Increasingly conversations about research and education in sustainability focus on the concept of the living laboratory – using the university and its community to provide a real life context for problem-based integration of research, teaching, and university operations. Learning labs are touted as the way to achieve transformative learning opportunities and actionable sustainability solutions.
While most of the literature on sustainability living labs is case-based rather than theoretical, efforts are underway to better describe the underlying framework. AASHE held a three-day workshop in 2013 on “Designing a campus sustainability living lab.” The International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN), an organization of 60 universities and colleges (of which 13 are US-based, including MIT, Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Hopkins, Georgetown) is organized into three working tracks, with one being “Integration of research, teaching, and facilities.” That ISCN devotes a third of its work to living labs illustrates the importance this concept is taking on in the field, particularly internationally. Despite the convergence of interest around livings labs, there is an important nuance in the conversation underway: some narrowly construe a living laboratory to be about facilities and learning through collaborative work on things such like energy efficiency. Other conceptions are much broader and more exciting. These conversations use living labs as a way to create a fundamental shift in education and research toward collaborative real-life problem-solving.
There is tremendous potential in the campus Living Lab concept, since it breaks through the current curricular and operational paradigms to add a new model for both education and sustainability action. Living Labs have the potential to engage students, staff and faculty in citizenship, leadership in sustainability, and to provide a service that benefits the GW campus.