Promoting citizen agency in living labs - what still needs to be done?

Promoting agency through agile pilot programs does not necessarily create organic agency in the area, but maintains facilitated agency. However, facilitated agency can be a good way to build trust in the neighborhood, something that is needed for the organic agency to rise.

This blog post is based on a short presentation I gave at the Why the World Needs Anthropologists conference in Oslo 25.10.2019. The theme of the conference was sustaining cities, thus I chose to speak about living labs and citizen commitment as Kenno has been working with living labs and agile piloting processes around Helsinki.

The title of the presentation was How living labs help develop sustainable cities by creating agency in the cities and what still needs to be done? The presentation aims at answering the question of, by stating that promoting agency through agile pilot programs does not necessarily create organic agency in the area, but maintains facilitated agency. However, facilitated agency can be a good way to build trust in the neighborhood, something that is needed for the organic agency to rise.
Living labs enable user-driven innovation in real-life environments, and they are places to experiment and where new solutions are developed. You can read a more specific description of living labs here.

In the Jätkäsaari case example I’m using here the living lab is used as an innovation platform for agile piloting programs aiming to tackle mobility challenges or offering new mobility solutions. The Jätkäsaari area itself is a physical, living place, a new neighborhood in Helsinki, Finland.

As Jätkäsaari is actually an island it poses some logistical challenges for traffic. On the island there is also one of the largest ports in Europe for international passenger cruises and cargo that causes challenges to traffic arrangements. That is one of the reasons why the area is chosen as a platform for innovations dealing with smart mobility.

This type of a living lab means that there are so called agile piloting processes organized by the City of Helsinki and it’s innovation company happening in the area. Startups and other organizations can put their innovations, products and services out in the open in the living lab environment and enable co-creating with the actual users.

In the point of view of those piloting in the area Jätkäsaari is an excellent area for that because the citizens are motivated in taking part in activities that aim at bettering their area. The area is still heavily under construction which means that the atmosphere is forward-looking and future-oriented. The negative side is that the infrastructure in the area is not finished yet. For example map applications do not always have the most up-to-date information about the area, which might cause problems as many pilots rely heavily on map technologies.

So, what is the agency of the residents in the living Lab?

For the city this kind of area, as Jätkäsaari is, does sound like a perfect area for piloting: an area with continuous work-in-progress where it is okay to try out temporary solutions, with no strong identity to conflict with new ideas, no opposition for change, and people who are willing to participate and have agency in their neighborhood. But how does it look like from the residents’ perspective?

Pilot projects in the area have a strong background in what the residents think about their neighborhood. Citizens have several opportunities to affect their neighborhood as a part of the agile piloting program, for example: there are workshops that gather information about the challenges in the area. Challenges that the next piloting round should be solving, are decided in those workshops together with residents and city officials. Based on these challenges there will be an open call for startups, companies and other organizations to come up with solutions they can pilot in the area.

This is all very good. But.

Promoting agency through agile pilot programs does not necessarily create organic agency in the area, but maintains facilitated agency.

It means that if the agency only exists in the piloting processes, it’s not organic in a sense of how people would behave outside these pilots.

So, from the perspective of the agency of the residents, what still needs to be done?
The main thing to look into is, how facilitated the agency is at the moment, and what kind of support is needed in order to create organic agency. However, facilitated agency can be a good way to build trust in the neighborhood, something that is needed for the organic agency to rise.
It’s different to promote participation when it is convenient and needed from the perspective of the city, through the piloting programs. But the real question that remains is how to support real, continuous agency outside these pilots.

Ethnographic research can help create an environment where agency can bloom organically. Through ethnography the key elements of the area can be distinguished and turned into winning elements in the communication process.

Let’s conclude by summarizing the good things and how to make the agency of citizens even better. It is not for one organization to solve all this, but cooperation between several is needed. There is a strong need for different agents for different roles.

What is good about in this type of living lab:

- A new neighborhood that is still under construction enables agile piloting that inhabitants can easily participate in.

- There are several ways that citizens can take action in their own neighborhood and experience agency.

- Through publicity of the area people who move there already know about piloting and are more willing than average to take part in innovative piloting processes.

And what still needs to be done:

- Communication processes about the ongoing pilots, their schedule and ways to participate, in multiple languages, should be developed further.

- There should be better understanding of the area’s atmosphere and finding out what works in the area. This could be gained through ethnographic research.

- It should be clear how to encourage and support people to create their own agency in the area, not only through facilitated agency.

Let's all come together to build better cities for the citizens!

Photo: Citizen workshop in Jätkäsaari, 2019