What is an urban lab?

To think about the city as a laboratory is not the only way of using this metaphor in an urban scenario; we also have urban labs. An urban laboratory is either a temporal or a permanent “constructed site of knowledge production” (Karvonen & van Heur, 2014). The nature of the laboratory is not relevant at this point. It could be either a profit-oriented start-up, and academic research group, a governmental program, or an urban living lab (ULL) (Bergvall-Kåreborn & Ståhlbröst 2009, Bulkeley et al. 2018).

In a more accurate way, “an ‘urban laboratory’ is a space designed for interactions between an urban context and a research process to create the conditions for this experimentation, creating new forms of urbanization through testing, developing or applying social practices/or a technology to a building or wider infrastructure system.” (Marvin & Silver, 2016). Many of those urban labs are framed on a context either of “crisis” and “transition” (Geels, 2005; Coutard & Rutherford, 2011; Bulkeley et al. 2015; Calvet-Mir & March, 2017; Calzada, 2018) or “smart governance” (Coe et al. 2001; Odendaal, 2013; Herrschel & Dierwechter, 2015; Noveck 2015).

Let me draw first your attention to the idea of the urban living laboratory as a figure that can contain the other three kinds of urban labs. The ULL is a site “devised to design, test and learn from social and technical innovation in real time” (McCormick & Hartmann, n.d.). This notion of laboratory has to two main properties: “(1) involving users early on in the innovation process, and (2) experimentation in real world settings, aiming to provide structure and governance to user participation in the innovation process” (Almirall and Wareham, 2008).

Most of those urban experimental spaces are strongly related to the nowadays trending concept of “smart city” as a sort of sociotechnical positivist program of innovation and development into a context of creative economy (Florida, 2014). (See: Eriksson et al. 2005; Bliek et al. 2010; Schaffers et al. 2011; Cosgrave, 2013;). With this background in mind, we can locate the research efforts of those platforms in a production oriented logic of technologies, goods and services made for alternative niches (Leminen et al. 2012) in a framework of crisis.

But let’s return to the primary notion of the “urban laboratory” with the main idea of isolating this concept in its more elemental form as “a located place for experimenting in urban areas.” We have, thus, a particular place producing knowledge in/about either specific locations or definite spatialized networks happening in an urban context. Also, we can use the notion of the “laboratory” as an ontological strategy for decomposing special kinds of associations that are transforming big urban agglomerations but that are not properly labeled as “urban laboratories” due to, for example, they were conceived in a different context.

Nevertheless, this strategy is neither just a semantic exercise for studying the meaning of a concept nor a forced metaphor designed for pushing the usage of a term in a dissimilar scenario. I mean, I am not interested in using the figure of the “laboratory” because I find it an attractive analogy or due to I consider that doing it I am implementing an “STS vocabulary.” No. Also, my intentions are not framing urban laboratories on a map for selling the idea of positive innovation and collaborative creativity.

The objective of using the metaphor of “urban laboratories” outside of the sociotechnical imaginaries (Jasanoff & Kim, 2015) of smart cities (Sadowski & Bendor, 2018) and corporate urban laboratory platforms is to unravel a manner of producing knowledge about urban spaces that is not exclusive of trending logics tied to the “smart-creative” urban explosion (Florida, 2003). The idea of experimenting in the city —that “incoherent set of spaces” (Sassen, 2014) tied in an arbitrary-administrative way— is not a new process from a few decades ago; but the implementation of this notion for structuring a working academic-productive field is a recent one.

Summarizing, with all of this I am proposing here to take the idea of the “laboratory” as a methodological construction for talking about those controlled stabilizations (public/private offices, citizen initiatives, academic research groups…) that are (1) using urban locations as platforms for experimenting and transforming the world outside, as well as (2) acting as oligopticons (Latour, 2005), as particular located places where the social is produced.

An urban laboratory is, thus, an oligoptic space composed by three main characteristics: 1. A limited-focused vision on specific locations-issues-controversies 2. A capacity for affecting spatialized urban networks 3. A constantly action of being displaced to the society (Latour, 1986)  extending its practices beyond its walls but keeping its boundaries well demarcated.