The Defining Characteristics of Urban Living Labs

Kris Steen, Ellen van Bueren

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The organization of supported and sustainable urban interventions is challenging, with multiple actors involved, fragmented decision-making powers, and multiple values at stake. Globally, urban living labs have become a fashionable phenomenon to tackle this challenge, fostering the development and implementation of innovation, experimentation, and knowledge in urban, real-life settings while emphasizing the important role of participation and co-creation. However, although urban living labs could in this way help cities to speed up the sustainable transition, urban living lab experts agree that, in order to truly succeed in these ambitious tasks, the way urban living labs are being shaped and steered needs further research. Yet, they also confirm the existing variation and opaqueness in the definition of the concept. This article contributes to conceptual clarity by developing an operationalized definition of urban living labs, which has been used to assess 90 sustainable urban innovation projects in the city of Amsterdam. The assessment shows that the majority of the projects that are labelled as living labs do not include one or more of the defining elements of a living lab. In particular, the defining co-creation and development activities were found to be absent in many of the projects. This article makes it possible to categorize alleged living lab projects and distill the “true” living labs from the many improperly labelled or unlabelled living labs, allowing more specific analyses and, ultimately, better targeted methodological recommendations for urban living labs.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-33
JournalTechnology Innovation Management Review
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • urban living labs
  • urban innovation
  • experimentation


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