Monday, 8 April 2019

The challenges of building a living lab prototype

Last year we made the decision to develop something more concrete to present and discuss – a prototype of sorts that would hopefully elicit a more active response from potential users and allow us to modify our ideas in view of the feedback we receive. This turned out to be quite challenging since, in our case, the “prototype” is a web page. While the content that we want to put on the website is fairly straightforward (e.g. profiles of institutions, individual advisors), finding a good way to navigate the information available on the system proved to be challenging. Some of this is due to our lack of expertise in web design, as there are most definitely a set of simple solutions that any half-decent web designer would propose on the spot. However, the main issue was actually structuring the content in such a way that was intuitive for a farmer or advisor. 

Visualising the platform has been a valuable experience as it forced us to confront the fact that we had been working with a very abstract idea of what the platform would be. This has not necessarily toned down our ambitions, but we will have to spend more time thinking about how to present the information (which, I guess, will also be useful when thinking about the web-based engagement strategy). I tend to prefer hierarchical structures, as in most cases there is a clear logic behind them (see below). 

Based on what the facilitator and I have discussed, however, our idea would probably approximate something between Eurostat (clear vertical logic) and Wikipedia (hyperlinks upon hyperlinks to other pages), and the topics would have to be grouped in a way that made sense to its potential users. In order to do this, we have chosen to involve the users in the creation process and ask them how they would organise the information. This will be done at several meetings in April and May. Then we will organise a meeting with advisors and a web designer.

In working on the platform, we were also forced to deal with the fact that our first ideas of what should be included in the presentation/prototype assumed a great deal of knowledge on behalf of the potential user. This, however, implied a somewhat paradoxical situation wherein the user was actually sufficiently informed to pose a very specific question but would also be willing to use a platform whose purpose was to make life easier for people who are struggling to find information and maybe do not have a clear idea of what they need to know. Our initial approach, therefore, assumed a user who would actually find the platform unnecessary. When we started working on the overall design and structure of the homepage we started asking more basic questions.

Finally, it was suggested to us at the recent meeting in Leuven that we should have a more focused and thought-out approach to getting feedback from people. The suggestions were more or less to (i) make it clear what kind of feedback, and on what specifically, we want, and (ii) use simple methods that do not force the participants to expend a lot of effort. 

Overall, working on the prototype/demo has been a valuable experience and the feedback we received at the third WP3 training event in Leuven will hopefully streamline our approach to getting feedback from potential users and involving them in the creation process in a manner that does not feel contrived.


Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Why do we need a prototype?

We have started working on a prototype for the platform we intend to produce and explore as part of Agrilink WP3. Basically, the idea for the Latvian living lab is to create an online platform that would allow farmers and producers to find the advice they need regarding horticulture, though we will focus on marketing and processing at first. The prototype will be an interactive PPT/ODP presentation. The facilitator and I agreed that she will think of three practical examples and the specific knowledge needs that each of them entails. We will build the presentation around these examples, and hopefully we will get a chance to present it at an event sometime in January 2019. 

We decided to go ahead with the prototype largely because we have concluded that a simple presentation and conversation on what the platform could contain is insufficient and unlikely to provoke an interesting and potentially useful response from the audience. This is based on the conversations we had with farmers on 24 August and 6 October. In short, the people who attended these seminars were open to the idea of an online tool and mentioned that they sometimes use Facebook and Google to find the necessary information and advice. Consequently, there will most likely be people who are willing to use it, but, as usual, the devil is in the details.

Our facilitator presenting on 6 October in Dobele
Based on a cursory examination of the responses to Agrilink WP2 questionnaires, it appears that farmers in Latvia seldom use specialised online tools or software to address and/or manage issues that they encounter on their farms. There are certainly some farmers who use specific digital tools, and most use the internet on a regular basis (and are generally happy with the quality of the connection), but these are not the majority. This is consistent with what was noted by an older farmer at the meeting on 6 October. Basically, he argued that online tools were for the younger generation, and his generation were more likely to approach advisors that they have known for a long time. For them, face-to-face interactions was how things should be done.

Not quite sure what (if anything) this means for our platform at this point, but I have my concerns. It is highly likely that younger farmers will be more open to engaging and finding advisors via an online platform. However, it is also possible that the online platform we are proposing may, in fact, be more than a tool of convenience that helps to connect farmers with the right advisors. In particular, we have to consider the possibility that we may be interfering with established practices. To be honest, I am not worried that we will be a disruptive influence, but we should probably think about making the platform as user-friendly as possible so that potential users do not see the platform as an overly complicated way of doing things that actually work just fine the “old” way.

So, I guess you can see why having a kind of prototype, which gives people a better sense of what it will be like using this platform, may prove to be useful, right?


Friday, 31 August 2018

A few remarks on last week's seminar

Last week I attended a talk given by the facilitator of the Latvian living lab – Dalija Segliņa. The topic was the production of candied fruit and vegetable products (sukādes in Latvian). The event took place in Dobele, at the Institute of Horticulture, and gave me an opportunity to begin to understand how farmers and producers engage with new material in an informal setting. 

The event took place on a Friday (24 August) and faced competition from another event organised by the institute. Nonetheless, Dalija’s talk was well-attended and the audience was obviously keen to learn what Dalija had to say.

The talk began with a tasting of different varieties of candied fruit and vegetables. Participants were, therefore, given a chance to assess the quality of the products produced at the institute. This was followed by a presentation by Dalija. Participants were also encouraged to ask questions, and a number of them did so when Dalija had finished her talk.

What struck me the most was the specificity of some of the questions. Some members of the audience obviously already had had some experience with several of the issues raised by Dalija, so they could ask for advice on the specific difficulties they had encountered.

At the end of the first part, we briefly talked about the Agrilink project and our plan to work on an online platform that would brig together all the different advisory resources available in Latvia. Participants were all asked to fill in a short questionnaire and specify (i) whether they use online or any other digital tools and (ii) any topics or issues for which the local advisory resources had not been sufficient. 

Unsurprisingly, many people wrote that Google and Facebook are online tools that they use on a regular basis. Furthermore, many people had encountered problems and had not been able to find the necessary information or obtain the necessary advice locally. 

On the whole, therefore, this suggests that our idea may prove to be useful, though more work obviously needs to be done to determine the exact needs that need to be met.


Monday, 25 June 2018

The multiplicity of living labs

If realities made in methods are multiple, then do they have to be definite and fixed in form?
John Law, After Method
A few entries earlier I wrote about the fact that the term living lab refers to a rather broad set of examples of open innovation. In short, I suggested that living labs are not ontologically coherent entities. 

Recently, I attended the annual AgriLink consortium meeting. There was a session on living labs, and I voiced my concerns regarding the way living labs are framed as part of the Monitoring & Evaluation Plan. However, on my way back to Latvia I started thinking – is this really a problem? Well, not necessarily. 

The reason for this is simple – ontological coherence is not a prerequisite for consistency in practice. To give you a sense of what I mean, I have to refer to a study of atherosclerosis carried out by Annemarie Mol (published as The Body Multiple). She looked at the way this disease is understood and enacted in different contexts within the hospital (such as the pathology laboratory, the radiology department, the operating theatre etc.). The disease means something different and is acted upon as something different in each of these spaces. Nonetheless, it is treated as the same disease across these contexts. It is treated as it it were a distinct constituent of our reality. The conclusion that John Law draws from this is that
each of these method assemblages is producing its own version of atherosclerosis: that there are multiple atheroscleroses. But what should we make of this startling conclusion?
John Law, After Method
Indeed, this was the issue with which I have been struggling. How can you assess the fecundity of living labs if there is a sense in which actual examples of living labs are only loosely related? What is the approach that is being assessed? Hopefully the situation will become clearer after I have drafted my own monitoring & evaluation plan.


Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Thinking about the futiure

Dalija and I had a Skype meeting with Hanne and Herman last week. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the progress we have made since the Leuven training event at the end of February, and our plans for the remainder of 2018. 

We told them about the workshop we organised at the end of April, where we discussed the possibility of adding our proposed tool to an existing online information repository, which was developed as part of a different project. We also noted that advisers in Latvia have a pronounced preference for face-to-face meetings. Furthermore, the participants indicated that technologically proficient farmers were open to using novel methods of instruction.

We also talked about our plans for the summer and early autumn. On the supply side, Dalija and I hope to come up with a list of advisers who would be willing to participate in the living lab.The plan is to engage up to 3-4 advisers per topic, though we realise that not all areas are well-covered, so choice will be limited on some topics. In addition, we hope to identify all published and online materials that provide information and/or advice in the field of agriculture. On the demand side, we intend to come up with list of issues and topics that are currently relevant to farmers and entrepreneurs. This list could be used when designing the platform and getting in touch with advisers. 

On the whole, I think we are on the right track, but it remains to be seen how enthusiastic local professionals are about this kind of platform in the long run. It may seem like a good idea at first, but it all depends on whether the idea is good enough for people to keep putting the work in.


Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Reflecting on reflexivity

Today, I read the monitoring and evaluation plan that was prepared for all Agrilink living lab monitors. The purpose of the document was to give monitors a better sense of their role, and also to outline the proposed approach to monitoring.

One of the key concepts used in the document was reflexive monitoring. This is basically the idea that monitors should be reflexive and encourage the living lab collective as a whole to examine its assumptions, proposals and the innovation process as a whole. The claim is that reflexivity is crucial for “the development of new innovation support services”, which “better connect research and farmer-based innovations, while appreciating the diversity of farmers’ micro-AKIS”.

Now, I have no particular issue with reflexivity, and I generally agree that an awareness of the limits and structures we all impose when thinking about processes and the consequences of introducing changes can be useful. However, I have always taken issue with the assumption that the feedback loop generated by critically reflecting on one’s actions somehow leads to a more complete and, perhaps, accurate perception of the situation.  You can maybe identify possible limitations, but this does not necessarily lead to your overcoming them.

However, my reading of the M&E plan suggests that the intended value-added of reflexivity in the context of the living lab is, in fact, greater contextual sensitivity that can lay the groundwork for  a successful introduction of changes.  My reason for thinking this is that reflexive monitoring is intended to (i) assist in understanding interdependent, complex, uncertain and possibly conflictual situations and (ii) facilitate the implementation of “targeted systemic interventions” in complex systems. 

Basically, the monitor has to make participants aware of the consequences that their proposed solutions and innovations may have. Looking forward to reading the literature suggested by the M&E plan.


Tuesday, 24 April 2018

A few notes on Monday's seminar

The BSC team organised a seminar on Monday (23 April) to discuss, and receive feedback on, two projects that BSC researchers are currently working on. The first part of the seminar was dedicated to INNOFRUIT. Anda Ādamsone-Fiskoviča (BSC) and Edgars Rubauskis (Institute of Horticulture, Latvia University of Life Sciences and Technologies) gave presentations, which were followed by a collective SWOT analysis, moderated by Tālis Tisenkopfs (BSC). 

The second part of the seminar was an interactive discussion regarding the Agrilink living lab. I gave a short presentation just to bring everyone up to speed. We then moved on to the discussion. The main aim of the discussion was to gain a better understanding of the most popular forms of advice provision and advisory assistance in general. A  secondary aim was to continue the process of building our living lab. Even though we got off to a bumpy start, the discussion as a whole was a moderate success.

It was clear that face-to-face meetings with farmers and producers were the most popular form of providing assistance to farmers and producers. Direct communication between client and advisor can minimise the risk of misinterpretation and misapplication, and allows the advisor to get a more nuanced understanding of the particular problem or situation that needs to be addressed. Concurrently, it allows the client to gain a better sense of whether the advisor in question is competent and has the necessary experience.

However, this particular form has a number of downsides. First of all, it is a comparatively expensive service. Secondly, the number of advisers with the requisite expertise is small, and they are not spread out evenly. This means that farmers and producers in some areas are in a better position to receive assistance.

Other forms were also discussed. Videos and presentations posted online were argued to have their uses, but participants emphasised that these methods involve a certain element of risk. Specifically, there is no telling whether the person who made the video is competent. Furthermore, viewers may misinterpret the contents of the video, which may have an adverse effect on their farm. Articles in specialised publications were considered to be a better option because editors could generally ensure that the contents were of sufficient quality. The usefulness of other online and mobile tools was believed to depend on the situation, though some advisers noted that technologically proficient clients were open to using them.

Participants reiterated their support for a platform that would contain up-to-date information regarding the available advisory services and allow farmers and producers to efficiently navigate the advisory system. It was argued that having everything in one place would be very useful, and participants were open to the idea of participating in the construction of this online platform. However, they were worried that practicalities (e.g. funding, need for IT professionals who could manage this platform) might get in the way of the project.

I would like to conclude this entry with some reflections regarding my role as monitor. One of my responsibilities (as I understand them) is to stimulate reflection among stakeholders and participants. After the training event in Leuven, I started to think more about unanticipated consequences and the interests of different stakeholders. I suddenly realised that our living lab could potentially make the advisory system more transparent to clients and stimulate competition between advisers. Indeed, one of the advisers present at the Monday meeting compared our proposed platform to something like – you could leave reviews and help others choose the best adviser. 

One of the possible side effects of this is that advisers with established client bases may lose clients. I raised this point at the meeting, but most participants were unsure whether this would be the case. There are simply too few advisers working in Latvia. Nonetheless, I shall have to keep my eyes and ears open and be sensitive to potential obstacles to cooperation that could have an adverse effect on the overall goals of the living lab. Furthermore, as the living lab takes shape, I will have to think of news ways of making team members think about the unanticipated consequences of their ideas and proposals.

In conclusion,  the meeting was a success for both projects. In the case of Agrilink, we moved ever-so-slightly forward, started thinking about the practical requirements of our platform, and our facilitator (Dalija Segliņa) showed that she feels comfortable leading discussions and facilitating a free-flowing exchange of ideas.


Friday, 20 April 2018

Drifting off topic

I was inspired to write this entry as a result of my thinking about blackboxing.  In science studies, blackboxing generally refers to processes of simplification that tend to hide the internal complexity of science and technology. This idea is associated with the work of Bruno Latour, who also co-wrote Laboratory life. My mind went off on a tangent, and I started thinking about living labs... and Linux.

I am a Linux user, by which I mean that all my computing devices run some form of Linux. Some of the reasons for this are practical in nature, while others are more philosophical. For example, Linux operating systems are generally more respectful of user privacy (Android is a significant exception) and do not “phone back home”. An additional aspect of the Linux world that I find endearing is the emphasis on transparency. It is most pronounced in the case of Arch Linux, which is one of the more extreme expressions of Linux. An excellent illustration of what I mean is encapsulated in a quote by the developer of Arch Linux, Aaron Griffin.
Relying on complex tools to manage and build your system is going to hurt the end users. [...] "If you try to hide the complexity of the system, you'll end up with a more complex system". Layers of abstraction that serve to hide internals are never a good thing. Instead, the internals should be designed in a way such that they NEED no hiding.
What does this have to do with living labs? Well, I reckon that, as a monitor, one of my responsibilities is to document the evolution of the living lab. The “process of becoming” will likely be messy for most living labs, but the purpose of documenting this process is that others can learn from you and your mistakes, and try out tools and approaches that have been useful for you.  In short, I see it as a matter of (i) keeping your internals open for inspection and (ii) showing that innovative learning emerged through exploratory tinkering that was integral to the whole enterprise. Accidents and failures do not need to be edited out or hidden.

In other words, I hope to do the opposite of blackboxing.


Thursday, 5 April 2018

Meeting with the facilitator (5 April 2018)

The BSC team had a meeting with Dalija Segliņa, who has graciously accepted the role of facilitator as part of the Agrilink Living Lab project. While there was no set agenda, the overall purpose of the meeting was to discuss possible strategies of going forward with the living lab project.

Firstly, there was some debate regarding the actual form of the online platform that our project is aiming towards. Will it be a list of all the available resources? Will it be a full-fledged database or just a prototype? What is more, who will be in charge of maintaining it? We did agree that it would be a good idea to try to attach the living lab to an existing resource – perhaps one that was created as a part of the INNOFRUIT project. Dalija agreed to check whether this is possible. This, however, brought us to the question of ownership – who will own the tools developed as part of the living lab?

Secondly, we discussed who should be involved in the creation of the living lab. It was obvious that both service providers and end users should be engaged. I expressed my concerns regarding the involvement of agricultural advisors with a solid client base, because I thought that they might see our platform as a threat – as a way for other advisors to poach their clients. We also discussed that  users should be encouraged to voice their needs. In relation to this, Dalija promised that she would take a look at the historical record to see what people have requested in terms of advice and training. Overall, it was agreed that there should be something like a core living lab team that would participate at most meetings and events and ensure continuity.

Thirdly, we discussed the possibility of organising living lab meetings as part of bigger events (e.g. agricultural conferences). This would allow us to engage a wider audience and receive their input. 

Fourthly, we discussed the particular form that the living lab meetings could take. They would certainly involve presentations and discussions, but some thought should be given to developing forms and activities that are conducive to the emergence of new forms of communication and collaboration. In other words, our meetings should be sufficiently open so as not to hinder innovation. 

Most importantly, we agreed that we will try to organise our next meeting with stakeholders and living lab allies on 27 April.


Friday, 30 March 2018

What is the basic idea?

We have to create a living lab as part of the AgriLink project. This being an instance of open innovation, stakeholders were involved from the very beginning. Consequently, the specific idea for the living lab in Latvia was collaboratively articulated. 

Firstly, local experts suggested that fragmentation of the market and internal competition should be borne in mind when designing tools that would allow agricultural advisers to assist local producers. Given that the community is small, any innovation can create a disruption and can have unintended consequences. This has to be taken into account, and affected parties should be contacted and involved to insure wide support.

Secondly, it was acknowledged that current knowledge-dissemination and advisory mechanisms sometimes fail to achieve their goals. Various different methods of instruction and knowledge-dissemination are currently available that allow farmers and producers to acquire the requisite knowledge. However, many farmers either are not willing or do not have enough time to engage with the materials, and there is no systematically organised repository or tool which would make it clear to farmers what kind of advice is available from the various knowledge organisations and services.

Thirdly, a new tool was proposed that would allow farmers and producers to easily and efficiently navigate the advisory system and identify areas where assistance is required and find out where they can obtain it. Local experts suggested that there might be a misalignment between farmers’ needs and the available advisory tools. In particular, marketing, branding and distribution are areas where assistance is required, but there is currently a shortage or relevant courses and materials.

This online tool was eventually proposed as the core item to be discussed and elaborated in the living lab. However, even though there is an idea that can be refined in further meetings with local experts and interested parties, the collaborative nature of the project suggests that the outcome is presently uncertain. Much will hinge on whether advisers and advisory organisations will be willing to work together in the confidence that all the parties involved will benefit.


Thursday, 22 March 2018

A few takeaways on open innovation

Living labs are an example of open innovation. However, as was suggested in the previous post, their theoretical conceptualisation leaves something to be desired, and there are no clear guidelines that a living lab can follow to boost its chances of success. In order to improve my understanding of what our living lab should look like, I did some reading on the concept of open innovation. Specifically I read a few chapters from a book edited by Henry Chesbrouch, Wim Vanhaverbeke and Joel West.

Below you’ll find a few takeaways from what I read.

Takeaway #1: A project should be open to external ideas, but not just occasionally – external input should be accorded a key role in the development of an idea. Consequently, potential users and stakeholders should be engaged and consulted from the beginning.

Takeaway #2: An open innovation approach can allow projects to find their niche and the best ways of engaging an audience and create a user base. Drawing on other peoples’ experience and practices, one can identify blindspots in one’s thinking and overall perception of the situation.

Takeaway #3: Open innovation is useful when there is a broad dispersal of relevant knowledge and no single agent can achieve his/her goals individually.

Takeaway #4: While a confluence of values, professional interests and enthusiasm is important for a project, its long-term sustainability depends on the incentives and motivations that will keep people involved.

Takeaway #5: Relinquishing some level of control over the direction of the project and letting others help guide it is crucial for ensuring that the result is something that the relevant parties find useful and are willing to continue using.

While none of the above takeaways are particularly original, they do emphasise the importance of collaboratively articulating the goals of a project, and understanding the needs the project is expected to meet. That is to say, the creation of a successful living lab hinges on deftly marshalling and engaging a heterogeneous group of potential contributors and users. In our case, this seems crucial. After all, the overall goal is the creation of an online platform that would improve the interaction between a diverse group of users with a diverse group of agricultural advisers.


Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Is there such a thing as a living lab?

Following on from the previous entry on living labs, I would like to focus on the different uses and understandings of this concept. In particular, while reading up on this subject I was intrigued by the possibility that in academic usage the term living lab is applied to a rather diverse range of practices and phenomena that do not necessarily form a coherent and well-defined set.

In their article Living Labs: arbiters of mid- and ground-level innovation, Almirall and Warenham suggest that living labs can be seen as a response to the “inability of European nations to transform their research leadership into commercial successes in the marketplace” and offer a number of characteristics that living labs should or do manifest. According to the authors, living labs are collaborative projects that involve users in the innovation process. They may involve cooperation among a diverse range of actors. Furthermore, the authors even go so far as to say that living labs are “infrastructures that surface tacit, experiential and domain-based knowledge” or “explorative processes in real-life environments”.

While the above characterisations are certainly suggestive, the are also somewhat open-ended. Indeed, this is the line of arguments put forward by Schuurman, de Marez and Ballon in their review of the literature about living labs

The paper argues that living labs feature much more prominently in publications authored by European authors, generally focus on a small number of case studies and are methodologically diverse. Living labs are defined rather loosely and assumed to be examples of open innovation that focus on exploration.
Our main conclusion is that in terms of methodology and user characteristics, the Living Labs literature is rather silent and positions Living Labs too much as an ‘everything is possible’ concept that resembles an empty box, in the sense that you can put whatever methodology or research approach inside.
This is not meant to be a criticism of the concept, and the authors are quick to note that the practice of living labs is quite developed. Their conceptualisation, however, has some way to go.


Monday, 5 March 2018

What is a living lab?

I must admit that prior to joining the BSC team I had never come across living labs. What is more, the working definition I was provided with did not really mesh with my understanding of what a laboratory was.

To assuage my concerns and get a good handle on one of the key concepts in WP3 of AgriLink, I decided to do some digging. I started with Wikipedia, as you do, and according to Wikipedia, living labs are user-centered, open-innovation ecosystems integrating concurrent research and innovation processes.

Quite a mouthful, isn’t it?

Even though it may appear daunting at first, the definition actually gives you a good sense of the key elements that make living labs a distinct form of innovation and research. “User-centred” refers to the emphasis on usability and the needs of users. “Open-innovation” refers to a flow and exchange of ideas that ignores institutional or disciplinary boundaries, emphasising openness and cooperation. Consequently, it would be reasonable to assume that living labs can be seen as a platform for testing and refining ideas and innovations in a real-life setting, whereby the relevant stakeholders and users can collaboratively determine the feasibility and potential of a product or service.

In conclusion, in the context of living labs, the idea of a laboratory is used somewhat loosely. Indeed, the emphasis on openness seems ill at ease with the controlled environment of a laboratory and the closed system that is an experiment. However, seeing as how the ultimate goal is innovation, the mingling of diverse points of view in a real-world setting is crucial for identifying each other’s blind spots and establishing to everyone’s satisfaction that the product or service in question has a potential user base.