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From living lab to festival as lab

Exploring Festival As Lab as a novel take on the living lab concept

Author: Drew Hemment

(This article was originally published 2014)

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” Carl Sagan (Astronomer, Writer, Scientist)

FutureEverything has adapted the physical, social, infrastructural, conceptual space of its festival in order that it function as a living lab.

Living labs are a model of open innovation ecosystem for ‘in the wild’ research and development. They take research out of the laboratory to test ideas and prototypes in real-life situations. Living labs can engage participants in co-creation, experimentation and evaluation of new technologies and services.

Festival As Lab is a novel take on the living lab concept, that builds on a number of dimensions in cultural festivals:

  • Festivals involve large numbers of people taking part in creative experiments. They are participatory spaces that nurture play, risk and community creation.
  • They offer the ability to discuss and give attention to an idea or theme.
  • They enable the free circulation of people and ideas, connecting people at different levels, from grassroots to government and business leaders.

The insight behind the Festival As Lab approach is that a festival can transform a city into a pop-up laboratory for new ways of living, playing, governing, new forms of citizenship. They can engage a wide demographic of people in devising and testing emerging forms of interface and experience.

FutureEverything has adopted an ecosystem approach. Festivals are intermediaries between global creative communities, stakeholders and local citizens. They bring experts and passionate amateurs together to imagine and experience the future. They can also help to build trust and to bridge between organisational and cultural silos.

There are some initial distinctions between a Living Lab and a Festival As Lab. One is that a Festival As Lab is a staged space where extraordinary experiences can emerge to enable new ways of doing things. A festival stands outside of the everyday, whereas a living lab is about ‘real life’ testing.

Festival as Lab Living Lab
pop-up, light touch embedded, longitudinal
staged, extraordinary real world, ordinary
wide engagement deep engagement


Since it introduced the concept in 2008, FutureEverything has hosted a huge diversity of Festival As Lab projects, from usability trials to art works. Projects can take the form of a mobility application, that visitors to the festival test as they move about the city. Or a city data service developed at a festival hack, and trialled with festival visitors. Or a game combining play online and in the streets, testing new live streaming technology. Or a participatory artwork generating data on local climate the Met Office could not ordinarily capture alone.

A Festival As Lab can enable artists and designers to working in new ways, and with systems and technologies they could not otherwise access. For researchers, the research concept offers creative license for imaginative ideas, a testing ground for prototypes, and access to participants and stakeholders. For the host city, it provides an international platform to test new ideas, and an intermediary that mitigates risk. For audiences, it is a place to play and a step into the unknown. This is most interesting when it is truly collaborative and people are outside their conventional roles – communities creating technology, developers creating community, artists doing science, scientists making art.

There is a parallel in what critic Mikhail Bakhtin tells us about medieval carnivals. They were a temporary space and moment that turned the world on its head, using humour and chaos to subvert social norms and liberate new ideas. More recently, the world fairs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were utopian events presenting experiments in future science and technology. Festival As Lab is an agile research and development environment, using co-design and art events to disrupt norms and liberate new ideas.

Development of Festival as Lab

FutureEverything is an innovation agency that runs year round projects as well as an annual festival. For 20 years, the festival has looked at the social implications of the digital turn. It provides a platform where advances in emerging artforms and innovative applications of new technologies can respond to the cutting edge of social and political thought.

It was a small step from showcasing innovations, to participating in research and innovation, and from there for the festival itself to evolve into a research and engagement instrument. The outcome is a novel approach to living labs — Festival As Lab — that has been developed and refined over a number of years. This approach has been made possibly by the relationships and trust that FutureEverything has built up over many years with city officials, research institutes, and also its audience, the core of who are open to experimentation and failure.

Festival As Lab projects draw on a range of methods and tools, from design, art, computing and software development. It is informed by insight into the limitations of linear and ‘top down’ approaches to policy and technology development. One specific approach of FutureEverything is to develop participatory art and design projects which construct possible futures and generate ideas and concepts. Design prototypes can be used to read and design the future, combining scenarios and ethnography, and methods such as design fiction and ‘Wizard of Oz’. Artworks can enable ideas and the otherwise inexpressible to be questioned and given tangible form.

An example of a past FutureEverything Living Lab was Environment 2.0, which involved the co-design, prototyping and deployment of participatory approaches to environmental monitoring and social sensing. Users and stakeholders were involved from the earliest stages in concept and project development. Prototypes were deployed in participatory trials involving a variety of user-groups. Evaluation took place through an open workshop in which a sample of those users participated and which fed into the development of design principles and later iterations.

FutureEverything’s festival has strong research profile and standing within the academic community. It was assessed as a research output within the Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014) within the return of of University of Dundee, where I have an academic post as Dundee Fellow, Reader.

Get involved in FAL15 and FALT

FutureEverything is now working on a new edition of its Festival As Lab Toolkit (FALT). The goal of FALT is to:

  • Iterate and formalise the Festival As Lab model.
  • Provide the tools for festivals around the world to act as living labs.
  • Enable creative communities to drive open innovation.
  • Stimulate new RND in art, media, technology and city development.
  • Create intermediaries between policy, technology research, citizens and the arts.

FutureEverything is inviting expressions of interest for self-funded experimentation and innovation projects to be presented in the Festival As Lab (FAL15) part of the 20th anniversary on 26-28 February 2015. (Note: this is now closed.)

View Festival As Lab presentation by Drew Hemment at OpenLivingLabs (ENoLL-European Network of Living Labs), Amsterdam, 2 September 2014: