Plenty of initiatives around the world aspire to contribute to social change towards more sustainable and inclusive societies. Within this global landscape, the I-CHANGE project stands out as a pivotal force driving transformative initiatives. Specifically, its Living Lab activities play a central role in implementing societal change, actioning at different societal levels such as individual, group, organizational and often different policy levels, in addition to various geographical scales.
A sustainability change can be driven or hindered by people and their actions in a variety of networks. A change may be mental (i.e. change in thinking, beliefs, or values) or it can increase capacities or impact resources and materialize into actions affecting governance, infrastructures or institutions. A larger sustainability change requires interaction and collaboration between people and groups of people. Furthermore, a sustainability change often requires learning, new knowledge and knowledge co-creation and co-production, which involves managing complex set of psychological, social, cultural and institutional interactions.
However, in many cases, the academic focus is on technology, and social and cultural dimensions are, more or less, neglected. Insights from systems and behavioral sciences could provide valuable insights. Unfortunately, the academic literature on the intersection between social transformation (larger and deeper change) and individual behavior change is scarce; indeed, there is very limited use of individual-level, psychological theories. This limits the transformation narrative to either a broad long term social process or transformation is simply the journey of individuals, neither of which present a complete picture of the complex process.
Living Labs – one approach to initiate a social change or transition – seek to foster deliberate engagement of different actors in response to selected sustainability challenges. Most Living Labs aim for long-term contributions and sustainability changes but are seldomly evaluated on whether the aims become realized in practice. One reason being the difficulties with measurements. This is especially the case when a research project has only a very limited time frame for funding, which is often the case. The impacts may appear only after the actual project has ended. Further, as no single actor holds all knowledge or power over how the targeted change develops or should develop, such Living Lab approaches benefit from bringing in a multitude of actors with careful attention to e.g. dynamics of power and co-creation. Because of the complexity of the contemporary challenges, such change processes cannot be planned in detail and seldomly even controlled by a single research project. However, there is very active research on how to assess e.g. Living labs.
Williams and Robinson’s assessment criteria for change experiments such as Living Labs includes three categories as follows:
- Process – fairness and inclusivity of the process itself, the adaptive and reflexive capacity of the process. These create short term outputs.
- Societal effects – also short- or medium-term outputs such as individual capacity development, networks and relationships, and institutional (policy or organizational) changes.
- Sustainability transition impacts – longer term impacts that reflect changes in socio-technical systems and governance, interlinking behaviors, reinforcement at multiple policy levels, changing relationships in actors and practice.
However, there is hope – a very carefully targeted short-term effect may lead to a long-term change or transition of certain systems (e.g. food and energy systems) and that may finally lead to a larger societal transformation. There are links between the individual change and the larger scale change; individual change can “ripple” around in a surrounding group and cause, for example community capacity building. For instance, changing fundamental values and beliefs are related to a transformative change. Participants of a Living Lab can learn as an individual as well as a part of a group. Learning contexts are defined by the participant perspective, i.e., whether an individual, a group, an organization or policy actors are activated to address a sustainability issue. Holmén states: “The distinction between effects (short and medium term) and impacts (long term) is important to note as changes in sustainable systems often take place over longer time periods than short term labs projects”. This can be seen as an important connection between short-term behavioral change developing towards longer-term societal change i.e. impact.
Bögel, P. M., & Upham, P. (2018). Role of psychology in sociotechnical transitions studies: Review in relation to consumption and technology acceptance. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 28, 122–136. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eist.2018.01.002
Halbe, J., & Pahl-Wostl, C. (2019). A Methodological Framework to Initiate and Design Transition Governance Processes. Sustainability, 11(3). https://doi.org/10.3390/su11030844
Holmén, J., Williams, S., & Holmberg, J. (2022). Comparing sustainability transition labs across process, effects and impacts: Insights from Canada and Sweden. Energy Research & Social Science, 89, 102522. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2022.102522
Parris, H., Sorman, A. H., Valor, C., Tuerk, A., & Anger-Kraavi, A. (2022). Cultures of transformation: An integrated framework for transformative action. Environmental Science & Policy, 132, 24–34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2022.02.008
Williams, S., & Robinson, J. (2020). Measuring sustainability: An evaluation framework for sustainability transition experiments. Environmental Science & Policy, 103, 58–66. https://doi-org.ezproxy.utu.fi/10.1016/j.envsci.2019.10.012