30 March 2007

Living Labs conference in Belgium

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i-City PDA
This week Experientia partner Mark Vanderbeeken was in Belgium to attend a conference where a Living Lab project in the cities of Hasselt and Leuven was presented.

“Living Labs” is a new concept for R&D and innovation to boost the Lisbon strategy for jobs and growth in Europe. There are big differences between running Living Labs but they share a vision of human-centric involvement and its potential for development of new ICT-based services and products. It is all done by bringing different stakeholders together in a co-creative way, and by involving people in the streets and the users and user communities as contributors and co-creators of new innovations. In short, they are people-centred technology testing grounds in real-life situations.

The initiative is sponsored by the EU (wiki), but funding comes mostly from national and regional governments and private companies.

The Belgian Living Lab in the small city of Hasselt focuses on wireless technology and location-based services that run on WiFi-enabled PDA’s. About 750 people currently take part in this pilot study. According to Belgian Living Lab coordinator Guido van der Mullen, the process runs like this: (1) thematic working groups (e.g. on healthcare, mobility or culture and tourism) come together to develop ideas for possible applications or industry partners deliver these ideas directly; (2) a team of software developers then develop an alpha version of the application software; (3) this gets tested with all or a section of the users in the Living Lab; (4) input from the user testing is fed into the development of the beta version of the software; (5) this gets tested again; (6) after which the final version of the software gets developed.

Most of the current Living Labs, including the Belgian project, only involve the participating inhabitants in assessing how they react to applications, i.e. as testers, but not in the application ideation stage, which follows a more traditional top-down model still: experts who have ideas about possible applications.

As stated by Olavi Luotonen, the EU’s Living Lab portfolio coordinator, the European Commission hopes that the second wave participants will expand the human-centred approach also to application ideation and not just to application testing. In fact, some of the first wave project are already experimenting with this approach, including the Testbed Botnia project in Northern Sweden. The Botnia project is managed by Mikael Börjeson, who also runs the curiously named “Centre for Distance-spanning Technology” located above the arctic circle, he told me, and CoreLabs, which acts as an operational arm of the European Commission to insure coordination between all the Living Labs.

Fientje Moerman, the Vice-Minister President of the Flemish Goverment and Flemish Minister for Economy, Enterprise, Science, Innovation and Foreign Trade (a mouthful), was particularly pleased with the work done in Hasselt so far. She provided an additional 4 million euro contribution for the project’s 2007 budget and is now exploring how to expand the concept to all bigger cities in Flanders, and turn the Hasselt project into an i-Flanders project.

This is all part of a larger strategy of the energetic Belgian minister to make design and creativity core pillars of her innovation strategy, as demonstrated by the recent founding of such initiatives as Design Flanders and Flanders District of Creativity.

The Hasselt team meanwile has spun off a for-profit company called “City Live” which aims to commercialise its “Community Services Platform”, i.e. the central software that runs all the i-City applications.

The applications we got to see during an interactive tour of the city were as such not that revolutionary and reminded me of many mobile 2.0 applications that have been launched recently, but the nice thing is of course that they are highly location specific and entirely free for the end-user (as the signal comes from a series of wifi hotspots): an application to locate your friends in real time on a map, a tool to upload news items on a local citizen-generated news service, an application to alert the city government via a photo tool about possible problems with roads, rubbish or public furniture, etcetera.

The interface itself was interesting, and – this is nice – the result of a people-centred design approach. The standard issue (HP) PDA (see photo) is divided in four rows: the top one features common applications such as calling, texting, emailing, etc. The second row features people’s favourite applications. The third row is for location-specific applications, e.g. if you were standing next to the station the mobile website of the bus company and the railway company showed up, and maybe also some descriptions of nearby bars. The bottom row finally is for navigation. Each row could be scrolled by a stylus or by touch-sensitive browsing very similar to what you can find on the Apple iPhone.

(Anyone interested in starting a Living Lab should submit an Expression of Interest before 30 April.)

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