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Living the Change

Designerly modes of real-life experimentation

Time: Thu 2023-09-21 13.00

Location: Kollegiesalen, Brinellvägen 8, Stockholm

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Language: English

Subject area: Art, Technology and Design Machine Design

Doctoral student: Martin Sjöman , Integrerad produktutveckling och design, Green Leap

Opponent: Assist. Professor Dan Lockton, TU/e Eindhoven University of Technology

Supervisor: Professor Sara Ilstedt, Integrerad produktutveckling och design; Dr. Susanne Nilsson,

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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, my 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. In the analysis I also investigate how these labs relate to other research approaches in fields such as transition studies, user innovation, participatory design, and action research. I position designerly living labs 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 recommendations for organizing new research projects of this sort.