The return of the king? Living labs - a new case of user involvement in innovation
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Although most firms have adopted a market-pull model of innovation, many incumbent companies still struggle to recognise and profit from emerging customer needs. To cope with this problem, living labs have begun to appear throughout Europe, following the example of the MIT Media lab, established in 1985, and making use of ethnographic and anthropological methods to identify (latent) consumer needs. These living labs use ethnography methods rather than surveys to identify consumer needs. The main question of this research is twofold: to analyse the assumptions, processes and methods of both independent and corporate living labs, and to subsequently evaluate the links between living labs (ethnographic) research and the traditional innovation processes that use living lab studies as input. Five living labs served as case studies in this research: the Copenhagen and Sølund living labs in Denmark, Casala and the Tril centre in Ireland, and the Autonom’Lab in Limoges (France). The data gathering consisted of interviews with living labs directors, ethnographers, and managers in new product development. Also, this research profited from direct observation at some of the living lab facilities. The key factors of a good living lab project are (1) belief at the client side in the impact of users, and, following from that, equal dignity between users and firm actors and a certain level of flexibility on the product design; (2) the presence of a participant-side filter with good knowledge on the firm’s needs and possibilities, and resources to enable the actors to do the creative effort on top of their daily jobs and lives; and (3) the availability of funding and the capacity of the actors involved to engage in a long-term process generating a considerable amount of data that is treated with a scientific attitude and not always leads to results that are useful to new business ventures. If the living lab movement is to persist, living lab organisations (consultancies) might want to strengthen their selection process based on the three criteria named above. It is also recommendable that living lab organisations accentuate that their unusual way of working (big amounts of data, from potential users not readily available to many firms) is likely to lead to an increased added value for the products thus conceived. For policy-makers, it is important to acknowledge that, albeit this possible competitive advantage, the fact that most living lab organisations only work for small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as the idea that interventions do not lead to successful products one-on-one, living lab organisations, for now, will still need government funding, for example in the form of innovation vouchers.