Session 7

7. From Living Labs to Sites of Unity: Decolonizing Urban Experiments with Planetary Futures

In the context of contemporary crises of human-environment relations and planetary health, the Urban Living Lab (ULLs) has been (re)discovered in urban governance and planning as a key instrument for developing sustainable futures. Relying strongly on participatory and trans-disciplinary methodologies, ULLs aim at creating spaces for academics, practitioners and interested citizens to experiment with innovative urban solutions in “real-life” contexts. For example, ULLs have been set up in cities as diverse as Berlin and São Paulo to tackle Global Health issues, Urban Pollution/Greening etc (add references) However, while urban researchers, planners, and designers have readily adopted the ULL approach, there has been surprisingly little critical reflection on the epistemological assumptions underpinning the ULL methodology. Such critique, we argue, is ever more urgent as ULL spread globally and have become powerful tools in the context of knowledge production and innovation processes in the Global South. The idea of places and spaces in the Global South as ‘laboratories’ for Eurocentric ideas and models has been widely problematized in critical and post-/decolonial thought, from the historical condition of Latin America as a laboratory of (Western) modernity, to more recent processes of knowledge extraction by international researchers in Africa, including the subjugation of local researchers to data collectors and facilitators. In the context of the recent proliferation of the Urban Living Lab model, this critique gains new relevance. As Segenet Kelemu has argued, spaces and places in the Global South need to stop being laboratories and instead become ‘sites of unity’ for the production of knowledge, scientific and technological capacity, indigenous epistemologies, and exchange with urban and national institutions and communities. Following Kelemu’s proposition, and as part of the decolonisation imperative occurring across countries and institutions, this session aims to critically reflect on the (transdisciplinary) methodologies that structure Urban Living Labs. Together with our panel participants, we aim at reflecting on the implications and epistemic conditions for rethinking or reforming ULLs into transformative/emancipatory ‘sites of unity’. To contribute to an ongoing effort to meet these long term challenges, we call for papers that reflect on the methodological foundations and implications of ULLs/sites of unity along four lines:

(a) Papers that contribute critical reflections on existing transdisciplinary and participative methodologies, especially, but not restricted to, approaches that bring together spatial research and design, i.e. socio-spatial analytical diagnosis with urban intervention (e.g. action-oriented research, collaborative methods, counter-mapping projects, etc.)

(b) Papers that contribute to decolonizing or decentering the epistemological foundations and assumptions that structure transdisciplinary approaches, especially, but not restricted to Urban Living Labs (e.g. in relation to research and innovation discourses, experimentation, and ethics), and more broadly research collaborations between academics, practitioners and civil society. We particularly welcome papers that reflect how oppressive structures are reproduced through methodology, that decenter dominant eurocentric or anthropocentric epistemologies, etc.

(c) Papers that envision alternatives to the Living Lab model, i.e. sites of unity, or other formats that generate situated, transformative knowledge and innovation towards sustainable planetary futures, diversify knowledges are relevant to societies and environments.

(d) Papers that critically interrogate and reflect on the challenges and prospects of repositioning universities and research institutions as transformative engines for decolonising knowledge production and policy formulation in the Global South are also encouraged.