Living lab takes a fresh look at sustainability

Issue 40 – July 2012

Massey University is initiating a new era of partnership with local government with the launch of its Living Lab.

The Vice-Chancellor Steve Maharey launched the Massey University Living Lab at a function in the Museum Building on the Wellington campus on 28 June.

The Living Lab will use student researchers to work in partnership with local government to help understand and address sustainability issues. 'Living Lab has grown out of three fruitful partnerships with local government that we developed through the university's Challenging Sustainability project,' says Dr Allanah Ryan, project leader and head of the School of People, Environment and Planning. 'This project proved that innovative solutions emerge when we bring together local government and diverse university disciplines – designers and social scientists working with city planners and community members – to create a space where we can look at complicated, thorny issues afresh.

'Regional councils have the strictures of the Resource Management Act to worry about; city and district councils have district plan changes to manage; university researchers focus on producing good science and design. We all recognise the need to connect better with each other, but our differing funding, organisational structures, and time frames for action can make this difficult. Living Lab is an attempt to overcome some of these barriers, by providing local government and the university with a flexible way to come together and create projects that academics, students, and council staff can work on together.'

Living Lab projects are likely to be one-offs, tailored to the needs of the council(s) involved, taking a fresh look at big questions like food security, climate change, and sustainable land use. 'A project might start with an unconference: a session or series of sessions where council staff, academics, students, and maybe members of the community meet and converse in an open-ended way about an issue. Then we might deploy student researchers to dig into the issues more deeply. Sustainable solutions emerge through analysing research results, applying creative minds, and lots of dialogue.'

The Living Lab concept was developed and honed through the university's recent Challenging Sustainability initiative. Project teams included academics and students from the fields of sociology, geography, planning, spatial design, and agri-business, breaking down academic silos and making their skills more readily available to local government. The projects were all broadly about sustainable land use and included work with:

  • Hawke's Bay Regional Council: developing resilient engagement and communication strategies for a central Hawke's Bay water storage project by analysing stakeholder segmentation


  • Palmerston North City Council: helping address concerns about the loss of productive land to lifestyle blocks by talking to farmers about why they subdivide


  • Wellington City Council: experimenting with how design can foster sustainable urban food systems (so-called edible cities), including 'pop up' gardens in Kilbirnie and the downtown Civic Square.


  • To get in touch with Living Lab: livinglab@massey.ac.nz and www.livinglabnz.org.

Summarised from Massey University press release, 26 June 2012

Published in business and ICT.