Are the Users Driving, and How Open is Open? Experiences from Living Lab and User Driven Innovation projects

Kari-Hans Kommonen, 1 Andrea Botero 2

1 Media Lab, Department of Media,Aalto University, Finland (

2 School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Aalto University, Finland (

As the number of Living Labs has grown to the hundreds, 1 there are almost as many definitions for what the concept Living Lab means (Almirall, 2008; Følstad, 2008; Orava, 2009). Central to the "ideal" concept of Living Lab is the opportunity to develop a more proactive role for users and user communities in driving developments and to do it in open ways 2 We consider this definition by Feurstein et al. as fairly representative of many current initiatives:

"[Living Lab] is a systemic innovation approach in which all stakeholders in a product, service or application participate directly in the development process. It refers to a research and development (R&D) methodology in which innovations are created and validated collaboratively in multi-contextual, empirical real-world environments." (Feurstein, Hesmer, Hribernik, Thoben, & Schumacher, 2008)

However, based on our experience, both the "ideal" of Living lab as well as the theoretical descriptions represent exactly that: an ideal that has not yet been realized in practice.

To proceed towards the ideal, we believe it would be beneficial for those involved in Living Lab activities to make a clearer distinction between user involvement and user driven innovation. This would make it possible to develop approaches to further both of these activities better. In addition, there seems to be a conflict between two meanings of open innovation that we believe Living Labs need to address consistently.

To elaborate this argument, our article reflects on the experiences of three projects in Helsinki, Finland, that we have participated in and that have aimed to develop organic connections between technology development and local communities of people. We will discuss these projects to evaluate and summarize some of the experiences, in the light of the role that communities play and could play in innovation processes and technology co-creation.

Setting the stage

Over the past decade, our research group3 has initiated several projects to find ways to facilitate how people could influence the development of tools, systems and services for their own digital practices. Because of this interest, we have also been part of several initiatives that aimed to develop the Living Lab approach in Helsinki. While both our own research agenda and the Living Lab approach share many aims and characteristics, the approaches have also some differences. It is also worth noting that while the three projects presented here had different aims, they all shared a basic premise: the vision that new technology could and should be developed in close collaboration with people.

Helsinki Living Lab (HLL)

The Helsinki Living Lab (HLL) project (2007-2008) had the objective to develop user-driven innovation know-how in the Arabianranta region, the district where our university is located. The strategy followed was of involving close to 20 different actors (from universities to small companies and resident communities) in concrete cases that experiment with Living Lab approaches to innovation and design. The ultimate aim was to develop a service concept based on the experiences. The project was initiated by the local development agency (Art and Design City Oy) with funding from the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation (Tekes). 4 Our role in the project was to contribute to the development of the Living Lab concept in this context and to its working methods. Within some of the cases, we developed and experimented with different tools and means to approach Arabianranta residents and stakeholders as co-designers.

One case that we worked with illuminates some of the contradictions we want to bring forth particularly well. In this case, we developed a set of activities for collaboratively mapping everyday practices (Botero, Naukkarinen, & Saad-Sulonen, 2008). The work helped to understand how a specific product, at beta stage in that moment, related to the current everyday practices of the users, and specifically aimed to envision new features and development directions for the product; something both we and the users involved, believed would be highly valuable for the enterprise we worked with, according to the presumed mission of the Living Lab.

However, during the course of the project it became evident that the company involved was first and foremost interested in "user testing" specific product features. While they thought the results of our work with users were interesting, they were not planning to or even prepared to consider more far-reaching propositions. There was no way for the resulting insights to be incorporated in further product iterations and no particular provision in the company's development process for responding in an agile way to even the minor development ideas that resulted. Furthermore, as the work was done under strict non-disclosure agreements, the results we have been able to publish and share represent only a small part of what could have been more generally useful. As the originating company did not have a compatible interest, and as the results could not be shared with any other actor that might have an interest to realize them, most of the ideas and insights that the users created for new products or features, and more importantly the related practices that were identified (the "user innovations"), did not result in any new products or business opportunities for the company, nor in any practical benefits for the participating "user innovators".

As a result of the whole project, a concept for the Helsinki Living Lab was presented5 and elaborated. In general terms, it can be said that this has strengthened the potential of the area as a "Living Lab". In fact, Arabianranta continues to be marketed as such, but just what really that means in practice is far from clear, not only from the point of view of the participating institutions, but also as is evident in the mixed feelings that have arisen in the local community. 6

User Driven Open Innovation Booster (UDOI)

After the experiences with the HLL project, we were part of a larger consortium project called User Driven Open Innovation Booster (UDOI) (2008-2010), aimed at bringing together (around 15) businesses and research institutions to develop, pilot and deploy service innovations in collaboration with user communities. This time, user collaborations were not limited to Arabianranta.

Initially the project had an ambitious goal of developing a networked Living Lab system and developing the core competences for User Driven Innovation for supporting R&D activities in Finland; as this was a core part of a new scheme for developing R&D activities with private and public funding called Tivit. 7 After a long design and planning process in which we actively participated that created a plan that the participating actors considered feasible, the project direction was changed. This was mostly due to a lack of sufficient industrial interest to participate in the funding, which resulted in a drastic budget cut (around 75% from the original 4.3 MEUR, but still with 13 partners). The project's goals were scaled down and focused away from Living Lab development. Instead, funders insisted that the activities should support targeted user involvement, to produce direct input for selected cases provided by participant companies in the larger Flexible Services research consortium.

From the point of view of our research interests, the refocusing changed the nature of the project completely, and effectively stripped the project of realistic opportunities to research and develop user driven innovation activities in practice. There was no space for investing in building more long-term partnerships with user communities, nor for exploring ideas that would come from sources different from those already pre-established. We continued facilitating user involvement in three cases (e.g. Naukkarinen, Sutela, Botero, & Kommonen, 2009; Naukkarinen, Sutela, Botero, & Hyyppä, 2010) and reflected on user involvement in innovation in general (e.g.: Botero, Vihavainen, & Karhu, 2009; Botero, Karhu, Vihavainen 2012). However, the user "driven" dimensions of the whole endeavour became very thin.

Emerging Digital Practices of Communities (ADIK)

In contrast to the previous two projects, the Emerging Digital Practices of Communities (ADIK)8 project (2004-2007) was initiated by our research group, with mostly public funding, but also with support from two large companies.9 It studied different ways in which new digital tools give room to the emergence of new practices and, conversely, how people through their practices transform and complement these new tools. Our approach was to engage in collaborative work with communities of people that could have practices that in our judgement could, if facilitated with new technology, evolve to include new features that would take advantage of some digital capabilities. 10

From the point of view of User Driven Innovation, one of the communities we worked with, an association of Active Seniors, is especially interesting. They are a community that has been formed specifically for the purpose of creating a social innovation: a collective housing arrangement and an alternative way of growing old together that the seniors called Loppukiri11 (Botero & Kommonen, 2009a, 2009b; Botero & Hyysalo, forthcoming, Dahlström & Minkkinen, 2009). This background meant that they were positively predisposed to a design collaboration, as they had already embarked on a long term design mission regarding the organization of their own future lives, and were well prepared and interested to consider also the design of the technological circumstances within that new future lifestyle.

During several years of the collaboration (which in fact started already before the ADIK project, in 2002), we explored their current and possible future practices through many types of activities and prototypes, and finally as one of the results, developed a prototype information system that the seniors called the "Everyday Life Management System" of their house. This system was in effect co-designed with the seniors and mostly implemented by our team. It has been put into use in the community as a way to facilitate some of their novel practices, e.g. the organization of the process of preparing their common daily meals and dealing with the shared spaces (Botero & Kommonen, 2009b; Botero & Hyysalo, forthcoming) since they have now moved into their common housing arrangement.

We believe that this latter case sheds light on the dynamics of new forms of social collectivity, which challenge our established modes of politics and tradition (Maffesoli, 1996) and the possibilities of organizing collaborative production activities that might more accurately represent real sites of collective innovation. Through their activities, this community is experimenting and creating models that can be appropriated and further developed by other communities and Finnish society in general. 12

As this project was already completed when we participated in the Living Lab projects presented earlier, we attempted to bring these communities and the community and practice driven approaches utilized in this project also into the other two projects. Unfortunately, we were not successful in that, for a variety of reasons, mostly because of the strong focus on producing results specifically for the participating companies.

In spite of this, the initiative of the seniors, Loppukiri, is often presented by the Living Lab proponents as a prime example of Living Labs - a position we agree with - but, ironically, it has been developed completely outside of any "Living Lab" projects and without any Living Lab funding. Equally sadly, despite its strong appeal as an example of successful Living Lab activity, it appears that none of the various current Living Lab funding opportunities would offer any instruments to support them.

Users - involved or driving?

A key idea in Living Labs, which we characterize as user involvement, seems to be to connect technology developers to communities in order to introduce, in some way or another, the realism of everyday life into the development process. This can happen in various ways - for example through user testing, ideation, user centered design - depending on the ability of the Living Lab customer, the company, to incorporate such contributions into their product development process. Our experiences from HLL and UDOI are examples of how these types of "Living Lab" initiatives were geared towards organizing and streamlining user involvement activities for a narrow product development process, which also resonated well with the expectations of most of the participating enterprises.

These involvements are thus producer driven; a company defines the interest and the aims, users are involved as informants and recruited for the purpose, and the process and its results are closed from external participants. This development is congruent with what in marketing and management is usually referred to as co-creation and customer centric approaches (e.g.: Prahalad & Ramaswamy, 2004). A focus on user involvement takes advantage of and links Living Labs to the extensive body of knowledge developed around users as important sources of innovation (von Hippel 1988, 2005). Furthermore, Living labs have been able to tap into the experiences of the user-centered design movement (as developed in fields like Human Computer Interaction) and the associated breadth of methods for user studies. In this kind of producer driven user involvement the challenge for a Living Lab seems to be more about their ability to develop and market these types of services to companies and to increase the participant companies' capacities to take advantage of user involvement. This is an important goal and a beneficial activity in the sense that it may increase the quality and fit of industrial products. However, such harvesting of product related input from people does not necessarily further user community-based innovation.

In contrast, the more ambitious ideal of Living Labs, as environments for systemic user driven innovation and co-creation appears to require a different set of starting conditions. Unfortunately, a Living Lab where communities are also empowered and not simply used as a resource does not seem to be an easy extension of user involvement activities. This might be because having new actors "driving" the agenda does not necessarily fit comfortably into the same circumstances. Communities, or users and their interests, are not initiating or driving developments in any Living Labs that we have experience of, and while interesting experiments are taking place in Cornellà (Colobrans, 2010), Malmö (Björgvinsson, Ehn, & Hillgren, 2010, 2012) and Milano (Cantou, Corubolo, Simeone, 2012), we are not aware of any systematic user driven approach of creating innovations that is currently in use in Living Labs with effective results or useful outputs.

There are many factors influencing this; we believe four reasons are particularly salient:

In reality, this lack of support and interest for the more radical aspects of a Living Lab approach does not stop true user driven innovation from taking place, as for example von Hippel describes (2005) and Loppukiri attests to. These in fact are spontaneously initiated by people who have strong interests to further developments that are important to them.

Unfortunately for communities andsociety, as this activity does not fit into the framings, agendas and mechanisms of the current institutional support systems, such as Living Labs, these communities and this latter type of innovation cannot benefit from the significant resourcing 13 that is designated specifically for this purpose by society. Hence, it could be a worthwhile proposition for a new generation of Living Labs to consider opening new initiatives to find means to support developments that have true user driven origins.

Open - but how open?

One obstacle to building a more collaborative infrastructure in Living Lab settings, in the contexts we are aware of, is the confusion related to the degree of openness of the activities. This we attribute to a problem of terminology. While most Living Labs are described as open innovation environments, this term is very ambiguous and has a specific meaning for the business management community that might differ from an intuitive reading of it by those not of that community. For example, to Henry Chesbrough, whose writings have been central in defining and popularizing the concept, Open Innovation is:

"… the use of purposive inflows and outflows of knowledge to accelerate internal innovation, and expand the markets for external use of innovation, respectively. [This paradigm] assumes that firms can and should use external ideas as well as internal ideas, and internal and external paths to market, as they look to advance their technology." (Chesbrough, 2006a)

According to this view of Open Innovation (OI) the inflows and outflows of innovation are expected to happen through the trading of intellectual property (IP) between organizations. Because of this, an OI approach actually increases the incentive for companies to gather IP and protect it by methods such as patenting, in order to make it as valuable as possible for sale or trade when it is not used being internally (Chesbrough, 2006b). The word "open" is thus used to contrast this approach with a "closed" one where a company creates all the knowledge it requires for innovation by itself without relying on outsiders, and respectively holds on to its own inventions and does not try to sell them to others (Botero, Karhu, Vihavainen 2012). Openness here does not mean that the protected innovations are available to anyone for free; instead, they are available to be purchased or licensed by selected, agreeable parties, at a cost. The open innovation approach encourages firms to build networks where firms support each other with intellectual property that they can license and mobilize in their products. This, we suggest, could be called commercial open innovation.

Another, perhaps for most people more intuitive, understanding of the concept of open innovation leads one to link it to the type of openness that is promoted by other "open" initiatives, such as open source, open access, open culture, open data or open content, where the emphasis is on free revealing and free sharing (c.f. von Hippel, 2005; Baldwin & von Hippel, 2009). This understanding of openness means that the essential information concerning the innovation is available to anyone interested in it, freely without discrimination and at no cost, and they are able to use it as they see fit. This has been called open collaborative innovation by Baldwin and von Hippel (2009). We propose that to highlight the contrast between commercial "open innovation" and innovation where everything is publicly and freely available, a useful term could be public open innovation.

This confusion of terms makes it difficult for various actors to have a shared understanding of and expectations for Living Lab activities. In many cases people and other actors who are engaged or recruited to collaborate with Living Labs may believe that they are contributing to a greater common good with their efforts (cf. the dilemma we described in the Helsinki Living Lab case). However, eventually they may find that they are working within a context where a company will own the innovations they helped to create; and in the worst case, they may not even get access to the innovations if the company fails to create usable, affordable and sustainable products from the work. Even in the case where a company will produce an solution, an ensuing design improvement cycle by several actors would be more beneficial for the further rapid evolution of the solution (cf. Hyysalo, 2007; von Hippel, 1988, 2005). Hence, the current modes of operation that severely restrict access to the innovations are not in the best interest of the user innovators.

User involvement as described above is not easy or cheap. Although this aspect is not often described in the publications that document such cases, researchers that aim to involve people in "user studies" know that it is not at all trivial to find, recruit and motivate people to participate in research and development, as doing so typically requires them to devote time, and usually without any meaningful compensation. In addition, the benefits of involvement might not be clear at the onset; as well the initial expectations may not be met during longer term involvements further making future recruitments more difficult.

Equally, this kind of work takes a lot of time and effort from the organizations that get involved in the.. If the substantial effort of a first experimental activity does not produce meaningful results, the involved actors, whether they are so called "users" or organizations, are not easily persuaded to participate again. Hence, unproductive experiments deplete the resource base and budding interest quickly. This is a difficult problem for current Living Labs to solve. How to ensure the creation of sufficient benefits for all participants, so that the processes can become sustainable and actually grow?

We suggest that especially when the role of users' efforts and contributions is significant, they should be guaranteed upfront and in explicit terms that the process will be governed by open and shared innovation models that allow them or anyone else to proceed with developing the innovations based on their own work. This will become a significant issue if Living Labs are to become successful in developing true User Driven Innovation activities. People will invest a lot of time and effort in R&D only if they know they have the opportunity to work with those kinds of partners that can help them to reach concrete results.

At the same time, as we have noted earlier, innovation by user communities exists and thrives, but most enterprises are not generally able to join with and make use of it. Thus, for the ideal of the Living Labs to become reality, enterprises will need to evolve and specifically develop their sensitivity and capabilities to embrace such external innovation.


In one of our interviews with the Active Seniors, an individual expressed their position and motivation for being involved in development activities in a nutshell by saying that instead of being an object of research, they wanted to be an "actor", shaping their own life. As contemporary society is moving forward from the industrial era of mass production towards mass customization and individually tailorable products and systems, this potential for people to be empowered actors of their own lives is growing. The emerging technology and the global information environment are all compatible with the development of vibrant user driven innovation phenomena. Even the large funding agencies, such as the European Commission, have recognized the potential of the ideal, and have jumped onto the Living Lab bandwagon as the way to transform innovation processes towards user driven directions.

However, as the current Living Lab activities are typically designed to satisfy the perceived needs of industry as opposed to the needs of people, they are, by design, constrained to remain mechanisms simply for "user involvement". Also, their generally closed participation and their Intellectual Propety Regime (IPR) strategies are not fair or productive from the users' perspective--giving their innovations into the Living Lab may mean contributing these to the IPR of a participating company that is not able or willing to turn these into useful solutions for the innovators, and which in turn may exclude the competition and evolution in the design space essential to satisfying user needs.

We propose that in order to realize the ideal of a "user driven open innovation ecosystem", next generation Living Lab activities should shift their focus and priorities from how to realize the interest of companies to how to realize the interest of the users. Instead of being only mechanisms for involving users in producer driven product development, "Living Lab V2.0" could also become innovation accelerators for users and their communities - institutions that have mechanisms in place that support and facilitate motivated and innovative people to develop their innovations rapidly with peer designers, user communities and interested enterprises.

This requires that next generation Living Lab activities should:

The type of work we have done in the projects with communities (e.g. ADIK with the Active Seniors), taking their own practices and their future potential as starting points, seems to offer a fruitful direction for innovative technology development, and could also be a basis for systemic user driven initiatives. We believe that such an approach, if operated according to principles of public open innovation, would create attractive knowledge and collaboration initiatives and would also create commercial opportunities that are more compatible with growing trends of openness for companies. The support from Living Labs should be directed to those companies that are ready to embrace external innovation and join open collaborative innovation processes.

Organizations funding Living Lab developments have typically been from various levels of government, pursuing a strong interest in quickly developing practical support for businesses. Thus, the funding has been directed to implementation of activities as opposed to research and development. However, as there are no working examples of how to accomplish the goals in a systemic fashion, we believe that in addition to launching new implementation projects that proclaim the realization of the ideal, there is also a need to engage in critical and focused research into the phenomena of user innovation and unrealized user interests, as well as in the development of the methods, tools and practices that genuine "user driven open innovation processes" would require. In this way ideals could be turned into reality. A real user driven innovation ecosystem could have many significant societal benefits making for a very worthwhile investment.


We want to thank all the user communities involved for their collaboration and our partners and colleagues at Aalto University.


1 The European network of Living Labs alone list around 250 Living Labs on their site There are also similar developments in China and other parts of Asia.

2 For example the current definition in Wikipedia mentions both "user empowerment" and "open environment" as qualities of the Living lab approach ( Similar rhetoric is found in the European Commission report "Advancing and applying Living Lab methodologies. An update on Living Labs for user-driven open innovation in the ICT domain." (2010) (

3 The Arki research group in the Media Lab of the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture studies the digitalization of everyday life; tries to make sense of the positive and negative potential that is created;, and attempts to develop design approaches to further the realization of the positive opportunities in society. See

4 Tekes is the main public funding organisation for research, development and innovation in Finland, financed by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy. See

5 In particular through the initiative of Helsinki Living Lab promoted by Forum Virium, ADC Oy and the regional development office of Helsinki. Further information on this development can be followed in the website.

6 For an overview of how the area is presented as a Living Lab see: To review some earlier mixed feelings of the local community related to their neighborhood as a "test bed" see e.g. Kangasoja (2007).

7 Tivit Oy is a company set up by Finnish industry and research institutions to develop industry driven R&D with specifically allocated public funding from Tekes; see: . UDOI Booster project:

8 The acronym derives from the Finnish name of the project. Further information about it can be accessed at

9 Like the two other projects, ADIK was funded by Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation, with support from Nokia and Elisa.

10 The approach is largely inspired by the Scandinavian Participatory Design experience (See e.g Greenbaum & Kyng, 1991)

11 Loppukiri means "last spurt" in English.. In practice it means a co-housing arrangement with 58 small flats and large shared facilities where inhabitants aim at growing together old. A video describing our collaboration with Loppukiri can be found at

12 As a matter of fact there are already more than 6 other groups in the country engaged in planning, developing and replicating some of the ideas developed by the seniors. For more information about their project visit:

13 According to our rough estimate, the yearly funding available for Living Lab activities in the world runs in the tens of millions of Euros (in August 2012).


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