In Focus

Futures tested

Living labs for sustainable transformation

Christiane Weihe

Sharing a car with the neighbours – sounds perfect in theory. Not so many vehicles have to be purchased. It frees up a lot of space. And it brings us into closer contact with many people in our neighbourhood. In practice, however, how can people be persuaded to forego a car of their own or to share it with their neighbour? And what effects would that actually have on the environment, the climate and society? To answer these questions, living labs combine theory with practice: they are a space in which different actors come together under the guidance of scientists to develop solutions for the socio-ecological transformation. What comes out of this are workable ideas for sustainable mobility, for making city centres liveable or for using living space efficiently.

“Living labs are still rather a young format, but one with a great deal of potential,” says Dr Manuela Weber of the Oeko-Institut. But what exactly is a living lab? “Essentially, the idea behind this research method is always to bring about changes in society – in the direction of sustainability and public welfare, for instance – and to bring together scientists and practitioners for that purpose. Other actors from the business world, citizens’ initiatives or municipalities can also be involved. What is important is that throughout the process, everyone works together on an equal footing.”

A collective process

Living labs are a format from transdisciplinary sustainability research (see also “Common problems, common solutions” on page 6). They are used for testing approaches to socio-ecological transformation by experimenting with services and technologies under real conditions. The participating actors engage in a collective process to develop very specific products or services, and subsequently collaborate on putting them into practice. “It is more challenging than it might sound because it is a collision of different lifeworlds and work backgrounds,” according to the researcher. “That is why a common goal and course of action should be defined right from the start. Working in the living lab is a continuous process of negotiation, so willingness to compromise is called for. But it also helps people to question their own perspective and to broaden their horizons.”

There are different approaches to living labs. “We place a strong focus on the question of how citizens can be involved in socio-ecological transformation,” says senior researcher Dr Weber. Other elements include finding a common language, involving all actors in the idea-generation process and being open to different ideas, attitudes and experiences.

The rural future

One living lab that Dr Manuela Weber is currently supporting is the “Shaping futures together in rural areas (ZUGG)” project. With the motto “We make Prignitz,” it focuses on the small towns of Perleberg and Wittenberge in Brandenburg’s Prignitz district. The intention is to develop them into places with a future, and to increase quality of life through community engagement (for more about this, see the interview with Martin Hahn on page 12). In collaboration with the Technologie- und Gewerbezentrum Prignitz (TGZ, Prignitz technology and business centre) and funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, by June 2024 the project aims to develop and implement ideas for revitalising the town centres as well as proposals for local mobility. “One of the focal points is the question of how one can be sustainably mobile even in rural areas.” Participants include citizens as well as the municipal administration. “In spring 2022, for example, citizens were given a say in which pilot projects might be realised. It turned out that cycling plays a very significant role in Wittenberge, and that the respondents in both towns wish to have community meeting places.” Newly formed citizen teams took up these results and are now developing them further. “During the process we have taken great care to ensure that the population is actually represented.”

After holding initial workshops, there are already concrete ideas in both towns. “In Perleberg, for example, self-organised flea markets bring people together and create a sustainable shopping opportunity. And by the way, well-known initiatives of this kind offer as much potential for shaping change as new and innovative approaches.” The Wittenberge citizens’ team is working on a pilot project to hire out cargo bikes and handcarts. Citizens then plan to enhance Bismarckplatz, a town-centre square, with self-designed seating. “There was an open-ended survey beforehand to find out if people had ideas for revitalising the town centre or concrete requests for support,” says Dr Weber. “After the living lab comes to an end, there are plans to hold trans-municipal workshops so that people can pass on their experience.”

Neighbourhood mobility

Another multi-year living lab is currently under way in Stuttgart-Rot, Geislingen and Waldburg. Again, the Oeko-Institut is participating. In collaboration with the sustainability-focused Nürtingen-Geislingen University and the Stuttgart University of Applied Sciences, the scientists on the project “MobiQ – Sustainable mobility through sharing in the neighbourhood” are exploring the question of how citizens can organise their mobility collectively and perhaps share means of transport. In preparation, success factors and barriers were analysed by conducting a review of literature and interviewing experts in neighbourhood-organised mobility. “And this is a key point in providing scientific back-up for living labs. It is not just our own experience from such projects that we bring to the table. Right at the start of the project, we look at the data and best practice examples that already exist, which is a better basis for assessing the local situation and success factors.” Among other things, the analysis indicated that such projects need support from politics and the local administration to be successful, and that financial support is important for the implementation of mobility options. But also that it is a challenge to identify suitable funding opportunities and take advantage of them. “Furthermore, our preliminary work highlights how important voluntary work is for this kind of project.”

MobiQ has already consulted on alternative mobility options at events known as workshops, and the pilot phase began at the end of 2022. It includes establishing a scheme for sharing cargo bikes in Waldburg and trialling a community bus in Geislingen. “In Stuttgart, on the other hand, the focus is on how to reclaim the public space that is dominated by cars at the moment; how to create places where people can meet and interact.” A first step towards this end was a street festival with activities promoting sustainable mobility.

From micro to macro scale

Often the work in living labs seems very small-scale. It is about car-sharing among several neighbours or establishing a volunteer-run community bus in a rural location. “But if what we learn here makes it easier to get such projects off the ground in other places, it can evolve into something much larger,” says Dr Manuela Weber. “From a social as well as an ecological standpoint.”


How can mobility become more sustainable? This question is central to Dr Manuela Weber’s research. The sociologist is interested in alternative mobility concepts like car sharing, and in the digitalisation of transport. Another major focus in this area is on the evaluation of projects and the sharing of findings.