Living Labs as instruments for open innovation and application of RRI policies: The case of the Library Living Lab

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The potential of Living Labs as research tools have been of interest for the UAB since 2014 when the university actively joined the European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL) and got further exposure to the wide variety of application and experiences initiated on a European and International level. This exposure fortified the initial faith that living labs could provide the adequate platforms for setting up local ecosystems of innovation around thematic axes and for implementing the strategic vision of the university with respect to its territorial mission and Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) policies. The case of the Library Living Lab is a demonstrative example of how collaboration among different societal agents can produce initiatives rich in innovation and potential social impact.

In trying to describe what the Library Living Lab really is, it can be described essentially as a space of experiences. It is a place where one can explore how technology transforms the way we enjoy and experience culture and cultural content in general. This question is addressed within the frame of open social innovation, where the Public Library provides the context of a meeting point for diverse users with different perspectives. In this sense, the Library Living Lab sought to transform a library space into a place in which all the stakeholders, and most-importantly the end-users, the Library users, are invited and encouraged to participate in the definition and design cycle of new services and of an innovative experience. The outcome is a laboratory where it is possible to co-design prototypes of new tools and services, but also a social innovation laboratory where active research and observation is carried out on the dynamics and processes that lead to such innovation to take place. In the specific case of the Library Living Lab, there are two fundamental pillars, namely: i) The exploration of technology as a disruptive factor that makes possible new experiences and adds transformative value to existing services. ii) An on-going research on the role of public space in contemporary society, as a stage for open innovation where all citizens are potential actors.

A new model of inter-institutional collaboration with all relevant stakeholders

The launch of the Library Living Lab has involved the definition of its own dynamics around a permanent working group, in which several mechanisms of inter-institutional collaboration have been deployed. The aim of the working group was the alignment of all these various objectives for the definition of the master lines of work. The group was gathered during three years in bimonthly meetings and its first task, and perhaps the most important one, was the definition of a common language between all institutions, by learning to talk between all members, fixing terminology and procedures, and defining a new field of common knowledge. The Permanent Working Group (Figure 1) has been the engine of the specific definition of the project, and it brought together representatives of the five participating institutions, each one with different roles, plans of action and objectives and interests in participating:

  1. City of Sant Cugat del Vallès: The City of Sant Cugat del Vallès won a new innovative space for its residents, a meeting place and a space where cultural projects with the participation of all the social segments of the city can occur. It allows the city government to experiment and advance on the design of new models of governance with a special focus on citizen participation.
  2. Provincial Council of Barcelona (Manager of the Network of Libraries):  The LLL endows the Library Network of Provincial Council of Barcelona with a testbed  to locate and identify the challenges that arise on a day-to-day basis, to explore fitted solutions, to test prototype proposals and to propose answers and solutions, all by-with-and-for the users. The scalability of the solutions produced is guaranteed by transferring the validated ones obtained in the LLL to the rest of the libraries of the network.
  3. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB): The LLL serves as a physical extension of the university to its adjacent territory. The Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona implements through the LLL its own policy of RRI in the territory, and at the same time provides its scientific community with a space to work with citizen science.
  4. Computer Vision Center (CVC-UAB): (Research Center) The Computer Vision Centre gets a place of experimentation and validation of technologies with a high added value, and an implementation space for rapid technology transfer to society though fast prototyping.
  5. Association of Neighbours of Volpelleres: Are the final recipients of services and the instigators of the initiative. The Association achieves a strong revitalization and dynamization of the neighbourhood, a collection of innovative activities, and a place to enjoy culture through the latest technological tools.

The transformative value of the Living Lab within a public library

The existence of the Living Lab enriches the day-to-day activity of the library. The continued presence of people with various profiles -scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, … all of them also “new” library users- provide novel entry points of knowledge and potential opportunities for multidisciplinary interchange among all participants, starting by the library users and finishing with the professionals who provide the services. On the other hand, there is a direct impact in terms of inclusion: the new range of experiences broadens the scope of the library users, even by attracting people who otherwise would not visit the library, and by increasing the possibility of user interaction and active participation in joint projects with diverse and qualified profiles.

At an institutional level, the articulation of a genuine innovation ecosystem helps to effectively advocate the role of public spaces (such as a Public Library) as an open meeting place for all societal stakeholders. This fosters the attraction of small and larger companies to the public and cultural sphere and promotes their participation in public-led initiatives. On another level, the local library expands its area of ​​action and activity and this allows multiple projects of not only local but also regional and international reach to occur within its premises. The library is thus transformed into a place where many things can happen, not as a result of abstract improvisation but because of a collaborative work and open and flexible models of organization.

One example of how the LLL experience has served as inspiration, and a catalyst at the same time, for new initiatives to emerge is the recent initiative promoted by the UAB named “ISC2: BiblioLab of social innovation and citizen participation”. In this case, the UAB, the CVC-UAB and three public libraries from towns within the campus’ vicinity (Vapor Badia in Sabadell, the Cerdanyola Main Library and the Miquel Batllori Library in Sant Cugat) have come together to launch this project, with the objective of adapting public libraries to the cultural and social changes brought about digital social innovation, thus favouring the creation of collaborative and participative environments open to everyone (Labs ISC2). The project is part of the Barcelona Provincial Council’s initiative BiblioLabs, which seeks to promote the role of libraries as drivers of social transformations. The pilot programme will be applied with a first initiative involving secondary school students and how to incorporate concepts of responsible research and innovation (RRI) into their research projects, a subject around which many transformation processes can be conducted through the library labs. Later, other initiatives such as encouraging a vocation of science and digital skills in young people will also be offered with the aim of transforming libraries into spaces which foster learning, science, innovation and technology.

Future Challenges

The Library Living Lab implementation approach has also permitted us to identify and highlight some of the most relevant near-future challenges arising in the context such innovation endeavours. These challenges serve as a starting point for a reflexion on the “Library of the Future” and they have been selected to be part of the white book for the main directives on Future Public Libraries of the Barcelona Provincial Council:

  1. The Library of Living Lab was a result of citizen initiative. It will be important to implement social adequate monitoring tools to identify such kind of initiatives, and to accompany them with dynamic policy instruments. The current processes of public administrations are not adapted to the flexibility needed and it is necessary to develop new methodologies of inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional character, with an obligatory citizen participation and this needs to be revised / updated.
  2. In the medium term, the design of public spaces should be tackled as community projects: social actors must be able to participate in the design process in order to make it their own. Participation in the process of defining spaces not only guarantees a technical optimization based on a good design, but also fundamentally integrates a project space within the community.
  3. New paradigms of collaboration among all actors of society necessarily imply the need for specific models of economic sustainability. Novel instruments for co-financing /patronage / sponsorship in the quadruple helix scheme must be investigated to enable quick response at the budgetary action level for innovation projects.
  4. Citizen participation in innovation processes opens up many questions related to the management of intellectual property rights and the potential exploitation of emerging innovations. These issues can only be solved, given its high complexities and peculiarities, on a case-to-case base. We must therefore identify monitoring and protection mechanisms of the innovation outcomes, which must play a paramount role in the innovation processes.

In short, one of the key challenges for innovation spaces such as the Library Living Lab is to facilitate an efficient way for citizens to have a direct contribution in the processes of defining and implementing new services and activities. This added value can only be achieved through the participation of all stakeholders, and through the meticulous definition of processes and effective policy-making. In the upcoming future technology will undeniably play a very strong role as an enabling and disruptive factor, so it lays upon society -and respective mechanisms of individual and inter-institutional collaboration- to face successfully the most significant societal challenges that will be emerging in the following years. Only in this way, the society will be able to obtain a positive transformative socio-economic impact from the innovative contributions arising from collaborative innovation processes such as the ones proposed by the Library Living Lab and the emerging technological paradigm.

This blog article is written with reference to a good practice case study report prepared as part of the Erasmus+ University City Action Lab (UCITYLAB) Project.