Sustainability-oriented labs in real-world contexts: An exploratory review
There are growing claims that meaningfully engaging with complex sustainability challenges requires change of a systemic nature. In governing transitions to sustainability, laboratories in real world contexts are growing in presence and promise. Yet, they span an array of contexts, conceptualisations and cases, making it difficult to find and relate labs across disciplines. Moreover, it is unclear how these labs vary in their approaches to sustainability, the importance of which has been voiced by the sustainability transitions community. In addressing these concerns, we adopted the broad research question: How can sustainability-oriented labs in real-world contexts be understood? We systematically reviewed 53 labs from disparate fields of research that broadly share a focus on sustainability. Through a mixed-methods analysis, we present three levels of results. Firstly, we provide an overview of the diversity in distribution, thematic focus and setup of labs. Secondly, we trace 7 different research communities where sustainability-oriented labs have been conceptualized (Living, Urban Living, Real-world, Evolutionary Learning, Urban Transition, Change and Transformation labs). Thirdly, we identify three key dimensions of labs, space, process and organisation, enabling a structured understanding of lab approaches towards sustainability. We then situate our results within salient transitions research areas, namely transition geographies, governance and innovation. In concluding, we point towards fruitful avenues for future research, capable of 1) unpacking lab approaches to sustainability as a dynamic normative property, and 2) providing a basis for complementary case-based comparison.