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About the Author: Paula Hernández

Paula holds a BSc in Biochemistry from the Complutense University of Madrid (ES) and an MSc in Biotechnology for the Bioeconomy from the University of Milan (IT). Showing great interest in sustainability and innovation, she got in deep touch with the agrifood industry during her experience within the EIT Food RIS Fellowship in 2020. Previously, she worked as a Business Analyst and Project Manager in a biotechnological company in the Diagnostics field, in which she developed a business perspective and acquired an interest in project management.

In recent years, the term Living Labs has become a recurrent method for innovation in projects fostered by the European Union. This concept, despite its apparent abstract nature, is materialised by bringing together social, political and scientific disciplines with a common objective: to promote innovation with a tangible impact on all social spheres.

What is a living lab?

A living lab is a concept, methodology and space that promotes a way of thinking and approaching the phenomenon of innovation. In this setting, innovation is conducted in real scenarios, centred on the experience and interests of the end-user. It always ensures the active participation of various stakeholders involved in the innovation process. Living labs should have the following characteristics:

  • Co-creation
  • Active User Involvement
  • Real Life Setting
  • Multi Stakeholder Participarion
  • Multi Method Approach
  • Orchestestration

In these ecosystems, the engagement of stakeholders from different societal spheres is essential. This is the so-called multi-actor approach, which has become a key requirement in calls for new EU innovation projects.

The Quadruple Helix

Within this multi-actor approach, the concept of the quadruple helix is often described. It ensures collaboration between four key sectors: government, industry, academia and civil society. Furthermore, the term “helix” is used because the relationships between these spheres are not unidirectional, but their layers are dynamically intertwined and interrelated. Sometimes, a fifth dimension can be added to form the quintuple helix, which also includes the environmental sphere taking into account the natural elements.

In this way, entities from different sectors work together to drive innovation in living labs. This creates an ecosystem where government policies, academic research, business initiatives and community needs are synergistically integrated.

Why are living labs a trend in European projects?

The living lab concept provides projects with a holistic and flexible perspective to tackle social problems through innovation and co-creation. In fact, developing ideas and solutions in a real-life environment ensures that innovations are practical and relevant to society. For the EU, it is becoming increasingly important to involve citizens and local communities in research and development, in contrast to the more academic approach that dominated in the past. Moreover, only by involving the political arena can change be achieved in regulations and administrative hurdles in order to have a real impact.

Since its first coining in the 1990s attributed to Professor William J. (Kidd et al., 1999), and following the rise of the living lab idea throughout the beginning of the century, the European Commission has opted for this concept in many of its projects. In order to join forces, in 2006, the European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL ) was founded as a platform to promote the creation of living labs and to enhance networking between them once created. Currently, ENoLL brings together more than 480 living labs both within and outside Europe and acts as a knowledge transfer portal, and provides training resources and showcasing opportunities for synergies between entities.

Opportunities for living labs

The living lab concept can be applied in a variety of fields and constitute a strategic element in European development initiatives, such as the Green Deal, and drive the transition to a circular economy. This means addressing key sectors such as agriculture, aquaculture, industry, technology as well as areas such as energy, transportation and tourism.

Horizon Europe, the EU’s research and innovation funding programme for the period 2021-2027, has already funded 58 closed calls for living labs since its inception and proposes 11 new themes for living lab projects by 2024. Some of the open calls for next year related to the creation of living labs in the field of the bioeconomy are:

  • HORIZON-CL6-2023-FARM2FORK-01-1: European partnership on accelerating farming systems transition – agroecology living labs and research infrastructures.
  • HORIZON-CL6-2024-FARM2FORK-02-2-two-stage: Sustainable organic food innovation labs: reinforcing the entire value chain.

Within Horizon Europe’s Soil Mission, it is worth highlighting the goal of creating and establishing a total of 100 living labs by 2030, striving for a healthy European soil. To achieve this, the NATI00NS project was set up to provide support through free resources and collaboration opportunities, as well as organising information events and webinars .

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