Reimagining Urban Living Labs: Enter the Urban Drama Lab

3 Aug 2023, 10:28 a.m.
Cecilie Sachs Olsen

Urban Drama Lab pilot in Drammen, Norway. Photo by Lucas Leonardo Ibanez-Fæhn.


Urban Living Labs (ULLs) have, in the last decade, mushroomed across Europe and beyond. Offering a ‘real-world testing ground’ for urban innovation and transformation, ULLs are seen to foster new collaborative and trans-disciplinary ways to address environmental, social, economic, and technological urban challenges (McCormick and Hartman, 2017: 2). One of the key potentials of ULLs in this regard is that they provide a presumably ‘neutral’ arena in which a broad range of stakeholders may express and negotiate a diverse set of interests to deliver innovative and transformative improvements across the urban milieu.

However, critiques foreground that ULLs are not neutral arenas, but political ones. They point to how project logics, dominant stakeholders and managerial understandings of social innovation exert power over ULLs by representing people and issues in certain ways. For example, while citizens are often uncritically situated as the beneficiary of ULLs, the focus on efficient delivery and implementation may narrow possibilities of contestation, reflexivity, and deliberation. In turn, this might result in issues getting depoliticized and the most powerful actors end up getting their way (Taylor, 2021; Torrens and Wirth, 2019; Bruling and Svensson, 2011; Munck af Rosenschöld and Wolf, 2017). Yet, despite these critiques, in practice, little or no attention is given to the framing of stakeholders and issues in ULLs and the kinds of collaboration, subject positions and possibilities for self-representation that are enabled within these framings.

To fill this gap, our discussion paper addresses issues of representation in ULLs. Our unique contribution is that we do this by drawing on studies of theatre and performance, and accordingly propose a new, theatre-driven manifestation of Urban Living Labs: enter the Urban Drama Lab (UDL). Theatre is a well-suited medium for critically scrutinizing practices and issues of representation. While ULLs promises direct access to the real-world in a presumably neutral setting, the theatre is, by definition, a representation of the real-world and engages us personally to make critical judgements on the fidelity of such representations (Kelleher, 2009). Hence, the theatre works as an active and generative force in questioning given claims about stakeholders and interests.

By introducing the Urban Drama Lab, we accordingly examine how various representations of stakeholders, and their interests, might be differently produced and negotiated in Urban Living Labs. The field of theatre and performance foregrounds that ‘real-world testing grounds’ can never be free from structures of power but that it can rather set up a frame in which these structures can be scrutinized, assessed, and possibly remodeled and rearranged.

To illustrate this new function of the Urban Living Lab, we compare ULLs and UDLs in a table that outlines their key differences in terms of aim, approach, activity, setting, methods, participants, (trans)local ends and outcomes. What the table highlights is that while ULLs are instrumental and oriented around the question ‘what can this action do for the city?’, UDLs are processual, asking the question: ‘how can we use everyone and everything around us to encourage conditions of possibility?’ The UDL accordingly provide a space in which actors may collectively experiment with how ‘the urban’ is apprehended, organized, and inhabited. Key here is that instead of trying to neutralize differences, the aim is to facilitate a space that accommodates the many different practices, beliefs, feelings, and knowledges that constitute different stakeholders and interests. This way, the UDL avoids transforming potential conflicts over what is common into a simple management of (assumed) common interests, and rather bring to the fore an initial discussion around what is common. The UDL accordingly acknowledges that we could always change our perspectives and relate differently, and thus foments the emergence of new types of knowledge and new understandings of what constitutes abstract issues such as ‘the good city’. We end the paper with an example of an artistic practice that demonstrates how this approach may permit the questioning and disruption of unsustainable conventions and urban orders, and the emergence and consolidation of new forms of collective engagement with alternative visions of urban futures.

There is a long tradition for urban research and planning to draw on artistic practices to develop new collaborative formats for urban development. The new contribution that we bring to debates in urban studies, is that this is the first analysis and elaborate conceptualization of how theatre might offer new, critical tools and understandings of the ways in which Urban Living Labs might engage differently with the representation of stakeholders and their interests in processes of urban transformation. Moving beyond present critiques of Urban Living Labs, this is the first analysis to propose an alternative manifestation of Urban Living Labs that addresses some of these critiques.



Brulin G and Svensson L (2011) Managing Sustainable Development Programmes: A Learning Approach to Change. Burlington: Routledge.

Kelleher J (2019) Theatre & Politics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, p.10.

McCormick K and Hartman C (2017) The Emerging Landscapes of Urban Living Labs. Characteristics, Practices and Examples. Report, Urban Europe and Governance of Urban Sustainability Transitions (GUST), June.

Munck af Rosenschöld J and Wolf S A (2017) Toward projectified environmental governance? Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 49(2): 273–292.

Taylor L (2021) Exploitation as innovation: research ethics and the governance of experimentation in the urban living lab. Regional Studies 55(12): 1902–1912.

Torrens J and Wirth T (2021) Experimentation or projectification of urban change? A critical appraisal and three steps forward. Urban Transformations 3(8): 1–17.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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