REFOOTURE evidence platform

How to set up a well functioning living lab in East Africa?


Research indicates that well-functioning Living Labs have 4 key elements: 


Discussion topics

Social structures: Mixed group of stakeholders and strong network

A Living Lab is a place where people who would not usually meet, convene and work together on joint challenges by creating NEW innovations and approaches that contribute to the future vision that they have jointly developed.

Ideally, a Living Lab builds new bridges and links between existing collaborations, knowledge or innovations and brings people together that share a mutual objective. Successful Living Labs mainly strengthen, support and catalyzes existing networks and avoid dominating or disturbing these collaborations and networks.

1. Combining knowledge, wisdom and training

The learning component of Living Labs is not just (theoretical) knowledge, but also wisdom and training. These different knowledge systems have to be made equal through a support structure for all stakeholders involved, also the marginalized groups (depending on the context, these may be smallholder farmers, but also youth and women).

2. Conducting an innovation network analysis

First step is to get the focus and objectives of the Living Lab clear and subsequently examine who needs to be involved in the Living Lab to reach these objectives. It is recommended to conduct an “innovation network analysis” to recognize which members (or which other stakeholders) are the key enablers, doers and thinkers that would play a crucial role to contribute to the objectives of the Living Lab. [Include link to network analysis tool] This analysis is made by interviewing people in the region. Information that is collected relates to (potential) influence it has on the surrounding network and the degree of knowledge exchange the Living Lab can contribute to.

3.Including new voices, without disrupting existing networks

A bottom-up approach is essential in a Living Lab process. This helps the Living Lab to focus at relevant solutions and innovations, and to stick to on-the-ground reality. Voices of different stakeholders are balanced in successful Living Lab. However, this is an evolutionary process since in existing collaborations, voices can be represented in unequal way. The Living Lab gradually brings in new voices and tries to master changes in power structures to make sure the different voices are heard. Hence, it is important not to disrupt existing learning and innovation processes as a result of new Living Lab interventions, while introducing new voices to the dialogue.

4. Inclusiveness is key

The social context of a Living Lab is very important in ensuring its success: inclusiveness is key. This means that the voice of marginalized (or: less powerful) actors is represented in the Living Lab. If inclusiveness is well embraced, and a pool of trained facilitators is created, specific training and learning can be delivered to marginalized actors. This enriches both “knowledge delivers” and “learners”.

Discussion topics

Operational and Structural Needs

1. A clear focus

Living Labs have a clear and specific focus that is co-developed with the Living Lab participants. This means that the Living Lab participants will invest in knowledge creation to come to a joint understanding of the focus. This takes time and the process includes negotiating and agreeing. It may even take several years to come to a clear focus as more living lab participants will join the discussion. But when a mixed group of Living Lab participants is established, we would expect that the focus will be narrowed down. After defining the focus of the Living Lab, roles, activities and timelines are defined by the Living Lab participants. [Include references]

2. Scientific procedure

A successful Living Lab has a solid scientific base: a clear objective, hypothesis and an experimental design are key. Furthermore, there needs to be a good monitoring and evaluation process, including systematic data collection, to manage the Living Lab and to keep track whether objectives of the Living Lab are met. The Living Lab also needs to have a clear vision on how the Living Lab activities relate to and affect the system it is part of. This approach allows for a space for creation of knowledge, both through learning by doing as well as through scientific experimentation

3. Fluidity and dynamic nature

A Living Lab should allow for a dynamic group composition. Depending on the changing needs of people and the different phases of the lifetime of the living lab, new people can enter as Living Lab participants and others may leave the group.

In general, we see that in the beginning of the Living Lab, it is mostly the influential stakeholders ithat are part of the Living Lab, while later on, the experts play a larger role, once innovation design and experimentation are taking place.

Due to their dynamic nature, Living Labs do not have to be managed as a project, thus there is no need to set a working procedure or strict framework for activities.

4. Innovation Leader as Living Lab facilitator

A facilitator is always needed to ensure success in the Living Lab. Within the REFOOTURE project, this role is supposed to be covered by the “Innovation Leader”. The Innovation Leader is the contact person of the Living Lab during the starting phase of the Living Lab. This person is organising meetings, leads the vision building process, and plays a leading role in reaching out to new Living Lab members.


5. Outreach through ambassadors and marketing

It might be useful to have champions to support the social structure of the Living Lab. These can be “ambassadors” outside the Living Lab that actively support its development by promoting it. Marketing can also play an important role in ensuring a good social structure in a Living Lab.

Discussion topics


Room for innovation & experimentation

Innovation in Living Labs always needs collective experimentation. That is development of a product, process or service as a group of stakeholders with various checking points for reflection and discussion along the way. Within the REFOOTURE project, the identification of innovation cases/examples is a core activity. The innovation cases offer possibility for collective experimentation within the Living Labs.

Discussion topics

Exit strategy

Thinking about the legacy of the Living Lab from the start on, as well as how the Living Lab will stop functioning, is important. This helps in being truly a transformative power in livelihoods and society in general. Often, to set up a Living Lab, subsidy is needed. The exit strategy includes creating and handing over capacity to make sure the LL continues after the start-up subsidy has ended. To build a solid exit strategy, it is useful to have realistic expectations.

The exit strategy puts in place mechanisms and structures (e.g. embedment into an organization) able to sustain the Living Lab in the future.

Economically speaking, a Living Lab can become self-sustainable. This self-sustainability usually comes from a collaboration of different actors; for example, by bridging innovation cases. To extend the lifespan of a Living Lab it could be worth to gradually reduce the external funding as the Living Lab evolves in time and builds on its own income sources.

The development of a business model for the LL can be useful. However, apart from a financial strategy, the future model should also include a plan for maintaining / building relationships and knowledge networks.

It is essential to be careful with external funding, as these might affect or even disrupt existing structures. In effect, once a few stakeholders control the money, the network dynamics starts to be centered in their hands. A way to resist this, is to build a solid structure right from the beginning, for example by investing in resources in the creation of new valuable networks.

Note that these mechanisms need time to be set up! Various elements need to be in place, including:

  • Clarifying & combining stakeholders’ objectives
  • Assessment of needs (definition of a clear and realistic joint vision of success)
  • Identification of leadership roles: clarify who is in the “driver’s seat”

Sources and references

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REFOOTURE experiences

How to set up well functioning Living Labs in East Africa?



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