated with the Malleswaram Social, a citizen’s groups to enhance service delivery, and their efforts resulted in the Malleswaram- Urban Living Lab, or M-ULL [8]. Several such ULLs exist in India.

The Imagine Panaji Urban Living Lab, and the Urban Regeneration Lab in Kolkata

A delegation from the Danish Govt. visited the city of Panjim, in December 2018, and identified that the city may face major adverse effects of climate change if proper land-based development is not undertaken. Panjim being a coastal city, the major focus of the project was to protect the city against the growing risk of floods. The project was initiated on a priority basis after the massive floods in Kerala between July and August 2018. Goa is, also, a major tourist hotspot throughout the year, however, lacks an efficient transport infrastructure with the only transport facility being rented private vehicles, and auto-rickshaws. The city Development Authority’s collaboration with Denmark can provide a way forward in solving these major urban problems in Panjim [9].

The project structure includes 2 major authorities in the collaboration, along with a few resource and knowledge partners. The official knowledge partners of the project, Tandem Research, a think tank based in Goa, declared their partnership with the Imagine Panaji Smart City Development Limited, the Oxford Policy Management and The Resources and Energy Institute (TERI), along with the Govt. of Denmark at an advisory and consultancy position to implement the project [9] [10].

The Areas of Collaboration under this agreement in Panjim will primarily be programmes, projects and activities on concepts of ULLs, and shall be aimed at strengthening engineering, managerial and operational capacities in the potential thrust areas that have emerged for smart cities in India. The operation of the ULL will include analytics and research, exchange of knowledge, institutional cooperation, organizing joint seminars and conferences, demonstrations/ pilot projects for technical solutions and a showcase of global best practices and capacity building and training including training of trainers and sustainability leaders.

A simplified structure of the project is indicated below.

Figure: The Panjim Urban Living Lab Framework. (Self-created by Author)

After the initial meetings, and scoping visits undertaken by expert groups, the Royal Danish Embassy in Delhi, issued a tender in Denmark to attract organizations and technical research bodies to undertake the consultancy domain, and act as the project management company representing the Govt. of Denmark [10]. The ULL in Panjim will bring an extensive collaborative and participatory approach to work with the citizens to ensure that sustainable solutions to urban issues are delivered seamlessly and, in a time-bound manner. It should give the city of Panjim, and the state of Goa, an excellent platform to be among the best practices in India in terms of ULLs, and enable peer-to-peer learning in the country. Other cities from India, can further learn and develop on the ideas generated during the project.

“It is proven that we can learn from technology as we learn from looking at nature. Working in living labs allows us — both the municipality and society as a whole — to learn from one of the greatest technological achievements that people are capable of building: ingenious resilient and sustainable cities. To learn from the complex systems that cities are, we need to share knowledge, be optimistic, trust and cooperate — and a living lab environment creates the grounds to do so.”

-Sacha Stolp

Senior Strategic Advisor, City of Amsterdam

The talks between the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Denmark Embassy in Delhi is another example of the ULL in India under international collaboration, which is being discussed in line with the implementation of the ULL in Panjim. This idea, however, does not have adequate literature for detailed elaboration. It was first referred to by the Times of India in February 2021 and is thus a very recent event. It can be expected that the project might be on hold, or delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, a recent media analysis has indicated the setting of an Urban Regeneration Lab in Kolkata, for Solid Waste Management in the city. Officials from the Bengal Chamber have, however, not put any document or proposal ideas in the public domain. However, the President of Bengal Chamber, Deb A. Mukherjee indicated that ‘the bottom-up approach can be a solution to address some local and ground-level challenges, with the help of resource efficiency and capacity building.’

The Sensing Local Foundation, and the Malleswaram- Urban Living Lab

Malleswara or Malleswaram is a North-Western suburb of Bangalore and is a designated zone of Bangalore Municipal Corporation. It was developed as a planned suburb after the great plague of 1898, which caused many people to move out of the city centre. It derives its name from the Kadu Malleswara Temple. The neighborhood houses many offices one of them being World Trade Centre, Bangalore. Of the several citizen’s groups in the city, Malleswaram Social is a 6-year-old citizens group that came together to form social ties and work on bettering the civic amenities in the area. Their collaboration with Sensing Local resulted in the Malleswaram- ULL [8].

The primary focus of the M-ULL is in areas of Water, Waste, Public space management, Mobility and transportation, Inclusion for the urban poor, Disaster management, and Heritage conservation. They use data collection, research and community engagement as their major tools of approach towards a healthier city ecosystem. M-ULL along with Sensing Local, mentions themselves as a ‘do tank rather than a think- tank, and they have lived up to their ideas. The Covid-19 pandemic was a real test for them, and their citizens-group benefitted the community in major ways. The team comprising of citizens, health officials, local government authorities, college volunteers, and few local businesses contributed towards creating a much safer locality during Covid-19 especially during Dussehra last year [8]. Encouraging higher use of masks in public spaces with monitoring groups, mobilizing the Ward Disaster Management Committee, and establishing contactless hand-sanitizing stations outside restaurants, malls, ration-shops, vegetable markets, etc. were some great initiatives undertaken by them at the local level. The M-ULL model is an excellent example of citizens creating their private community to safeguard people from the adverse effect of such pandemics. The idea is also being replicated at several locations across Bengaluru, and Sensing Local has been a knowledge partner to several such local organizations.

Figure: The Malleswaram ULL engaged several activities during Covid-19; the contactless public hand-sanitizing station was one of them [8].

The collaborations with firms, local governments and citizens for setting up ULLs are based on 4 key ideas; Experimentation, Engagement, Co-creation and Learning. Further, all ULL models are usually based on the idea to create a modified circular economy, or an effective sharing economy. They give cities a unique perspective on urban development, and opportunities to learn from best practices across the globe. The success of such projects, however, depends on the support from local governments in terms of funds, as well as managerial functions. Our leaders must be ambitious enough to undertake such projects. Urban Living Labs can be city-centric or locality-centric approaches to improve public service delivery mechanisms while keeping urban innovation and experimental governance at their central theme for progress. They require efficient and economic collaborations to generate results that can effectively affect communities at a larger scale.

“Collaborating with enterprises, municipalities and citizens has enriched our research. The integration and use of the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS) Living Lab Way of Working have enriched the process and foster co-creation towards next level solutions.”

-Arjan van Timmeren

Professor, Environmental Technology & Design, Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions

In 2019, The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), and the University of New South Wales, Australia, also showed interest to establish ULLs in Indian cities in an Australia-India Knowledge Exchange event, for capacity building in the field of renewable energy. There has not been any official report of this. The success of such a project will depend on how the state governments agree to experiment with the existing electricity infrastructure and distribution tariffs in the city. Such projects must be subsidized, however, will depend on the politically driven willingness of the state governments [11].

Establishing ULLs in India is a major challenge. The basic difference being the geographical and cultural features of cities between the global north and the global south. Cities in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China, etc. are highly dynamic, as compared to cities in Europe where ideas of Urban Living Labs were first conceptualized. They emerged in the early 1970–80s, when the urbanization was almost 65 per cent in the European Union, compared to just 20 per cent urban population in India. Thus, there remains a developmental gap between collaborative nations which are solely based on optimistic knowledge sharing goals. Further, the implementation procedure brings more complex constraints if the current status of Indian cities is concerned, and where ULLs are expected to be developed. As a fact, the most famous ULL in Denmark is the one in the City of Tampere, and the Municipality of Eindhoven. The population density in Denmark is 137 person per square kilometers (sqkm). This figure is more than 4,300 per sqkm in Bengaluru and almost 24,000 per sqkm in Kolkata! Thus, there exists a significant difference in the number of people and the magnitude of the problem that will be generated by them. One simple solution to this could be to consider housing societies, rather than entire localities, and then engage civil societies, corporates, society management bodies, and the local government to solve grass-root issues in particular locations. These can then be replicated into other societies, and subsequently to localities in the neighborhood.

Ideas such as the Malleswaram-ULL are more targeted and focused compared to the Panjim Urban Living Lab. These methodologies are simpler and can be more easily replicated and scaled into other locations. Funding for such small-scale projects is also much smaller compared to collaborations with international governments. Given Panjim is a much smaller city, small localities must be targeted during the initial phase. There can be possible upliftment of houses, and reconstruction of flood walls, maintenance of drainage systems, etc., to decrease the risks of floods in the near future.

ULLs can be solutions to the failure of the centralized service-delivery system at some locations. The recent Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated a major health crisis that affects people from all communities irrespective of demographic features. Collaborations with private enterprises at a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) mode can be a solution, however, will prove unsustainable in the long run. The obligation for citizens should be to make our governments more accountable and transparent on service deliveries and systematically ensure that central governance functions. ULLs can be an experimental approach in India, however, they will require decades of evolution before they can effectively shoulder big global issues of health and climate change.

References

[1] Urban Nature Labs (UNaLab), [Online]. Available: https://unalab.eu/en/urban-living-labs. [Accessed 19 April 2021].

[2] Amsterdam Institute of Advanced Metropolitian Studies , [Online]. Available: https://www.ams-institute.org/how-we-work/living-labs/. [Accessed 19 April 2021].

[3] REPAiR Peri-Urban Living Lab, [Online]. Available: http://h2020repair.eu/repair-peri-urban-living-lab/. [Accessed 20 April 2021].

[4] Urban Living Lab Breda, [Online]. Available: https://urbanlivinglabbreda.nl/. [Accessed 22 April 2021].

[5] The Navhind Times, [Online]. Available: https://www.navhindtimes.in/2019/01/23/goanews/panaji-set-to-get-urban-living-lab/. [Accessed 22 April 2021].

[6] The Times of India, [Online]. Available: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/urban-living-lab-plan-for-social-experiments-in-kol/articleshow/81116680.cms. [Accessed 22 April 2021].

[7] Sensing Local, [Online]. Available: https://www.sensinglocal.in/. [Accessed 24 April 2021].

[8] Malleshwaram Urban Living Lab, [Online]. Available: https://www.malleswaram-livinglab.in/. [Accessed 22 April 2021].

[9] Tandem Research , [Online]. Available: https://www.tandemresearch.org/blog/urban-living-labs-a-new-wave-of-experimental-governance. [Accessed 23 April 2021].

[10] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, [Online]. Available: https://um.dk/en/about-us/procurement/contracts/long/contract-opportunities/newsdisplaypage/?newsID=69A4D786-E698-44FD-B940-F42D06164A06. [Accessed 24 April 2021].

[11] Green Growth Knowledge, [Online]. Available: https://www.greengrowthknowledge.org/page/explore-green-growth.

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Rahul Das

Post-Graduate Student | Symbiosis School of Economics | Economics, Urban Development