Short report from the inter-colloquium of the Baden-Württemberg real world labs (“Reallabore”)

Almost one and a half years after the launch of the first funding period for real world laboratories in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, the seven funded research projects came together in Stuttgart to draw up an interim balance. Except for one project, the Reallabore are set in an urban context, following the idea that science needs the cooperation with ex-academia partners to be able to understand and analyze the complex challenges of a transformation towards a more sustainable society. The other peculiarity of the Reallabore is that the projects do not only conduct research about this transformation, but actively intervene in order to expedite it.

In those transdisciplinary projects, the partners range from small civil society actors, as in the Stuttgart “Reallabor für nachhaltige Mobilitätskultur, over public institutions to large enterprises in the textile industry of the small city Dietenheim. The “Reallabor 131” in Karlsruhe deals with the complexity of making an existing district of the city more sustainable, while the project EnSign in Stuttgart concentrates on ways to develop a climate-neutral university campus.

In the inter-colloquium, reports and workshop sessions provided the opportunity to share and discuss the project members´ experiences about challenges and obstacles in the research process and the project coordination as well as the individual methods and formats they developed to reach their goals.

Although the projects approach very different problems with different actor constellations, some characteristic barriers were shared by all projects: First of all, a high demand for communication and the reconciliation of opposing views among research partners are challenging the teams. Linked with this are the different expectations: Society and practitioners are interested in solving concrete problems, while scientists search to reveal evidence for causal relationships. The challenge is to formulate a common research issue, which serves both interests and does not end up as a compromise, which helps no-one. It also turned out that in some projects, the exchange between academics and practitioners was until now rather one-sided, due to scarce time and financial capacities of practitioners, especially those from civil society organizations.

A short talk given by Dr. Andrew Karvonen about “key issues in transformational change labs” illustrated some commonly appearing challenges and how they could be avoided or overcome. For example, defining and sticking to boundaries (financial, organizational, thematic etc.) helps not to get lost in the constantly appearing opportunities to strain project resources. As another common issue, research results of real world experiment settings are potentially hardly replicable or generalizable, since they are generated context-based and under not entirely controlled conditions. Therefore, Dr. Karvonen recommends to anticipate possible results and from the beginning focus on those, which promise to be replicable.

In the beginning of 2016, seven new Reallabor-projects, as well funded by the state ministry of Science, research and arts, can already learn from these experiences. Furthermore the political will to expand the Reallabor-approach in Germany seems to be strong and the need for more adjusted and flexible funding conditions and schemes is being recognized by the initiators. However, to establish a sophisticated culture of transdisciplinary real world research, the recognition by the conventional academic actors is as essential as the reconsideration of the entire structure of universities.

For more information in German, go to:

The image shows an experiment by the “Reallabor Spacesharing”, which is aiming to intensify space usage in Stuttgart, where space is a scarce and expensive resource. The experiment in this cube demonstrated the possibility of a nonstop 24 hours use for activities such as working, cooking, sleeping, yoga, playing a movie, concert etc. It served as a pilot for later, bigger scale and long term experiments.

In Stuttgart, 29th April 2016

Author: Eric Puttrowait