TATuP thematic focus on real world labs is looking at a new form of research

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An article by Richard Beecroft & Alexandra Quint

District Future is – from the scientific perspective – a real world lab. But what does this mean? This question is answered in the current issue of TATuP – the ITAS journal on technology assessment with its thematic focus on real world labs. It is now available online and provides orientation on the current real world lab research in Germany. It also reports about District Future. Click! And start reading!

What is a real world lab? How do real world labs work? Who can join them and how does successful participation look like? Are there other real world labs like District Future? These and other questions are addressed in the recent TATuP issue with its thematic focus on real world labs. TATuP is a scientific journal on technology assessment published by ITAS. The current issue is now available online and free of charge.

Real world labs are a young form of research. They aim at intensifying the collaboration between science and civil society towards a sustainable development by carrying out analyses and experiments and gaining insights together. Not an easy task – for both sides. Therefore it is worth taking a closer look at the different experiences gained by the first real world labs in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, Germany and elsewhere. Some of them are portrayed in the thematic focus “Reallabore als Orte der Nachhaltigkeitsforschung und Transformation” (Real world labs as places of sustainability research and transformation).

What is it about?

As an introduction to this rather unwieldy topic, the editors outline the experiences on which the development of real world labs was based and what is so special about them. Of course there has been research before which dealt with real problems of everyday life and included citizens in different ways. There has also been long-established research oriented along large ethical concepts like sustainable development. However, many of these approaches only focused on a narrow topic and were only short-lived: individual case studies which were not able to provide the framework for larger transformations. Here real world labs are meant to step in. They should find out if and how this could be possible. Since the concept of real world labs is so new, many key terms have to be defined first. Real world lab research ties in with many different sciences, therefore the corresponding muddle of terms can be quite large. In order to contribute to an improvement here, the second article describes its key terms in a glossary (de).

First real world labs in Baden-Württemberg, Germany

Several real world labs are also discussed in the thematic focus. It is no coincidence that the following examples are all taken from Baden- Württemberg – they were all initiated by a funding initiative of the federal state. While the seven real world labs of the first round are based on similar methodologies, the selected topics are very different.

Freiburg’s real world lab Knowledge Dialogue Northern Black Forest (de) accompanies the establishment of the Black Forest National Park. A number of conflicts emerged in that region in the wake of its establishment, some of which still exist. The real world lab is therefore looking for potentials for the sustainable development of the region. In parallel, it also analyzes ecological processes in the new national park. In the article we also learn about the special framework conditions that rural areas provide for real world lab research which usually takes place in the cities.

The Urban Office Heidelberg (de) has a theoretical starting point: the concept of knowledge society. Several case studies in Heidelberg analyze its relevance for urban development. It is interesting to see that the real world lab Urban Office has to examine itself as a “place of knowledge” in the area under investigation – it is its own experiment.

The Tübingen Energy Lab (de) is looking at the energy transition in Tübingen. The text exemplifies its experiences with the educational opportunities in the real world lab which are otherwise hardly discussed in real world lab research. The example of the Children’s University of Tübingen does not only introduce the different aspects of education for sustainable development. It also ties in methodologically with real world lab work. This makes it clear that real world labs are also places of learning. The authors also raise the question how children can and should be included in real world lab research.

And despite all the differences of today’s real world labs, there are also significant commonalities: large efforts for the establishment of the real world lab’s infrastructure, high flexibility requirements on the lab to meet a changing “reality”, but also to pick up the results of the learning processes gone through. In addition, there are often problems regarding the time intervals for research, teaching, urban and spatial planning, and the dynamics of civic initiatives. And finally disciplinary science can be irritated by the new and transdisciplinarily oriented research format real world lab. However, it is important to reach those scientists only working within their disciplines and win them over for real world lab processes. This is the only way to advertise and spread this new form of research. However, there are also inspiring and encouraging experiences, like the insight that the educational aspect of real world labs has an enormous potential, that transformation processes can indeed be started, and that results are achieved in the small framework of real world labs that can have a large impact on society.

Where is real world lab research heading?

The first real world labs are an experiment that is thoroughly researched itself. At the end, some of the accompanying researchers formulate in provisional theses how real world lab research has to be set up in the future. They see a large potential for this new format to bring together science, civil society, and other partners for a fruitful co-operation. But efforts have to be made on both sides to open up the ivory tower of science. Scientists have to learn how to think through their work from the practical perspective again. And citizens have to get into the peculiarities of science which can still make a large contribution to the work on societal problems. So why not make a start with this journal? All the articles of the TATuP thematic focus on real world labs are freely accessible: (de)

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