28 June 2018 • Anneke Dam
InnoLabs: students, residents, entrepreneurs and civil servants work on a better city
If it were up to the Municipality of The Hague, there would be InnoLabs in every district in the city. There would be neighbourhood places where residents, companies, municipal civil servants, students and lecturers could work on new ways to tackle urban issues. From poverty alleviation, youth and safety to energy transition and labour participation. To achieve this, they would collaborate with knowledge institutions such as The Hague University of Applied Sciences. “Living labs could not be successful without trust.”
The InnoLabs are an initiative of the Municipality of The Hague to experiment with new methods of working. “A few years ago, alderman Rabin Baldewsingh of Social Affairs talked about the Municipality going through a transition. The municipality wishes to change its relationship to its citizens. Now community networks consist of residents, professionals and local governments that want to solve issues themselves,” explains Wâtte Zijlstra, programme coordinator of the Connected Learning research theme at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. “The municipality has to go along with this and come down from its ivory tower. Urban issues are becoming more complex and need a multidisciplinary approach.”
A bridge function
THUAS has gained experience with InnoLabs in different neighbourhoods such as Mariahoeve, Moerwijk, Duindorp and Laak since 2015. These ‘living labs’ function as a bridge between residents and local government, explains Zijlstra. “The ‘system world’ of municipalities is far removed from the ‘living world’ of residents. More and more urban issues are emerging that cannot be solved with standardised legislation or regulations,” he says. “This gap needs to be bridged. An InnoLab functions as a laboratory where we search for new solutions in an experimental way. This is done with residents, professionals, governments and knowledge institutions based on the conviction that urban issues should be dealt with in part by the society itself.”
A lot of time is needed in the creation of an InnoLab. ‘Quartermasters’ fulfil an important role in this process. They act as a catalyst between the education sector, the municipality and the neighbourhood. Robert Duiveman, senior researcher at THUAS, knows the crack of the whip. He was the quartermaster in the Laak neighbourhood where the first InnoLab was established. “Quartermasters determine the issues at play in the community so that not only the Municipality and policy-makers are informed but also business owners and residents. That means that you try to arrive at a common question. If you want people to co-create and to see issues from a different perspective, you must get a good understanding of their experiences and interests,” he emphasises.
The Municipality had stated that many young people in the Laak district did not have a good connection to the labour market because they are not highly educated enough. During discussions in the lab, lecturer researcher Jaswina Elahi found that the youth themselves, regardless of their degree programme, feel discriminated against. Duiveman: “The continuing education policy did not align with the issues they experience and so they did not take this opportunity. We found young people who were successful on the job market and developed a course with them in which they become role models and train the other young people. With success – almost all the 15 participants found a job within one year. “We first looked at the Municipality’s question, and we also listened closely to the young people. By reformulating the question is such a way that all the stakeholders recognised themselves, we could create the space for new solutions.”
This approach also works well in Duindorp. “There are regular incidents in Duindorp that give the neighbourhood a bad name and make it seem like a closed fortress. We proposed that if you only focus on incidents, you rattle people and can’t have a meaningful conversation with them anymore. The residents are not so much angry at outsiders as fearful that the character of their area will be lost,” says Duiveman. “That is why we are looking at how housing allocation can be done in a lawful and fair way. We will discuss this with residents and will gain new insights. We are also collaborating on a film, Duidelijk Duindorp (lit. ‘clearly Duindorp’), which will show other sides of the community. Really good things are happening in the neighbourhood.”
The role of citizens is important in the InnoLabs. As ‘network citizens’, residents have more say about changes in their neighbourhoods. This also means that they need to maintain good relationships in these networks with other parties. “We try to help them find connection between their individual experiences and the interests of society. Civil servants pick through the complexity of issues and citizens look at these through the eyes of their neighbourhood. We call this ‘public learning’. For policy makers it means that they need to listen well to citizens and give them a say in decision making,” says Zijlstra.
“In terms of issues such as poverty, radicalisation or discrimination, we see that there are old wounds between institutions and citizens,” says Duiveman. “You need to design research and build relationships. To jointly identify public issues, we use methods such as the Socratic method for discussions. You can then use appropriate methods to focus on the content. For example you can do fact checking sessions about fake news, action-research into housing allocation or design thinking to improve public spaces.”
THUAS plays a bridging role in this playing field. “Our research brings people together and includes them in the process. By involving students and lecturers, we show them how complex some of the issues are. Students learn what it is like to work in a network community comprising different parties that sometimes have conflicting interests. For lecturers, the research is a vehicle that allows them to develop knowledge about these processes,” explains Zijlstra. Duiveman: “Students get the chance to experiment with their professional knowledge and skills in practice by working on new solutions for tough urban challenges. In their work they learn to make choices, underpin issues and deal with all the stakeholders in the playing field.”