“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” So said the economist John Maynard Keynes, whose thinking was shaped by growing up during the Great Depression of the 1930s. As the Midlands joins other economies around the world in recovering from the great pandemic of 2020-21, it’s a fair bet that Keynes would have approved of the growing interest in Living Labs.
A means of getting away from innovators working in isolation, Living Labs have an important role to play the future of research, whether that’s in private business or academia. The idea is to bring together public, private and people stakeholder groups and get them meaningfully engaged in any given project. The belief is that, in the high stakes business of cutting edge research and development, you are going to greatly enhance your chances of successfully innovating by getting more feedback earlier on.
The concept promotes an environment with a high degree of interaction and knowledge flow extending beyond the physical boundaries of any given business park. A Living Lab is not something that can be simply constructed as a building. It needs people to stimulate multiple levels of interactions between stakeholder groups. This in itself should ultimately generate the critical mass to establish a ‘way of working and a way of living’.
The concept puts a focus on solving real problems (societal or commercial) by engaging end-users early – in other words, user-centric product development. Whilst one could brand Open Innovation as a type of Living Lab, various studies indicate that it is clear that Open Innovation is only one component of Living Labs. Open Innovation can be driven by companies or institutions but, of itself, it is no guarantee of a successful outcome.
Many Living Labs are University-based with campuses used as test-beds for new services and technologies. Critically, all Living Labs focus on the key challenges faced by communities and, in many cases, society in general. To varying degrees, these Living Labs engage with businesses and third parties to co-develop solutions or new products, to actively transfer technology and know-how between the public, private and third.
Living Labs need to be part of the discussion as the rich tapestry of innovation facilities distributed across the Midlands develops. Our research for Invest Midlands show that 19% of the UK’s incubators and 12% of the country’s accelerators are housed in the region, supporting life sciences, technology, manufacturing and engineering. (Remarkably, 60% of the UK’s accelerators are sited in the ‘Golden Triangle’ London, the South East and East of England).
Best in class innovation space today is, in any case, moving us away from the standard science park model towards integrated innovation districts. For example, Birmingham Health Innovation Campus is being developed “in the heart of a critical cluster of health excellence.”
With links to the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Trust, Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Trust, Birmingham Health Partners and the University of Birmingham, the development has the intention of becoming a world leading healthcare technologies campus offering high quality innovation facilities for businesses working in medtech, precision medicine, diagnostics and digital healthcare. The Living Labs concept can bring these exciting schemes to life and help the Midlands get to grips with the innovation challenges facing every sector in the regional economy.
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