Living labs: Ideas you won’t find at your desk


By Dan Bennett, Senior Behavioural Strategist

April 21, 2015 | 4 min read

Dan Bennett, lead choice architect for the behavioural retail and merchandising practice at #ogilvychange, looks at living labs, which he says are mounting a challenge to the existing agency model as they prove a great tool to test out behavioural nudges.

An interesting yet largely unheard of process to come out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) over the past few years is the ‘living lab’.

A living lab was originally referred to as “a multi-stakeholder user approach to user integration”, but put into plain language, it is the love child of co-creation and beta-testing. By being much closer to the problem we’re trying to solve and listening to all stakeholders, we’ll be much better at creating effective interventions. Also, having the opportunity to iterate and beta-test ideas in a safe environment allows us to develop initial thoughts into workable behavioural interventions.

The ethos of bringing together all stakeholders has been taken up well by social change organisations. The app Changify allows citizens to identify local issues and crowd source with councils, businesses and brands to create solutions. So if Starbucks provides cycle racks in a part of town where parking your bike is an issue, then he or she who initially flagged the issue may be rewarded with free coffee.

The importance of feedback loops from all stakeholders is also important in the process. Loop Labs, an organisation which wants to encourage more children to walk to school, initially had a basic gamified app to reinforce positive behaviour. The living lab process meant it developed the opportunities to link up with digital media space on popular school walks to further engage users, and even got the kids to design the monster characters within the app.

Living labs offer a great opportunity for the commercial sector as well. Rather than liberally passing PowerPoint around a number of teams, this method houses all the experts together and encourages them to try their ideas live in market. It’s here we find out if ideas work or not, rather than to simply forecast whether they might.

At #ogilvychange [Ogilvy & Mather’s behavioural practice] we have carried out a living lab for News UK at its call centre to test ideas on improving happiness, wellbeing and productivity of agents.

A mixture of News UK, call centre management, choice architects and agents themselves were involved in the idea generation and testing of over 38 different nudges or behavioural ideas. One of the most surprising outcomes is how many ideas might have been considered ineffective had they not had minor follow up tweaks.

In order to tackle a late afternoon dip in performance known as the ‘afternoon slump’, it sought to get the agents more active with a piece of behavioural design called the Varidesk which allows you to work either seated or standing.

Being able to stand keeps minds and bodies active, but without the living lab, this would have been considered a failure because uptake was low. Only through the feedback from all stakeholders did it emerge that people felt silly standing when colleagues were seated, so the solution was to provide more of these desks. This created a social norm change which was successful to the point that switching back wouldn’t be an option.

The use of the living lab process at News UK proved a very effective way of fleshing out the details that are all so important to creating ideas that change behaviour. It’s no wonder that the European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL) now sits over 200 research groups all employing the same methodology.

As the types of briefs agencies receive diversify, so must our methodologies to meet the challenge. Trying out lots of ideas in the field opens your eyes to even more solutions that are possible, and listening to everyone involved ensures no details are missed. This is the way to ideas you cannot find at your desk.


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