Living Labs: the centerpiece of the new organization of utilities and cities?

A Living Lab is, as its name suggests, a laboratory, a field of development and innovation, rooted in reality and no longer isolated in a protected space. Consumers, customers, users, the entire market, participate.

Why would this type of organization be important for energy companies and utilities ? Why would it be more efficient than conventional R & D?

For cities and energy companies, a living lab consists in developing solutions, offers or services by deploying them and making them mature with customers or users who, through their constant feedback, contribute to their development.

These living labs introduce real changes in the energy market and in cities.

First of all, they allow to be much faster. This speed is essential for energy companies to effectively deal with the market ruptures and their new challenges.They allow to observe the interaction of the citizens with the deployed innovations: solutions, offers or services. Do they understand them? Do they accept them? Do they use them as planned? Do they draw all the expected benefits? Do they discover new unexpected benefits? To understand the experience of the citizen in contact with the proposed innovation, the observation must be regular over time, quantitative and qualitative. It is a question of developing a form of empathy with the citizen: the goal with respect to him is to meet his needs, to maximize his acceptance of innovation, to improve his “experience” in contact with innovation, to be consistent with its aspirations and with the tendencies of the society (which does not mean to conform to it).

Living labs are therefore a new way of developing innovations and have the effect of building a new relationship between an energy company and its customers or between a city and its inhabitants or users.

They drastically reduce the risks associated with innovations and promote their adoption. They allow other relationships with investors who, too, may be involved in this process.

Some Living Labs are used as a validation stage by the customer of a classic R & D development, like experiences in the field of product development. I find it unfortunate, in the case of utilities and cities, to include a Living Lab in a purely linear process. It must be part of a different logic of development and permanent enrichment.

To do this, we must find the right balance between taking into account the remarks and observations made within the Living Lab and the pursuit of a strategic will and the deployment of a vision. To take into account only a minimum of remarks means continuing as before when utilities and cities pushed innovations that citizens should adopt, willy nilly. Too much consideration of the observations makes one run the risk of departing from a strategy or vision and abandoning any spirit of innovation. Because innovation consists in surprising the customer or the citizen by offering him what he would never have asked for and who will naturally impose on him by the value brought.

We have not yet discovered the full power of Living Labs because their use requires a profound change in relationships, powers and ways of valuing individuals. The developer is not only the one who knows, he becomes observer, translator, why not coach; the customer and the citizen no longer receive and a real responsibility lies with them: that of co-constructing, which supposes to propose, to influence orientations, to open the door to evolutions and not only to judge, criticize and give an opinion.

If building and evolving such organizations is gradually becoming essential, municipal teams and energy companies have a major stake: their cultural revolution and the development of a new leadership on which I will have the opportunity to return very soon.

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