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Dissertation on design-driven living labs

The thesis "Living the change: Designerly Modes of real-life Experimentation" is defended.

Illustration: Martin Sjöman

Martin Sjöman defends the thesis "Living the change: Designerly Modes of real-life Experimentation." A thesis defence is open to the public and everyone who is interested in the subject are welcome to attend!

Time: Thu 2023-09-21 13.00 - 16.00

Location: Kollegiesalen

Video link:

Language: English


The sustainability transitions required to address the climate crisis cannot be achieved by technology alone; radical lifestyle changes are needed. To contribute to meeting this critical challenge, design must move its focus from individual needs, desires, and behaviors to the level of the complex socio-technical systems that shape our society. There have been several calls for research that is action-, future- and learning-oriented, to accelerate sustainability transitions.

In a broad sense, the research concerns how design practice can be used and further developed to this end. There is growing consensus that real-life experimentation is required to understand and realize the potentials of sustainability innovations, and an emerging experimental turn can be seen in the proliferation of approaches such as living labs, city labs and transition labs, as well as in policy experiments, pilots, demonstrations, and field trials.

There is a broad movement in society to involve users or citizens in learning and experimentation in the complexity of real-life contexts, but as will be discussed in this dissertation, most approaches do not realize these ambitions in practice. This dissertation presents an approach for design-driven, or designerly living labs for the real-life exploration and demonstration of possible sustainable concepts and futures. Living labs are often described as having their roots in design, and this dissertation represents a move to reclaim that term for more open-ended modes of experimentation. By living the change, these designerly labs have provided rich insights into the entangled social-technical nature of sustainable futures, and identified barriers and pathways towards them.

The dissertation is based on detailed and operative accounts of seven such designerly living labs carried out by design researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden from 2014 to 2023. A cross-case analysis is presented in order to identify and validate the key characteristics of this emerging approach, and how they connect to design practice. The analysis also investigates how these labs relate to other research approaches in fields such as transition studies, user innovation, participatory design, and action research.

Designerly living labs is positioned as an alternative and complement to more mainstream approaches to real-life experimentation — specifically for the early-stage framing of sustainability issues and in exploring sustainable future concepts and lifestyles.

Main findings include a number of factors that were found to demarcate different modes and understandings of real-life experimentation research. These factors include the involvement of users as co-researchers in exploration rather than as testers or co-creators in innovation, and how this more open-ended aim for learning may conflict with notions of developing, evaluating and scaling up. There is also a discussion on how different understandings of these factors can lead to confusion and conflict in transdisciplinary research and offer recommendations for organizing new research projects of this sort.



Dan Lockton, Assistant professor, Eindhofen University of Technology

Evaluation committee

Professor Thomas Markussen, University of Southern Denmark

Associate Professor Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer, TU Delft

Associate Professor Idil Gaziulusoy, Aalto University

Suppleant: Professor Emeritus Lisbeth Svengren Holm, SU


Professor Sofia Ritzen, KTH


Main supervisor: Professor Sara Ilstedt, KTH

Supervisor: Researcher, Susanne Nilsson, KTH

Belongs to: Mistra SAMS
Last changed: Sep 20, 2023