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Students of Nantes, France Utilize A "City Lab" to Test Urban Innovations

Nantes School of Design, Nantes, France

Testing a product in a laboratory is a commonly accepted practice. As our cities change, why don't we apply the same precepts of innovation? We could test and modify potential changes. But it is difficult at the city level to find a spot to test planned iterations, to be validated or modified. Here comes the role of the "city lab." What does change look like? What is its role and function? These are some questions asked at a recent workshop led by the students of the Sustainable City Design Lab (Design Lab Ville Durable) from the Nantes Atlantic School of Design (l'École de design Nantes Atlantique), supervised by Christine Vignaud, architect and head teacher.  

The changes our cities must face to become sustainable are numerous. The success of a project and its establishment in a new territory are all questions faced by the decision makers and developers of the city.  The "city lab" is a space to test all of these factors to scale. For architect and professor Christian Devilliers, "It is not the shape of the city that will change, but rather its uses." And it is exactly these new uses that one can prototype in the "city labs." Innovation must leave its closed laboratory and open itself up to the city and its users in order to be more collaborative and provide feedback. More than a simple window of innovation, the "city lab" is meant to be a platform of exchange.

Whether the transformations to come are dealing with energy, service, mobility, or any other related subjects, they will be manifold. However, quite often, we only think of the technological aspects of these transformations, such as in the concept of smart cities. But there is also a human factor necessary for the smooth conduct of change: acceptance. Very often innovation causes fear and upsets our daily habits, but the "city lab" allows innovations to become tangible and approachable for all citizens. That concept is well understood by the Laboratory of Associated Bystanders (Laboratoire des Badauds Associés), who define themselves as a popular and offbeat "city lab." It allows citizens to not only use their testing space in the heart of Nantes, called Area 38 (Aire 38), but also proposes a mobile platform where citizens can meet and discuss. The approach to city development thus changes from a tone of urgency to a tone of care. It inspires citizens to both care for their city now and in the future.

Aires 38, Nantes, France

But for a "city lab" to function, there is yet another ingredient to add to the recipe: neutrality. Everyone must be able to access the lab: the creators, the decision makers, the testers…therefore everyone should be able to meet in a shared place using a shared language. At Area 38, neutrality does not mean disembodied. The city is often lived in the abstract, the Laboratory of Associated Bystanders, for instance, decided to awaken people's imaginations by using poetry and creative imagery to forge connections to their city.

Taking the time and risk, and listening through informal exchanges are some essential components of change within our city that, thanks to "city lab" can find a place to flourish.

Do you agree with this collaborative and humanistic approach to testing future urban innovation? What sort of ideas would you want to test in a "city lab?" Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.

Original article, originally published in French here.

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