Let’s get experimental – The Real-world Laboratories Symposium

Written by Stefanie Albrecht and Stefan Hilser

Overview of the Event

The symposium in Karlsruhe in April 2018 was the final event for the 14 Real-world Laboratories (RwLs), also called BaWü Labs. This first laboratory ensemble for practice-oriented science on sustainability in Germany was funded for three years with 18 Mio. Euro by the federal state of Baden Württemberg. The symposium gave the programme participants the opportunity to present and reflect on their work and for interested people like us, insights into the work in RwLs. Hence, curiously, three doctoral students from our PoST (“Processes of Sustainability Transformation”) group attended. The symposium had a lot to offer ranging from a sustainability walk through the city of Karlsruhe, to a fair, where the BaWü Lab projects presented themselves, to various expert inputs, open discussions, an interactive session on Real-world Labs and an impressive performance by the Scientific Theater Freiburg.

What are Real-World laboratories?

Real-world laboratories aim at providing a laboratory setting within a real-world context to develop sustainability solutions in a new form of science and society collaboration. This new form of transformative research tries to develop actionable knowledge to complex sustainability problems. The Real-world Labs developed as the German answer to international approaches in other settings of real-world experimentation: in urban transition labs, sustainability (living) labs and transformation labs. Compared to these forms of real-world experimentation, RwLs are a young approach with space for development and operationalization, e.g. for relating to different theories of change . According to Dr. Antonietta Di Giulio, one of the accompanying researchers of the BaWü Labs, they have the potential to “make topics of sustainability tangible” and provide the opportunity to learn systematically from societal processes in exploring desirable futures.
Generally, RwLs only focus local and regional challenges, not larger structural and fundamental change. Science still has to learn how to decontextualize learnings from RwLs, so it can be transferred to other contexts and regions. The symposium further showed, that it needs to be observed, what type of solutions are generated in RwLs, e.g. more radical or incremental. Di Giulio also said that change towards sustainability probably requires solutions that are not only comfortable, easy to implement and societally accepted and that RwLs might be used in other context than sustainability as long as the goals are societally legitimate, ethically grounded and oriented towards the common good.

How are they different from TD research?

One might rightfully ask, if RwLs is not just the newest buzzword, and how is it any different from previous approaches to science? Antonietta Di Giulio’s speech from her perspective as accompanying researcher of the BaWü Labs indicated that it is not just a fad when she said that it could give an impulse to the scientific landscape. She called the RwLs a thorn in the scientific system, which irritates and keeps it moving, causing it to rethink the role of science, similar to transdisciplinary (TD) environmental research in its earlier years. However, TD research – she claims – has lost some of its cutting edge and become mainstreamed. In addition, RwLs provide a more differentiated view on participation than TD does. While TD primarily views participation as a way to improve the generation of knowledge and to increase its practical and societal legitimacy, RwLs consider activities aimed at leading to societal change as equally important to knowledge generation activities, or at least attribute them a very important role.

Challenges of RwLs for young scientists

Juggling these roles is particularly challenging for young scientists and especially those that work in such experimental settings and we can only try our best at juggling these multiple roles – researcher, manager, activist, project group partner.

Juggling the Roles of Researcher | Manager | Activist

One reason that makes this particularly challenging for young scientists is that we have little experience with juggling these different roles and are not trained in many of these fields. Further, there is little time to become such an expert. For a real-world experiment, we also need to invest time for finding partners, jointly defining the problem, acquiring funds e.g. to cover implementation costs. All that besides the classical scientific part of our PhD to conduct research for our individual projects as well as for our project as a whole on Processes of Sustainability Transformation.
As we are not yet recognized as fully trained scientists, the pressure to pursue our individual projects and focus on publications is particularly high. They are a prerequisite for obtaining our PhDs and an important factor for our future academic careers. This system stands in harsh contrast to the aims of TD research and even more to those of RwLs as described above. Stepping out of that system requires courage, the courage, as Matthias Bergmann put it, to “make your research group a project of your generation!”


Schäpke, N., Stelzer, F., Caniglia, G., Bergmann, M., Wanner, M., Singer-Brodowski, M., Loorbach, D., Olsson, P., Baedeker, C., & Lang, D. J. (2018). Jointly experimenting for transformation?: Shaping real-world laboratories by comparing them. GAIA - Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 27(S1), 85–96. https://doi.org/10.14512/gaia.27.S1.16

Stefanie Albrecht

Stefanie studied Integrated Natural Resource Management at Humboldt University of Berlin. Within Processes for Sustainability Transformations, she is researching learning processes in a real-world experiment to implement sustainable food forests. This includes learnings on good practices of these sustainability solutions, mutual and methodological learnings in two real-world experiment (one in Tempe, US and one in Lüneburg, Germany), and outlook learnings of scalability and transferability of the results. Learn more about Stefanie's PhD project!

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