Planning a City as a Living Lab for Learning

Special Focus : Designing Vibrant and Purposeful Learning Communities
Learning Ecosystems and Leadership December 14, 2020

With the rise of developments in old cities and new cities, an emerging trend of maximizing the benefits of such developments at multiple levels includes economic, social, security, safety, and other benefits.

Although this might not be a top priority for developers, one key element that should be considered when planning new developments is to include learning as a desired benefit or outcome, which can happen by considering such developments as “living labs”.

This might sound like a complicated matter, but it does not really have to be so. If the planners include making the city or the development a “living lab” as one of the strategic goals of the development, then it can be planned from the beginning and its execution can be assured.

So how can this be done?

The following are some of the elements that may help when planning a new city or development as a living lab.

1. The objectives of this development or city

It is essential to identify the nature and key objectives of this development or city. Determining the nature of its activity which will define its components. For example, if it is a residential city, or an economic development, a medical or wellness/healthcare-based city. Is it a totally new development or city? Or is it a repurposing of an existing city? Defining the objective of this development is the starting point that would help in identifying and building the following elements. 

2. Leadership commitment

Like all strategic plans, it has to be fully supported by the leadership and the sponsor or owner of the project. This can happen by showing and quantifying the benefits of such living labs and if this is carefully planned and executed, it should not add to the cost of the project.

3. Key stakeholders

It is essential to identify and engage the key stakeholders, users, suppliers, and beneficiaries of this city or development.

This requires finding what these stakeholders want out of this city or development, then aligning their needs and values with the objectives and values of this development, mitigating any discrepancies along the way as some stakeholders may have contradicting needs with some of the others.

4. Benchmark

Studying and analyzing similar other developments in the world, the region, or the area and outlining the best practices; key suppliers, and learning points from those developments.

Those four steps above are the enablers to help derive the guiding principles on what kind of culture, lifestyle and values are desired to be projected in the city’s experience.

As we are focusing on creating a city as a living lab, the focus is on creating a learning experience in every possible aspect, therefore the next important step would be to detail the learner’s experience, objectives, strategies and philosophies to ensure it is embedded in the culture and lifestyle of the development/city. This starts by outlining the “life-cycle” or “journey map” of the learners as users in this city/development to be able to identify every possible opportunity to create the desired experience and to make the city a living lab for learners.

For example, the following are some practical examples of addressing the creation of certain experiences: 

1. considering the emerging trend of encouraging the creation of small and medium enterprises – entrepreneurship can be projected in the planning of a city as a living lab by, for example, dedicating incubation and commercial spaces for SMEs and Entrepreneurs; embedded between established commercial entities to maximize the interaction between the stakeholders and provide the learners with the opportunity to learn how established businesses are run.

2. Providing an environment for multidisciplinary learning; by evaluating every element of the city/development and the possibility for opening it to learners. For example: all new city developments include utility supply plants, whether traditional, renewable or a blend of both. Such plants represent great living lab facilities for learners to study, develop and test new innovations. Where learners of technical, systems, work on process engineering as well as data analysis and behavioral sciences they work in multidisciplinary team to address certain utility issues.

Even the planning of the city development can be a learning lab, where learners of related disciplines can be involved in the planning process. Where their voices and views play a key role in shaping the desired experience in the city, they in turn learn from the process and help to enhance it.