The Lab, the new social fabric of Internet

1. The new meme.

On the 5th of September 2014, the European Network of Living Labs announced the results of the 8th Wave of membership and officially welcomes the members approved during the 2014 call for membership. This welcoming ceremony took place during the proceedings of the ENoLL annual Living Lab conference, OpenLivingLab Days, hosted this year at the De Nieuwe Liefde in Amsterdam, the Netherlands

25 new living labs were accredited. Some of them came from European countries, but an increasing amount of them were from places like Adelaide Living Laboratory in Australia, RehabMaLL (Canada), or Smart Jeddah Living Lab (Saudi Arabia). Two more Catalan Lls were recognized:  Health Care Innovation Lab Orbital40 in Terrassa and the UAB Smart Campus in Bellaterra. 

Step by step the living labs are getting momentum at the global level. At the end of the conference, it was announced that the 2015 meeting will be in Istanbul, Turkey, hosted by Basakshair Living Lab, one of the 18 cities of the splendorous metropolis of the Bosphor. Lls will be looking to the East next year.

Internet is coming of age. After two decades of basic technology developments the network is ready to change economy and society. The next internet is the internet economy and society. Until now what we have seen is a new revolutionary technology connecting the old economic, political and social structures of the industrial era. The old academic institutions are still there. The old economic corporations are the same. The old nation states still conserve their ancient power. The disruptive spirit of the Internet engineers and scientists has not seen accompanied with a myriad of innovations coming from new generation of economic, social and political “engineers”. On the contrary, the lack of such wave of innovations is putting in danger the disruptive principles of the Internet, allowing the renaissance of new trusts of the Net, like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, the GAFA family. What we have now is Vint Cerf serving Adam Smith, or XXI century technology assisting the survival of XVIII century economic ideas.

However, the opportunities are there. Internet emerged as the experimental technology of a network of computer scientists and engineers. It is still an open facility and, more important, a laboratory, a collaboratory in terms of W.Wulff1. As Internet has expanded dramatically in the last 20 years coming from a few millions of academics to almost 3.000 million users, the experimental nature of the network has also expanded and generating this hunger for permanent and permissionless innovation. The Lab has emerged as a common denominator of new institutions emerging from the Net, or old organizations animated with this spirit of novelty and change. As in the last 20 years the Net became a meme, a unit for carrying cultural ideas and hopes2, the next 20 years the Lab could be the “motte d’ordre” of the digital world. 

2. “Empowering everyone to innovate”. 

In Amsterdam, on September 4th, the Council of European Network of Living Labs met also. We needed to define some common vision in order to help the growing community of living labs to share some common value. Artur Serra from i2cat opened the field presenting as a common idea of Living Labs the motto: “Innovation is for everyone”. If in the 90s, the Internet Society adopted the idea of “internet is for everyone”, maybe next step could be to train every citizen with innovate competencies using Internet. After an intensive discussion, the consensus appointed a shared vision formulated by Jarmo Eskelinen as “empowering everyone to innovate”. 

The living lab movement is not the only network embodying a lab structure. Last June 2014, the Fab10 took place in Barcelona as the global congress of the fablab network. The success was impressive. A new network of makers is changing the way we think about manufacturing, democratizing the industrial fabric. Behind the “smart city” showcases in many cities there is a lively community of urban innovators, co-working spaces, citilabs, which are driving the open data efforts. Transmedia labs, some of them coming from the MIT’s Medilab tradition, are now converging with hackerspaces and creative entrepreneurs trying to raise a different vision of cities much more as playable spaces like in Bristol, UK. Even traditional big companies redefine their classical innovation strategies starting new “co-innovation spaces” like the Spanish company Mercadona, open to work with their clients in a living lab mode3. The Network Society is transforming itself into a Lab Society or simply The Lab. 

3. Towards a universal innovation system?

We are in a historical crossroad. In Europe we have produced in the last century different universal systems, after big social and economic crisis that has been covering the basic services of education and health for the whole population. Now it is arguable if these systems should be managed by the States or provided by private initiative or a combination of both, but none is questioning this social right. The innovation systems have appeared very recently mostly after the 2nd World War. The need of such military conflict put in place national strategies to set up a system that gathered the best scientists and industrial labs of the country under the direction of the national agencies. DARPA in the US has been instrumental in supporting the pioneer research on “information processing”, then “computer science and technology”. In the majority of the developed countries the model has crystallized in the 70s in the form of Triple Helix, connecting academia, big corporations and national governments. But this model does not explain what is happening with the advent of the Internet in the 90s. 

More recently, in the European Union strategy towards 2020 a new model called Quadruple Helix is getting a place. Who is the fourth actor? In fact, it can be everyone beyond the traditional players. It can be a local municipality, or a set of schools, or a group of artists. In the next years we can see an expansion of the base of the pyramid.  Maybe it is time to consider if innovation should be also accepted as the new universal system, the kind of structure that the coming knowledge society needs. Living labs should be redesigned as citizens labs as basis for such new systems.

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