Living labs: Implementing Open Innovation in the Public Sector

This article explores how public value can be created by communities built around collaboration.
April 10, 2018 AT 9:00 AM

Living labs: Implementing Open Innovation in the Public Sector

Mila Gascó

Government Information Quarterly

Volume 34, Issue 1 (January 2017)


As the challenges facing policymakers and the constituents they serve grow increasingly complex, it becomes clear that the solutions to these challenges must cut across departments, agencies and even sectors. In describing the potential of "living labs" to serve as "intermediaries of public open innovation," this article defines open innovation as "inviting problem solvers [to] help reinvent products, services, or even business models." While many works have addressed how to bring a private-sector practice to the public sector, few have examined how open innovation and the role of "agents" as innovation intermediaries can create public value. Here, "agents" refers to living labs, communities that are built around collaboration, conduct real-world experimentation and engage users as co-creators who have an equal voice.

The paper uses two case studies from Spain, that of Citilab in the city of Cornellà and the network of public "fab labs" (prototyping platforms for innovation and invention) in the city of Barcelona, to explore how living labs function, the scope of their outcomes and their primary challenges.


The living labs examined in the study enable innovation by bridging the gap between public organizations and other "innovation stakeholders," particularly citizens. As innovation intermediaries, the author writes, the labs "connect users (both individuals and organizations), support and facilitate the exchange of ideas and knowledge, and … provide technological services," primarily around training. However, the study found that while the participation of citizens was extensive, the inclusion of companies and universities was underdeveloped.

The study concludes that the living lab process is more critical than specific results and that the "novel solution to public challenges is precisely the adoption of open innovation, co-creation, and participatory approaches and methods." The study also determines that the primary challenges facing the living labs studied are that they need to reach a broader swath of the citizenry and more fully develop the experimentation facet of their model.

Why this matters to practitioners:

For practitioners who want to establish or participate in living labs, it is important to bear in mind that, while the emphasis in government tends to be on measuring outcomes, the open innovation process itself holds public value and bears legitimacy by virtue of its ability to bring together problem-solvers in a collaborative environment. In addition, attracting the participation of a wide cross-section of stakeholders, especially the citizenry, is critical, as is including universities and companies in the community as well as providing for real-world experimentation.