There is nothing so terrible as activity without insight.
Johann von Goethe (1749–1832)
Writer and statesman
This article contributes to the ongoing knowledge from the first decade of operating living labs with a study on the coordination of novel innovation activities in living labs. The article provides an organizational model for living labs to order the activities that eventually will allow the conceptualization of living labs as innovation systems, thus giving user involvement a more central role in innovation process theories. This article shows how innovation networks systematically align their activities to reliably achieve their objectives. Next to this interpretivist theoretical contribution, the article contributes relevant practical insights to technology innovation management practitioners based on in-depth living lab cases that exhibit interesting, relevant, and new activities.
Living labs are one form of regional innovation system that the Finish prime minister, in his term as European Union president, introduced to stimulate European innovation activities. This 2006 decision to implement living labs, so named to promote the relevance of a real-life environment for user involvement in the early product development process to increase the success of innovation, lead to initiatives in over 500 European regions. Such coordinated European activity is a kind of quasi-experiment in developing and introducing new regional innovation activities.
Economists frequently refer to “innovation capital” as a factor with strong influence on the relationship between available knowledge in a region and the economic performance created from it (Audretsch & Keilbach, 2004). However, they restrict their research to quantifying the input and output of a living lab but do not “open the black box” of what innovation capital really is. While this factor combination is sufficient to interpret statistical census data on a national level, economists recommend a more detailed examination of the activities that take place in a living lab (e.g., Audretsch & Keilbach, 2004, 2005). The aim of this article is to follow this recommendation by presenting a study on the basis of engaged scholarship following the method of innovation research originally established and refined by Andy van de Ven (2007) and his team in the Minnesota Innovation Research Program. As such, the study presented here is clearly rooted in the technology innovation management (TIM) discipline by virtue of the studied innovation processes in living labs and the dedicated methodology. The study is further rooted in the TIM domain by its object of analysis. We base our study on identifying the activities and actors that make user-centric innovation happen.
For scientists and engineers, who are used to collaborating in large networks for the creation of knowledge, the terms “innovation network” or “innovation system” are more appropriate compared to the term “living lab” (Katzy et al., 2003). Such innovation systems exist on national and regional levels, and for dedicated technologies, products, or user groups (e.g., knowledge workers). In this article, we use these two terms interchangeably to cover living labs as well as other collaborative networks that are more targeted to developing new technology, knowledge, products, or any combination of them. A broader term allows us to discuss alternative configurations of innovation systems and their activities at a later stage.
Collaboration across firm boundaries in regional innovation systems or clusters is a strong driver towards living labs (Katzy & Dissel, 2004; Katzy et al., 2007; Röttmer & Katzy, 2005). This is especially true for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) (McPhee et al., 2012; Niitamo et al., 2012). Incentives are provided to universities to transfer their knowledge to industry (Tsai-Lin et al., 2014).
Through grants and subsidies, firms are motivated to tolerate “spill-over effects” and to open up some parts of their knowledge to others (Röttmer & Katzy, 2006). A final driver that we refer to here is the availability of information and communication technologies that allow connections between users and product developers over distances (Katzy et al., 2004; Sari et al., 2009).
Innovation networks have already been modelled as virtual organizations with formal and semi-formal modelling methods (Sari et al., 2009), but so far, the research focus has been more on information technology infrastructures and less on innovation activities. Research on living labs has resulted in insights on the structure of the underlying regional networks and their technical infrastructures. Living labs now add a novel set of innovation activities that makes use of these infrastructures.
The current study is based on Van de Ven´s method of engaged scholarship (Van de Ven, 2007) through which the first author joined ongoing projects in a support role. To this end, we selected living labs and similar innovation systems that are sufficiently stable in operation over a sufficiently long time period of more than five years. Engaging in projects in these living labs allowed us to identify newly developed innovation activities, especially user-centric product development, which goes beyond the structural analysis of living labs and allows for deeper understanding on how user-centric innovation is undertaken.
We examined three cases of living labs:
- Colliquio online platform (Lake Constance region, central Europe)
- Wireless Leiden (Netherlands)
- Mobiliance (City of Nuremberg region, Germany)
Data were obtained by joining those living labs in operation when undertaking projects and when planning or reflecting on innovation activities of these networks.
The Colliquio platform provides a solution for medical doctors to exchange medical information over the Internet. The story began when a young innovator approached the Constance living lab wishing to address the fact that both his father and uncle (two medical doctors) were not exchanging medical data using Internet. The director of the Constance living lab gave him the task of looking for a team. After one week of consideration, he, together with two friends, decided to develop the Colliquio platform. They came back to the Lake Constance living lab and their project was accepted. The development was undertaken in 2012 with participation of the prospective end users (medical doctors), who needed to change their professional behaviour and work routines in order to make use of the new platform. Medical work routines are often certified and require careful change management to maintain all professional standards. Privacy of patient data on the Internet is one issue that needed to be considered in the Colliquio case.
The specific contribution of the Wireless Leiden project is that the users build their own wireless network on the rooftops of the City of Leiden in the Netherlands. The users are highly skilled professionals who are like the proverbial example of the mountain bikers and surfers who are capable of building their own product. In the course of the project, the volunteers established a dense social network out of which the technical rooftop network was created. Initially, companies, especially the telecom providers, were against the network. But later, entrepreneurial activities emerged between existing and newly created firms.
The Mobiliance platform provides a solution for connected public transport, travel planning, and booking on mobile devices. The technical development took place in a publicly funded project together with partners from different backgrounds, such as universities, large firms, the government and startups. The knowledge worker living lab engaged in intensive intermediation to bring these different partners together. The Mobiliance case is a novel example of entrepreneurial financing: a startup company with considerable financial backing was created while the basic research project was still going on, thus the project bridged the gap between scientific research and societal benefits by simultaneously conducting basic research and innovation activities in what Donald Stokes refers to as “Pasteur´s quadrant” (Stokes, 1997).
Results and Discussion
It has long been recognized that “actors” (people, institutions, governments, etc.) are important components of a living lab (Audretsch & Keilbach, 2004). However, the activities that take place in a living lab have so far received less attention. In this study, we show that unravelling the activities in a living lab, and not only focusing on the actors, considerably contributes to understand how things are done.
In the case of the Colliquio project, thanks to the concurrent approach in the development and innovation process, input and feedback from prospective users could be taken into account until very late in the development process when first working prototypes became available. Prospective users on the other side became well acquainted with the new product from their involvement, outlining features and functionality of the “Colliquio product” under development. Over the course of the process, user perception and developer perception increasingly aligned. An interesting observation in this case is that the product received a prestigious Swiss Innovation award. The other interesting aspect in the Colliquio case is the entrepreneurial coordination of the product development process, which is intertwined with the user involvement that was carefully moderated by the living lab professionals over a period of six months. However, despite all the support, the project almost failed when public funding expired. A mix of harsh cost cutting in the project, the money from the innovation award, and the engagement of the prospective users as investors saved the project.
In the case of Wireless Leiden, the first prototypes made out of orange juice tins and rabbit wire were quickly in use while the volunteers continued to develop more reliable technical solutions and an organizational structure to maintain the network.
In the Mobiliance case, research and product development took place simultaneously. Research was carried out in a publicly funded project, whereas product development took place in the startup. Even before the publicly funded research project ended, the developed prototype was demonstrated to end users in the city of Nuremberg, and the users were involved in the further user-centric development of the platform. A startup company was created early in the research process to speed up market introduction, which is another new innovation activity in that early stage. This activity required intensive coordination and moderation between the research activities on one side and the entrepreneurial exploitation of the startup company on the other side. Another important moderation was between the large, resource-rich governmental and public research institutions, and the “lean” startup company. Furthermore, the ways of working between large research centres, in this case the European Space Agency, with high safety requirements, and an Internet startup with agile development approaches had to be moderated.
From the cross-case analysis of the living labs studied here, a main operations pattern emerges, as shown in Figure 1. At the core is the “Co-Creation Phase” where users, developers, and further actors collaborate to achieve user-centric product development. Our study suggests that this intensive collaboration is coordinated by experts, as is symbolized with the blue circle in Figure 1, rather than by the “invisible hand of the market”, which is postulated by open innovation scholars.
Figure 1. The three phases of the living lab operations pattern (Katzy, 2012)
The Co-Creation Phase is embedded into a preparation phase of bringing together the right partners for a project. This phase may be a longer ideation, search, and matching process (Holzmann et al., 2014) as in the Colliquio project, where the project initiators were asked several times, by living lab experts, to go back and find users, developers, and partners before the project was launched. The users were involved in defining their requirements. The matchmaking milestone is a good kick-off point for the Co-Creation Phase and, by that time, a project plan should be available to show how to reach graduation within an acceptable timeframe. Product development as an activity in the Constance innovation system is an expectable observation. Given that the expectable network refers to living labs with high user centricity, it is not surprising that user involvement activities are readily observable in the case. Even more interesting is the explicit and intensive coordination activity between user involvement and the other activities. Through this coordination, the living lab experts make sure that the result is achieved in due time and that the multiple interconnected requirements for the product are met. Coordinating multiple simultaneous activities creates the interdependencies that are typical of living labs.
Living labs are not closed systems and, in our study, the labs were connected in many ways to regional and international partners. Such connections are illustrated in Figure 2 as bridging, an activity that, in other contexts, happens by itself or through regional proximity in a cluster.
It may seem that Figure 2 focuses on actors again. Therefore, it should be emphasized that it involves the “interactions” as repeated activities that are carried out in the living lab.
Figure 2. External connections of a living lab innovation system
This article builds on the first decade of living labs by identifying the often novel innovation activities, especially user-centric product development activities, that are developed and undertaken in living labs and enable them to perform. The study is based on an in-depth engaged-scholarship study of three living lab operations.
Our study focuses on the visible hands of users, engineers, and innovators with their complete activities to provide a complementary view on innovation systems for an analysis of how the performed activities contribute to make innovation happen (Katzy et al., 2012). Using a cross-case analysis, an organizational model for living labs is proposed. From the organizational model, further practical insights can be drawn, such as a business model for living labs.
Conforming to the best case scenario in Pasteur´s quadrant (Stokes, 1997), practically useful results can thus emerge in parallel to theoretical advancements. Reflective practitioners in this study state that the concepts of innovation systems, as described here, contribute much more readily available support in guiding their daily action.
Future research can be based on the activities and processes identified in this study in order to develop an alternative conceptualization of living labs. Such research would allow a new and different measurement of living labs based on the performed activities, not based on what constitutes a living lab. Furthermore, it is difficult to generalize the findings of the current study of only three cases, however deep the insights into the activities and processes of living labs might be. Therefore, future research should focus on generalizing the findings reported here.
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