What is a living lab?

The term living laboratory (aka living lab) comes from the transfer of the scientific laboratory concept to the real world in order to be able to conduct analyses in political and social processes (Wanner et al. 2019). It is not a typical laboratory space in a research institution, but for example a city neighborhood, a village or a group of people united by a common theme.

The word laboratory in living laboratory describes the way of working with each other. The heart of this laboratory work is the experiment. Research and parts of society experiment together to find solutions to current (local) problems.

Originally conceived for urban spatial planning (Wanner et al. 2019, p. 2ff), living labs are a relatively new approach (Jahn and Keil 2016) to participatory work with different actors, known as stakeholders. Stakeholders are people who are connected by a common interest or concern, e.g. professional groups, companies, environmental associations or even public authorities.

In the living lab process, stakeholders and researchers come together to find solutions to a complex problem in cooperation with the aim of improving the current state. Together, experiments are developed from solution ideas (co-design), carried out, evaluated (co-production) and, if necessary, adapted (co-evaluation) until a solution path is found. During these processes, opportunities for transformation, for changing circumstances, arise. These can be, for example, a sustainable use of resources and a change in the value system, such as social or environmental justice.

Because problems can vary greatly depending on the local contexts and socio-economic backgrounds of the stakeholders and their fields of activity, there is no uniform method for working in living labs (Franke et al. 2022), no generally valid roadmap according to which each living lab is structured. However, there are common features that are applied in most living labs with varying degrees of emphasis (cf. Wanner et al. 2019, Rose et al. 2018, Schäpke 2018).

The work is done in a transdisciplinary and participatory way, which is explained below.

In transdisciplinary research, it is assumed that it is not possible to find solutions to complex social problems by having only a small part of society deal with them (Franke et al. 2021). Social issues of high complexity, such as the fisheries crisis, can only be addressed through transdisciplinary cooperation. Transdisciplinary means, according to its meaning, beyond (research) disciplines and thus means that researchers and stakeholders work together at eye level. In doing so, the participants bring in their forms of knowledge, e.g. expert and experiential knowledge, local, regional or abstract knowledge (Lang et al. 2012). This exchange of knowledge is essential in order to grasp complex problems and thus to be able to develop approaches to solutions. The degree of knowledge integration of non-academic actors plays a decisive role in whether and to what extent research is understood as transdisciplinary (Grünhagen et, al, 2022).

The basis for this cooperation is a participatory, democratic attitude (Straßburger, Rieger 2019, p. 56 ff) of all participants. In practice, participation in the living lab means that it is methodically made possible to the greatest extent possible for individuals to get involved and participate in processes and voting processes in the real laboratory. The aim is to understand social realities (Unger 2014, p. 1 and 40 ff) and to change them experimentally in the living labs in order to learn from them.

Maritime living labs in the SpaCeParti project

So far, living labs have mainly been carried out in the context of urban spatial planning. The two living labs in project SpaCeParti now use this method for marine issues, which has rarely been attempted before (Franke et al. 2021). In these, the complex interactions between human socio-economic social conditions (fisheries, tourism, offshore energy, economics, politics) and natural conditions in the western Baltic Sea (biodiversity, climate change, eutrophication) are addressed. Methodological principles from living labs in other contexts can be applied (Wanner et al. 2019, Rose et al. 2018, Schäpke 2018) and adapted to maritime living labs.

Therefore, we adopt the following core characteristics for maritime living labs. A maritime living labs:

  • has a thematic containment.
  • has a geographical prescription
  • has real-world problems as a starting point
  • is an experimental space in which ideas for solutions to real-world problems are conceived, tested and evaluated.
  • is therefore a space in which
    • learning processes take place through reflection and variation of solution approaches.
    • knowledge transfer between stakeholders and science takes place in this way.
    • transdisciplinary work is carried out.
  • is designed for the long term in order to build trust and to be able to initiate and accompany structural and social change.
  • makes a contribution to sustainable development in the frame of reference sea-land/society-nature.

Projects in our maritime living labs

Since May 2022, two living labs have been established in project SpaCeParti: one in Schleswig-Holstein, in the towns of Stein and Wendtorf, and another in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in the Wismar Bay. A bottom-up strategy was followed by first establishing a core working group of stakeholders in small-scale coastal fisheries. With this group, local problems were discussed and project ideas for their experimental solution were developed. In the next step, other stakeholders will be invited to participate in the individual projects.

Stein-Wendtorf: Education trail

Educational project on coastal culture in the form of a nature trail that informs local residents and tourists about coastal protection and coastal fishing.

  • With this project we want to bring together local and regional stakeholders and build a network for sustainable development issues in the villages, consisting of stakeholders from coastal fisheries, tourism, nature conservation, environmental protection and local politics.


Wismar Bay: Baltic Sea Ranger

  • The living lab at Wismar Bay with the local fisheries cooperative is the nucleus for a big idea: the occupational profile of coastal fishing must be adapted to make it fit for the future. Working title: Baltic Sea Ranger
  • The idea is to establish additional training for coastal fishermen to take on tasks in ecosystem care, fisheries management with research and in tourism. Municipal funding is important here.

Franke, A., Peters, K., Hinkel, J., Hornige, A., Schlüter, A., Zielinski, O., Wiltshire, K. H., Jacob, U., Krause, G., Hillebrand, H. (2021, December 6): Making the UN Ocean Decade work? The potential for, and challenges of, transdisciplinary research & real-world laboratories for building towards ocean solutions. https://doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/6sfe8

Caroline Grünhagen, Felix Gross, Heike Schwermer, Rudi Voss, Christian Wagner-Ahlfs and MarieCatherine Riekhof: The multifaceted picture of transdisciplinarity in marine research; in preparation as Chapter for the upcoming book ‘Knowledge Co-Production for Sustainable Seas – Reflections on Transdisciplinarity in Times of an Ocean in Crisis’.

Jahn, Th.; Keil, F.: Reallabore im Kontext transdisziplinärer Forschung (2016). In:  GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, Volume 25, Number 4, 2016, pp. 247-252 (6). Oekom Verlag; https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.25.4.6.

Lang, D.J., Wiek, A., Bergmann, M., Stauffacher, M., Martens, P., Moll, P., Swilling, M., Thomas, C.J., 2012. Transdisciplinary Research in Sustainability Science: Practice, Principles and Challenges. Sustainability Science 7, 25–43. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-011-0149-x

Rose, M.; Wanner, M., Hilger, A. (2018). Das Reallabor als Forschungsprozess und -infrastruktur für nachhaltige Entwicklung – Konzepte, Herausforderungen und Empfehlungen. NaWiKo Synthese Working Paper No 1 https://nachhaltigeswirtschaften-soef.de/synthese-reallabore

Unger von, H. (2014). Partizipative Forschung – Einführung in die Forschungspraxis. Springer VS, Wiesbaden 2014.

Wanner, M., Stelzer, F. (2019): Reallabore – Perspektiven für ein Forschungsformat im Aufwind; In: in brief – Wuppertaler Impulse zur Nachhaltigkeit, 07/2019

Schäpke, M. (2018) in: Rose, M., Wanner, M., Hilger, A. (2018): Das Reallabor als Forschungsprozess und -infrastruktur für nachhaltige Entwicklung – Konzepte, Herausforderungen und Empfehlungen. NaWiKo Synthese Working Paper No 1, S. 8.

Straßburger, G., Rieger, J. (Hrsg.) (2019): Partizipation kompakt – Für Studium, Lehre und Praxis sozialer Berufe. Beltz Juventa, Weinheim Basel, 2. Auflage 2019.