July 2023

Learnings from the SRI Conference 2023

This year, SRI2023 (Sustainable Research and Innovation Conference) took place in Panama City and online. Of course, we could not miss it and organized two sessions: one on “Creating Urban Innovation Ecosystems” and a training session on how to plan and start experimental approaches and urban living labs. Here’s what we learned:

Creating innovation ecosystems to bring urban strategies into action

In 2023, we are deep in the Anthropocene, the age of humans, where human activity has altered almost every corner and ecosystem on the planet. The Anthropocene gives a name to the turbulent times of the current polycrisis. Urban areas are key to building the robustness needed to deal with crises and uncertainty. However, current efforts to transform cities are not ambitious enough. Orchestrated efforts in research and innovation on urban transformation can enhance the capacities of municipalities, urban governance, and society to act and drive innovation, thereby enhancing the robustness of urban systems to unforeseeable circumstances. However, it requires funding frameworks supporting and facilitating the co-design of urban innovation ecosystems to make transformations happen. We started off this session with three input presentations on projects and initiatives all working on exactly that: creating urban innovation ecosystems.

Timo von Wirth (Hochschule Frankfurt, Erasmus University / Drift – Rotterdam) presented the Waste FEW ULL Project, which brought together partners from Europe, South Africa, and Brazil. Timo pointed out the role of urban living labs as platforms for democratizing knowledge co-creation in neighborhoods and urban areas by involving a broad range of urban actors and people. He also stressed that working globally requires acknowledging different co-creation contexts. Air pollution is one of the biggest urban challenges globally, impacting the health of millions.

Air quality is an important indicator of the livability of places and for planning more sustainable futures. Enza Lissandrello (Aalborg University, Denmark) presented the results of the NordicPATH Project, which worked with residents across four cities in Nordic countries to mobilize and co-produce knowledge on air quality. Residents, for example, could contribute to the collection of air quality data themselves by using a sensor. The experiences and lessons learned from the NordicPATH project could be used to start processes in other urban contexts, including the Global South, where the scale of air pollution tends to be much worse compared to the Nordic countries.

Porto Alegre in Southern Brazil is a city well known for being the first city in the world to experiment with participatory budgeting. Experimentation and co-creation are also at the heart of the work of Leonardo Brawl Márques, Co-founder of TransLAB.URB. Leonardo gave us a taste of what it means to radically democratize knowledge about the dynamics and characteristics of cities in Porto Alegre but also all over Latin America. He stressed the importance of mobilizing the everyday life knowledge of residents to co-design equitable and desirable urban futures.

The following panel discussion with Margit Noll (CEO of DUT) highlighted different aspects of the same fact: We need to do things differently, which was discussed in the panel discussion part of the session. In order to do so, reshaping the frameworks, funding structures, and requirements, including overcoming the still so present linear logic from basic research to applied research to innovation, is crucial. Especially in urban transformations, a different understanding of how to approach projects/initiatives and how to involve people with different knowledge and life experiences is essential to drive the needed transitions.

In conclusion, the session showed that creating and co-designing urban innovation ecosystems is an essential puzzle piece for urban transformation. However, it requires the right frameworks to facilitate co-design and true transdisciplinarity. Adapting the funding structures and requirements is key to fostering interactions between science,

Training session: Let’s shape urban futures collectively! But where to start?

With the increasing attention towards mission-oriented research and innovation (R&I), experimental methods such as urban living labs gain importance in driving urban transitions. However, talking about experimental approaches seems much easier than planning and implementing them within existing research, innovation, and governance structures. I was very happy to facilitate this session together with JPI Urban Europe and DUT alumni Jonas Bylund (KTH / Urbanalys).

This training session invited participants to playfully lay out the cornerstones for experimental approaches in R&I projects and beyond, and to discuss relevant questions that might arise when planning and working in urban living labs. These questions include: “Where to start? How to plan? What are the right methods/tools to tackle specific urban challenges or implement global/national/regional sustainability strategies? Who should be involved? What if we fail?” Urban transitions require conducting research and innovation differently to address the challenges and crises of the Anthropocene. Experimental approaches/methods allow us to do so by combining different knowledge, experiences, perspectives, and interests, and addressing urban challenges through open and participatory processes. However, doing things differently also implies working with uncertainty, feedback loops, and collective learning in co-creative projects.

Participants split up into two groups, one online and one onsite in Panama, and each group selected a challenge they found particularly relevant and complex enough to be addressed in an urban living lab. The topics they chose were heavy traffic and congestion in Quito, Ecuador, and revitalizing a formerly industrial neighborhood in Kyoto, Japan. During the workshop, the main cornerstones for addressing these issues were laid out, and hopefully, they will find their way into the work practices of the participants.