Living Labs

By Rob Anderson

Platforms for human centred innovation

By Thomas Hammer-Jakobsen & Mie Bjerre, Copenhagen Living Lab, Denmark

We all have a good idea of the traditional concept of a laboratory or ‘lab’ – a large room filled with high tech instruments and all sorts of shiny measuring devices for the purposes of advancing science and technology and developing innovation. However, increasingly in the modern age we are seeing a new kind of lab emerging – the Living Lab. 

The principal motivation behind this development is that the questions of businesses have changed from ‘Is it possible?’ to ‘Is it meaningful?’ Now that we can do everything, what will we do? In addition, the role of technology is changing from ‘driving’ to ‘enabling’. As a result, the key challenge for today’s innovation endeavours is to predict how to create products, and especially services, that will be valued by consumers and users in years to come. A Living Lab can address this challenge, as it provides insight into the nature of human beings and their unfulfilled needs, within a well-defined domain. Even members of the tech elite have acknowledged the need for this development. Former IT tech giant IBM sets out in its IBM Institute for Business Value report June 2011: 


“To provide the compelling experiences that consumers desire – and those experiences they don’t yet know they want – companies must expand their traditional focus on quality product manufacturing to include new capabilities for service excellence:


Open collaboration – Support and facilitate collaboration with consumers, among employees and with external parties.

Customer insight – Capture consumer and usage data to generate new insights, and apply those insights to develop intuitive and relevant products and services.

Service operation – Get past the idea of simply manufacturing devices and establish the necessary framework to enable service design, development and operation.


When it comes to generating innovative product ideas, companies have historically employed various observation methods to understand better how consumers use their products. Even the chipmaker Intel, has hired anthropologists and social scientists for this purpose. Consumers are making choices today based on the experiences that a particular device can offer and, consequently, companies need to overcome the inward focus on processes, hierarchy and successes of the past and look outwards. Living Labs can help bypass the corporate ‘immune system’ because they create an opportunity to look from the outside in. To really improve and create new valuable solutions, real insights are needed, even if this process is sometimes a little painful for those involved.


Generally, innovation approaches to the question of ‘how can market uncertainties be reduced?’ have the same outset: outcome driven innovation, service design, co-creation, identification of lead users and the like. What differentiates human-centred Living Labs is that the outset for innovation is questions, not answers. For example: What makes a good home for elderly people who are forced to move to a retirement village? What constitutes an enjoyable gig or concert experience? What are the factors that lead to loneliness? 


How does the Living Lab work?


Living Labs are collaborations between organizations with a shared interest in understanding peoples’ unmet needs in the context of everyday life. They offer the possibility of gaining new insights into peoples’ experiences and engaging in co-creation and co-production with end-users.

Within the Living Labs setup, user insights connect public and private perspectives, creating a shared language that guides the innovation process towards the creation of valuable experiences. 


Living Labs provide a framework that supports: 


1. New combinations of competences, business and technology

2. A holistic approach – to learn new rules

3. New insights into user needs

4. Flexible project execution – through iteration

5. Shared public / private innovation costs


The innovation process within a Living Lab is predictable and structured, building on the sound user-driven methodology of the ‘Wheel of innovation’. This implies a process focusing on gradually defining, building, testing and evaluating features via insights into users’ desired outcomes, wishes, needs and the barriers they have experienced.


This methodology pides the innovation process into two overlapping phases: a ‘conceptualisation’ phase that focuses on what to produce and a ‘co-creation’ phase that focuses on how to produce it. The process has several iterations leading to a refinement of the product, as it is being produced, tested, adjusted and tested again. This leads to new insights that ensure value-creation for end-users, who will be part of every step of the process, either directly present in co-creation, or indirectly through ethnographic research. 

Applying a user-driven methodology enables both incremental and radical product and service innovation, and integrates business model innovations with social innovation. As a result, the methodology is highly relevant to project objectives that aim to improve quality of life, ensure sustainability of health, wellbeing and social services and create new jobs and business opportunities. 


Living Lab – Process Overview


Understanding the user - data collection and pattern recognition


The initial data collection is focused on synthesising insights in relation to the subject. Areas for further investigation are identified through ‘opportunity workshops’, and ethnographic research methods are applied to collect deep insights into and inputs from end-users. The inputs are registered, processed and analysed, using qualitative data analysis. Important unmet needs and desires are identified, prioritised and turned into innovation opportunities and design criteria. 

Use Cases - conceptualisation and early prototyping. 






The opportunities and design criteria identified are used as inputs for ideation and concept development. It is important to ensure that the development takes into account not only primary users’ needs, but also secondary and tertiary users’ practice and perceptions in ways that support the use. Based on user input a number of early prototypes are developed to visualize the concepts and these are tested by the user to eliminate any obvious flaws in the design. 


A main output of conceptualisation and user co-creation is the ‘use case’. The use case is a well-known technique to gather detailed knowledge of the required functionality of a product or service. Use cases define the actors (users of the system, data providers, etc) and the interaction between them. This process is very important as it produces the foundation for the technical design and is a primary source for detailed requirements. 


Design and technical development – functional prototypes


Functional prototypes are developed on the basis of input from the previous phase and selected features are implemented to enable user testing. The solution then gradually grows with more and more features implemented. In the first iterations only a few features are introduced. Features that are essential for user perception and implementation of technologically challenging features are prioritised so critical matters can be evaluated as early as possible.


User test and evaluation


A group of users from the target group tests the service demonstrators and prototypes. Depending on the stage of the solution, the test may cover mock-ups, single features or more complete live testing. The tests take place in real-life environments, taking into account the varying cultural, professional and legal frameworks. 


The primary goal of evaluation is to get feedback on perception of the users, use cases, anticipated social effect and willingness to pay. Secondly, there is an evaluation of the technical solution, i.e. does the solution work and are we using the right technology and architecture? Together, these provide the main input for next run of the development process.




The deployment process ensures that a project not only produces an ideal solution but also that the solution will, in fact, be implemented, taking into account contexts and financial issues in relation to implementation, procurement and use. Business model innovation is an integral part of the concept development process. 

A Living Lab Case Study: Express 2 Connect

Humans are social creatures. To experience unwanted loneliness deprives us of a very basic humanity. Growing old increases the risk of exposure to such challenges through retirement, illness and the loss of those nearest and dearest to us. Combatting loneliness is therefore a human need worth investigating.

To do something about loneliness, we first moved beyond the idea of the elderly as a fixed category and started thinking of them as being as inpidually unique as the rest of mankind. In the next step the term ‘elders’ was introduced, thereby restoring the respect for the experiences and resources of those who are advanced in age. These basic tenets are what the Express 2 Connect (E2C) project rests on today and are the foundations that are used when developing tools that will help elders, children and friends to understand each other and act against loneliness. The purpose of the project is to reveal who we are and what stories and resources we have at our disposal. With this in mind, E2C has involved looking for new ways of ‘playing with our life’. 

E2C is a game. We concluded that fun and social relation work well together, and there is great value in a game that helps strengthen and build social relations. Whilst this was not an easy concept to develop, we decided that it could be done if we dared to ask hard questions and involve elders in the search for new answers. We knew the direction in which to search, but it was obvious that the final solution would only emerge in cooperation with elders.

User driven

The E2C project followed a similar user-driven methodology to that set out in the article, which pides the innovation process into two overlapping phases: A ‘WHAT’ phase, focusing on what to produce and a ‘HOW’ phase, focusing on how to produce it. The process had several iterations leading to a refinement of a product / service as it was being conceptualised, made tangible, tested, adjusted and tested again. The process provided insights that helped ensure end-user value. The end-users were integrated into all steps of the process, either directly present, or indirectly through ethnographic research.

Triple bottom-line

Applying a user-driven methodology enabled both incremental and radical product and service innovation and integrated business model with social innovation. As such, the methodology was highly relevant when the aims were to 1) improve quality of life, 2) ensure sustainability of health and social services and 3) improve the creation of new jobs and business opportunities.

Data collection

The initial data collection synthesised insights from the participating partners in relation to the issues of loneliness. Areas for further investigation were identified and validated through user workshops in all participating countries. Based on the initial inputs, an ethnographic research scheme was developed. In-depth interviews with elders were conducted in Denmark, Sweden, Finland and The Netherlands.

Pattern recognition

The interview data was processed and analysed through qualitative analysis and transformed into a new understanding of barriers and opportunities for social connectedness.

Idea and conceptualization

The opportunities and criteria identified were used for ideation and concept development. Three concepts were developed unfolding identified opportunities: ‘Do you remember?’ ‘Spirited network’ and ‘Mirror Mail’. The three concepts were subject to co-creation workshops with elders in all participating countries. Based on end user inputs the concepts were reviewed and assessed in relation to social impact and business opportunities. 

As a result of this assessment, we decided to focus the further development on the most promising concept, now renamed: ‘Play with your life’.


A working prototype of the concept was developed and tested by end users in all participating countries. ‘Play with your Life!’ (PWYL) is a digital game and gaming community that stimulates and facilitates personal storytelling. It enables interest-based social connections and communication among elderly people and others, thereby increasing social connectedness and empowerment in the users and enriching their lives. The game is played at home with families and friends and uses film clips and photographs of events from our collective history (a royal wedding, a natural disaster, a famous TV show) and personal life to trigger stories. The players add the personal material themselves. 

The interactive game consists of two parts. The first is a ‘social setting’ style board game, implemented as a tablet application (iPad), which facilitates and encourages people to tell and listen to each other’s memories and stories. The second is an online community, focused around the storytelling game where people are encouraged to create personalized and/or thematic content (story elements, triggers and cues) for use in the game. The results from the first prototype iteration are for the moment being used for further improvement. The second version of PWYL underwent testing in autumn 2011. 


The final prototype of PWYL will be tested in real life environments with elders representing independent and dependent elderly people from the participating countries, taking into account the different cultural, professional and legal frameworks. Different methods of use will be tested to identify the set-ups and use scenarios that provide the most value and handle the dilemma of becoming old the most appropriately.

PWYL will promote an attractive business model for media content providers and socio-economic organisations to collaborate on a fun way to bridge generation gaps, promote learning, strengthen existing connections and enable new ones, through a portable game running on existing hardware and platforms. It will make elderly people the owners of their own needs and provide tools for dealing with them - together and in a fun, non-stigmatising way.

Rob Anderson

Rob was a founding director of Edengene in 2000, having previously been head of the business growth practice at PA Consulting Group. A chartered accountant with strong finance skills, he has 20+ years’ consulting experience working with blue chip companies, designing and directing multi-year growth and innovation programmes. Rob is the author of Edengene's customer-led innovation methodology, which provides a structured approach to innovation to deliver revenue growth.