Upscaling innovations: experiments, assessment and co-creation

Session at the workshop Transforming cities for Sustainable Futures

Promoting sustainability and health are key policy goals for many cities around the world. Often this requires transformative changes in terms of housing, mobility or everyday life. In order to test new innovations to further such changes many experimental programmes and projects are developed. Often, these types of experiments are rooted in neighbourhoods. With a diverse group of people from both the governmental and the academic field we discussed how such experiments should be designed, implemented and eventually assessed. We also explored how and what we can learn from them and how experiments can potentially be upscaled to a higher, broader level.

Dealing with diverse urban contexts

No two neighbourhoods are exactly the same and also within neighbourhoods there can be profound differences between people and locations. Also, people’s individual needs might be very different from the community need and people do not necessarily choose their neighbourhood or the innovative initiatives implemented in their neighbourhood. An important question that therefore always remains should be: who is in need of this innovation and why?

Innovations, experiments or living labs need to take local diversities into account and include them in their goals and process. This means that within local experiments, there needs to be quite a lot of space for flexibility, adaptability and openness about expectations. The problem is that this often goes against the logic and demands of everyday municipal or regional governance, which demands key performance indicators and concrete outcomes. At the same time, people who are (or are required to be) locally involved in experiments will also have their own expectations and they will be disappointed if these are not met. Local experiments thus require a great deal of active communication and expectation management. At the moment we see that experiments are often wrongly used as solutions rather than a means towards change.

Presentation workshop Transforming Cities

Difference and diversity are also viewed as an important source of untapped potential. Local experiments can learn from the cultures, histories, practices and experiences of all citizens and should aim to do so. The problem is that it is often unclear what is happening in a specific neighbourhood, city or region. No one has an exact overview of what is happening where and who is doing what. In Amsterdam, neighbourhoods are successfully working with an innovative tool called  Donut Deals, but the participants from Utrecht had never heard about them, for example.

Although a perfect overview is most probably utopic, it is important to have local antennae in place. Governments and other regional stakeholders are in need of better overviews of innovations, their possible impact and their scalability. We need to cherish what’s already there and enhance existing initiative before creating new ones. In addition, it is key to have people in place who can create meaningful connections between people or experimental projects so that cross-learning is further stimulated. This could also be done by stimulating encounters. Examples could be challenges for students of universities, universities of applied science and secondary vocational education, but there are also examples of events stimulating contact among urban residents (i.e. Citizen Forum) or among neighbourhoods (i.e. Kanaleneiland, Utrecht Oost and Nieuwegein).

Temporarality and governance

Implementing innovations or rolling out experiments is a process that requires time and thus calls for long-term engagement and learning. Even after the initial implementation, involvement is necessary to monitor the experiment and to make changes when the outcomes of the experiment are different than expected.

This can be a challenge, as local residents of neighbourhoods may move or professionals involved may change jobs. It is very important to consider this temporality of actors in the design of experimental projects. It is also a crucial question in relation to responsibility and reliability. Who should make sure that an experiment is impactful? Who should monitor progress? And who is responsible after the initial implementation phase? All these questions strongly relate to modes and structures of governance, both within governmental organisations and locally based, resident organisations or businesses. All these different actors have their own timelines and cycles that have an impact on the implementation process of innovations or experiments.

In this sense the involvement of researchers is of clear interest. Universities and universities of applied science usually have long-term research cycles spanning multiple years. This make researchers very suitable to keep an eye on the process of experimentation and help facilitate this process. At the same time, the involvement of researchers stimulates the storage and transfer of knowledge and experiences and smoothens the learning process, making it easier to learn from past experiences in the future. Research facilitates the embedding of robust learning processes among different organisations. Having researchers on board also allows for asking intermediate questions, thereby building further capacity to address specific challenges.

The discussions during this session were based on four presentations:

  1. Evaluating urban experimentation: Jonas Torrens, Eindhoven University of Technology
  2. Neighbourhood innovation in the Utrecht Region: Harm van den Heiligenberg, Province of Utrecht
  3. Assessing Transformative Change: Mansi Jain, Utrecht University
  4. Climate Adaptation Tool Karin Snel, Utrecht University 

Questions for further research:

  1. How to take the next scale into account when upscaling an innovation or experiment? I.e. when upscaling from a single local building to the neighbourhood level, how can we already keep an eye on the transformative potential, the diffusion and future roll-out to the urban or regional level or other neighbourhoods in the region.
  2. What would be impact of combinations of innovations on the neighbourhood level, e.g. a combination of food, physical activity, and community interventions to improve healthy urban living?
  3. How to stimulate participation of citizens with a lower socio-economic status, especially in interventions aiming at behavioural change?
  4. How can long term involvement in new neighborhoods by science, local government and developers be organised?

This session was part of the workshop Transforming Cities for Sustainable Futures that was held on 12 October 2021 in Utrecht.