Real laboratories for the energy and heat transition

Time is of the essence in the energy and heat transition. So when new approaches to solutions for more sustainable urban and neighborhood development are being researched, the results should be ready for use as quickly as possible. To this end, reallabs offer a large-scale experimental space. This not only facilitates technological developments, but also opens up the possibility of testing their social impact. Theory and practice, research and participation are therefore close together in the real lab.

The real laboratory as a concept for sustainability research

Behind the term “Reallabor” as well as the various related terms (Living Labs, Urban Transition Labs, Transition Management, etc.) lies a methodological concept that pursues a transdisciplinary approach. It connects the clearly defined and experimental research area of the lab with practice.

Observation, model and the limits of the scientific method

Real laboratories are intended to deliver practice-tested solutions for sustainable developments that are suitable for everyday use. The challenge lies not least in the fact that complex change processes are being researched: Technological, economic, ecological, institutional and also cultural factors must be taken into account. After all, they are all interconnected and generate interactions.

The usual scientific approach is often unable to take sufficient account of this complexity. Observations, from which models for desired changes are subsequently developed, often no longer manage to fully capture the change processes under investigation.

This is particularly true of the human factor, rapid technological progress and the resulting consequences – for example, in the case of digitization. Digitalization has already fundamentally changed individual lives and social interaction. Technological innovations and their use by people are mutually dependent and are thus additionally driving ever faster development.

The “experimental turn” for transformation research

Transformation research, in particular, is therefore increasingly moving toward adding a social context to the classic natural science and engineering laboratory approach. After all, it is researching change processes that directly affect people.

Moreover, transformative science is explicitly designed to support the development of technical and social innovations. In other words, it plays an active role in disseminating researched solutions directly to society.

The basis for this is, in turn, a new understanding of the relationship between science and society. The usual observer role of science, which initially brings in empirical data and develops system knowledge from it (i.e., knowledge about which mechanisms and interrelationships operate within the research field), is now only part of the overall method. It is supplemented by at least two new forms of knowledge:

Target knowledge circumscribes knowledge about where the changes under study are expected to go in the future. It is based on scenarios that are to be worked toward with the help of technology and social change. An elementary component of this form of knowledge are the assessments of the actors concerned.

Transformation knowledge is created, among other things, by experimenting with what the desired change should be. It has a strong pragmatic character, because this knowledge is gained in the real laboratory through experimentation in a real environment – in other words, in the everyday lives of those affected.

In addition, transformation knowledge is associated with the fundamental idea of disseminating and communicating the findings of the reallab and making them the basis for mutual learning. Because the reallab is not about generating scientific expertise.

Because the end result is a transformation to more sustainable living environments, the interaction of science and civil society is just as much a part of it as different forms of knowledge and community participation.

Characteristics of the real laboratory

However, there is no clear definition of what such a reallaboratory is. The concept goes back to the idea of real experiments in which new methodological approaches are used to solve socially relevant questions. Real labs adopt this social context to expand the scientific notion of the laboratory.

This remains a research workshop, but it opens itself up to the experiential and action knowledge of civil society. Science and practice thus go hand in hand.
Despite the lack of a universally valid definition, recurring characteristics of the real laboratory can be found within the scientific discourse. These include above all

  • The contribution to sustainable change,
  • experimentation,
  • transdisciplinarity as a fundamental research approach,
  • social learning processes and reflexivity as well as
  • Long-term orientation, scalability and transferability.

In addition, other key components can be found in the scientific literature, such as the spatial and thematic confinement of the laboratory or the real-world problems that are the starting point.

Transdisciplinarity: Researching beyond the disciplines

The focus of research in real-world labs is not so much on technological possibilities. Rather, it is about seeking solutions to social problems and finding them together with people. That’s why the concept goes beyond interdisciplinary approaches.

Research for society

The concept of transdisciplinarity has existed since the 1970s. Originating in the philosophy of science, it has since become popular, especially in the fields of sustainable urban planning and design.

A uniform definition of the term is still lacking, yet there is widespread agreement on what is meant by it. This is because the term transdisciplinarity arose from the demand to place non-scientific and societal problems and developments at the center of research.

The basis for this is the far-reaching differentiation of science with its numerous disciplines and subjects. They allow a holistic approach that can illuminate all aspects of an issue. Transdisciplinary research, in fact, aims to define a common, subject-independent object of research.

Cooperation and practice

However, the transdisciplinary approach does not only transcend disciplinary boundaries. Because explicitly socially relevant topics are researched, partners from politics, administration, business and everyday life are significantly involved.

The direct cooperation with stakeholders from society enables a joint learning process. This is supported by the strong practical relevance of transdisciplinary research. Questions and conceivable solutions are developed in cooperation with those affected – embedded in their everyday lives.

Real laboratories show how transdisciplinarity can work in practice. In a clearly defined environment, scientific and practical work is carried out to find solutions to complex problems. Always with the aim of bringing about social improvements.

Innovation and regulation

Although the reallabs are intended to promote innovation and are therefore designed as experimental spaces, they are by no means outside a regulatory framework. In fact, regulation is a central factor in the implementation of a reallab:

  • So-called experimentation clauses in existing laws allow in individual cases to circumvent regulations for a limited period of time – if this should be necessary for the lab. This requires a corresponding application and its approval.
  • In the practice-oriented real laboratory, it is possible to see directly how well current regulations can actually function and how a suitable, sustainable legal framework can be developed from them.
  • It is therefore an essential aspect of the reallaboratories to actively participate in the design of new regulations and laws.

Reallabs: Diverse research for a sustainable future

Sustainable future scenarios require change in countless areas and open up a correspondingly large number of questions to which answers are to be found in the reallabs:

  • Which technological innovations can help counteract climate change?
  • How and where can these technologies be used and what impact will they have – ecologically, socially and economically?
  • In addition, what social innovations are needed for greater sustainability?
  • How must and, above all, how can lifestyles, business models, ways of working and forms of organization change from a sustainable point of view?

The complexity and scope of these questions can be seen in the variety of focal points that are now being researched in numerous real laboratories. In addition, other approaches are being successfully tested to bring science and civil society together.

Citizen Science – Researching together

The concept is already well over 100 years old. The first organized, joint effort between science and citizens was the Christmas Bird Count project of the US National Audubon Society. Since then, the bird count has been conducted every year.

The basic principle behind Citizen Science is to turn citizens into researchers. The technologies available today have opened up far-reaching opportunities for this: Thanks to digitization, people can participate in research processes basically anywhere and at any time.