With industry disappearing and national governments passing the buck on new tasks, cities today face considerable challenges. Complex global problems such as sustainability are on the rise, not to mention problems like climate change, declining social cohesion and lack of citizen participation. "These are big issues for which the national government isn’t taking responsibility," says René Kemp, professor of Innovation and Sustainable Development at Maastricht University (UM).
To tackle these problems, new forms of urban governance and development are needed. The URB@Exp project, led by Kemp, focuses on experiments with new types of urban development, urban labs in particular. "Urban labs are especially useful because of their local scale," explains project coordinator Christian Scholl. Maastricht is the only Dutch city involved in the three-year project, which is spearheaded and supervised by ICIS, UM’s centre for sustainable development.
One successful initiative of Maastricht-LAB was the redevelopment of a former fire station. "The users themselves came up with the concept. It’s a first attempt to experiment with organic, small-scale local development", explains Scholl. The nearby district Belvédère, an old industrial area, is following suit. "Initially, it was going to be done up like Céramique. Plans had been drawn up and big investors were on board. But then the economic crisis hit. As in the fire station project, the traditional process of urban planning has been turned on its head; now the idea is to develop Belvédère in an organic way, step by step."
"We see urban labs as a tool that allows us to study phenomena such as co-creation, or cooperation between stakeholders”, Scholl continues. The researchers not only analyse and compare the urban labs, but also assess their social contribution. Do they provide added value? Do local policymakers pick up on the findings and apply them in future projects? And what increases the chances of their doing so?
In fact, the researchers are themselves part of the co-creation process. The ‘action research’ approach used in URB@Exp combines theory and practice. "Traditional research involves analysing something and producing a final report or conclusion. This is what’s going well, this is what could be improved”, says Scholl. “Urban labs, however, are phenomena in the making. We serve as critical supervisors of the process and encourage the parties involved to reflect on what is and isn’t working." Kemp: "We ask questions early on and indicate areas for improvement as we go along. There’s interaction throughout the entire process."
The goal of URB@Exp is to learn how innovative solutions to urban challenges arise, how urban labs can contribute to urban development and what form of governance can facilitate this. Ideally, the outcome will be a set of guidelines for the organisation of urban labs. Scholl and Kemp emphasise that this ‘toolkit’ will not be a list of do’s and don’ts, something that is better suited to a traditional top-down approach. "Our guidelines will be more like prompts to reflect on aspects such as co-creation and participatory city governance”, explains Kemp.
An important insight so far is that the role of local civil servants is often critical to the success of an urban lab. Scholl: "A good approach is a sort of hybrid construction: one foot in the urban lab and one foot in local government. This gives you enough space to experiment, and you avoid being taken for a government agency. But it also means there’s enough support from the city council and a greater chance of learning something. When civil servants get involved, they see for themselves what it’s like to face rigid regulations and a bureaucratic way of working."
The question remains whether urban labs will lead to the desired institutional reforms. "It’s nice to have discovered in urban labs a new type of urban development”, says Kemp. “But how can you incorporate them in the functioning of the local government?" Scholl: "Urban labs are a new form of governance in and of themselves. The question is: will they catch on? We see urban labs running into bureaucratic roadblocks, but at the same time it’s these very labs that can break down the strict division of responsibilities and help us work together towards integrated solutions."
Power and resistance
Kemp expects the research to expose, too, the limitations of urban labs. "Experiments like the fire station project quickly take off because the people behind it are creative, assertive and well-connected. But are urban labs also useful when it comes to issues such as sustainability and social exclusion? It’s the politicians who’ll have to initiate changes in those areas. But – and this is something we’ve learnt – urban labs often throw the spotlight on those points at which you encounter power and resistance in urban development processes."
Christian Scholl (1980) is a postdoctoral researcher and coordinator of the URB@Exp project at UM’s International Centre for Integrated assessment and Sustainable development (ICIS). His research interests revolve around urban social movements and participatory democracy. In URB@Exp, he focuses on new forms of participatory urban governance and sustainable urban development.
René Kemp (1961) is professor of Innovation and Sustainable Development at ICIS and a professorial fellow at the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (MERIT). He is interested in the links between macro- and micro-change with respect to resource efficiency, social innovation and urban labs.