Structure matters: Real-world laboratories as a new type of large-scale research infrastructure

By Franziska Stelzer, Uwe Schneidewind, Karoline Augenstein and Matthias Wanner

What are real-world laboratories? How can we best grasp their transformative potential and their relationship to transdisciplinary projects and processes? Real-world laboratories are about more than knowledge integration and temporary interventions. They establish spaces for transformation and reflexive learning and are therefore best thought of as large-scale research infrastructure. How can we best get a handle on the structural dimensions of real-word laboratories?

What are real-world laboratories?

Real-world laboratories are a targeted set-up of a research “infrastructure“ or a “space“ in which scientific actors and actors from civil society cooperate in the joint production of knowledge in order to support a more sustainable development of society.

Although such a laboratory establishes a structure, most discussions about real-world laboratories focus on processes of co-design, co-production and co-evaluation of knowledge, as shown in the figure below. Surprisingly, the structural dimension has received little attention in the growing field of literature.

Overcoming structure as the blind spot

We want to raise awareness of the importance of the structural dimension of real-world laboratories, including physical infrastructure as well as interpretative schemes or social norms, as also shown in the figure below. A real-world laboratory can be understood as a structure for nurturing niche development, or a space for experimentation that interacts (and aims at changing) structural conditions at the regime level.

Apart from this theoretical perspective, we want to add a concrete “infrastructural” perspective, as well as a reflexive note on the role of science and researchers. Giddens’ use of the term ‘structure’ helps to emphasize that scientific activity is always based on rules (eg., rules of proper research and use of methods in different disciplines) and resources (eg., funding, laboratories, libraries).

The two key challenges of real-world laboratories are that:

  1. both scientists and civil society actors are involved in the process of knowledge production; and,
  2. knowledge production takes place in real-world environments instead of scientific laboratories.
Franziska Stelzer (biography)


Uwe Schneidewind (biography)


Karoline Augenstein (biography)


Matthias Wanner (biography)


Structural perspective of, and process-oriented view on, real-world laboratories (source: Schneidewind et al., 2018)

How this relates to transdisciplinary processes

Transdisciplinary processes can be understood as a specific form of joint action by scientists and practice actors which serves the collective production of knowledge. The aim is to achieve a better understanding (scientific sphere), as well as activating transformation processes (practice sphere).

Giddens’ understanding of structure highlights the meaning of reflexivity of acting in real-world laboratories and the specific form that the duality of structure takes in these laboratories: scientists refer to rules and resources, ie., the modalities of structuration. At the same time, they try to change them in line with a sustainability-oriented transformation during their interaction with practice partners.

Here we can distinguish the structural level of the real-world laboratory and the process level of transdisciplinary research (also shown in the figure). Actors in a transdisciplinary process rely on the structural elements of the real-world laboratory to establish “agency” in terms of an intentional and conscious management of knowledge production and intervention processes. A structural perspective thus complements the process-oriented view on real-world laboratories. From a structuralist perspective, a real-world laboratory is a research infrastructure in which interpretive schemes and norms as well as allocative and authoritative resources are mobilized for real-world experiments. Simultaneously, these experiments enable reflexivity, re-interpretation and – by influencing the involved structural dimensions – sustainability-oriented structural change.

The structural dimensions of real-world laboratories

Based on our own experience with real-word laboratories, we find that the transdisciplinary research process benefits from a better understanding of the specific modalities of structure that actors draw upon in the context of real-world laboratories (see table below).

Modalities of structuration (based on Giddens 1984) in real-world laboratories (source Schneidewind et al., 2018)

Interpretive schemes are crucial for real-word laboratories because cooperation needs to be built on the basis of a common understanding of key concepts and terms. This applies to the real-word laboratory itself. Using this term in a concrete real-world setting is often problematic because of different understandings.

In addition, to achieve science-practice cooperation is only possible if civil society stakeholders are involved on an equal footing rather than as “test objects” in a laboratory.

Mobilization and commitment of actors requires a minimum of local identity, eg., with regard to the district or suburb, city or region in which the real-word laboratory is embedded. This is why a clear distinction and description of real-word laboratories and their link to locally set definitions and identities is of great importance.

In many real-word laboratories, the level of legitimating rules is sensitive. Are scientific actors and practice actors able to refer to shared norms which justify their interference in concrete city or regional settings? The justification of such a science-driven intrusion into society depends on many factors:

  • regional differences in the affinity towards science,
  • the recognition and reputation of the local scientific institutions; and,
  • the credibility of the scientists involved.

Our experience is that establishing and stabilizing such legitimation structures becomes more important as soon as real-word laboratories start engaging with and changing existing structures of power.

The availability of allocative resources has an immediate effect on real-word laboratories. The scope of an intervention depends on human and financial resources. These define the depth of the initiated transformation processes, including:

  • How many people can be reached by real-word laboratories
  • Is it possible to utilize whole areas, buildings, infrastructures, districts for real-world experiments?
  • Are investment resources available for testing, eg., new forms of regenerative energy supply?

Apart from allocative resources, the scope of real-word laboratories depends on authoritative resources, ie., the possibility of utilizing power in political or organizational governance processes, including:

  • Is it, for example, possible to experiment with road closures to bring forward mobility experiments?
  • Can official communication channels promote real-world experiments?
  • Can a management board motivate members or employees to participate in real-world experiments?

The specific characteristics or, in German, “Eigenart” of each real-word laboratory is determined by the specific interplay of its structural elements. The structural specifics of real-word laboratories have a significant impact on the type of transdisciplinary processes taking place within a real-word laboratory. A clear analytical understanding of the different structural dimensions facilitates the identification of different “patterns” emerging in real-word laboratories – with patterns offering a basic understanding of how experiences made in one particular real-word laboratories can be learned from and transferred to other contexts.

Does this fit with how you think about structure? Are there other dimensions of structure that you think should be included? How has structure played a role in real-world laboratories that you have been part of?

To find out more:
Schneidewind, U., Augenstein, K., Stelzer, F. and Wanner, M. (2018). Structure matters: Real-world laboratories as a new type of large-scale research infrastructure. A framework inspired by Giddens’ Structuration Theory. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 27, S1: 12-17. (Online, open access) (DOI): 10.14512/gaia.27.S1.5

See also the supplement: Schneidewind, U., Augenstein, K., Stelzer, F. and Wanner, M. (2018). Compilation of real-world laboratories with different spatial and thematic scopes (examples from Baden-Württemberg, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Switzerland). (Online): (PDF 180KB)

To see all blog posts from the partnership with the journal GAIA:

Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Polity: Cambridge, UK.

Gross, M. and Krohn, W. (2005). Society as experiment: Sociological foundations for a self-experimental society. History of the Human Sciences, 18, 2: 63–86.

Biography: Franziska Stelzer PhD is a research fellow at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in Germany. Her main research interests are real-world laboratories in the context of transformative research and societal impact assessment.

Biography: Uwe Schneidewind PhD is president of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy and professor for Sustainable Transition Management at the University of Wuppertal, Germany. He is a member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). His main research interests are transformations to sustainability in their technological, economic, institutional and cultural dimensions and the role of science and science policy for sustainable development.

Biography: Karoline Augenstein PhD is a junior research group leader at the Center for Transformation Research and Sustainability (TransZent) at the University of Wuppertal, Germany. Her main research interests are in sustainability transitions research and transdisciplinary approaches, currently focusing on upscaling strategies for an urban sharing society.

Biography: Matthias Wanner is a research fellow at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, Germany. His main research interests are real-world laboratories, bottom-up approaches and psychological dimensions for societal change.

8 thoughts on “Structure matters: Real-world laboratories as a new type of large-scale research infrastructure”

  1. I find the discussion of structures supporting co-production of knowledge useful. However, the focus on patterns for “real-world laboratories” makes me a little uncomfortable. I think the discomfort comes from the narrowness of the term and the obvious comparisons to traditional (?) laboratories. Others probably don’t feel this way, but I personally think it should be possible to use a broader name – and broader set of patterns for a “targeted set-up of “infrastructure“ or a “space“ in which scientific actors and actors from civil society cooperate in the joint production of knowledge in order to support a more sustainable development of society”.

    Here’s a few associations that jar:
    – Laboratories are highly controlled places. They achieve knowledge by eliminating uncertainties rather than embracing them
    – Emphasis on “real-world” suggests that traditional labs are not- perhaps even that their knowledge is not relevant
    – Labs are places that scientists are in charge – which is why it is so easy to see scientists as intruding, and legitimisation becomes so important (the example of road closures is rather scary from this point of view)
    – Labs are knowledge- and problem-driven rather than society-driven. Knowledge production is foregrounded rather than integrated into the background of how society works
    – The us-vs-them dynamic is maintained – as you note, the status of science and scientists becomes important, rather than the broader idea of experimentation and iterative learning in a democratic setting

    I’d be interested in hearing about the experiences you’ve had with using the expression “real-world laboratories”. Have these associations come up? Have you experimented with terms that might imply a broader set of patterns for engagement/different connotations?

    • I should clarify that I am aware the term is widely used, and am not trying to criticise *your* adoption of the term. I would rather like to highlight that the term itself risks both limiting the patterns that can be identified, and influencing what patterns are feasible for establishing structures for transdisciplinary research.

    • Hi Joseph!

      I can fully understand your thoughts and reflections on the “lab” term. Let me share some more thought from us on this topic which will be published as a box in a paper this month:

      “Reflections on a catchy but contradictory term
      The most popular idea of a “laboratory” is a sterile, white room where scientists carry out experiments. Accordingly, the classic concept defines laboratories by their exact set-up and clear boundaries between inside and outside (Guggenheim, 2012, p. 101). The setting and processes are as fully controlled as possible; the “real” outside world with all its complexity, contamination and randomness is shut out. Opening the doors of such a highly-organised setting to let in life’s fuzziness ruins all the efforts undertaken to separate causality from chance. Conversely, applying “laboratory” methods to cooperative, real-world field research seems to harbour ethically alarming aspects like using people as “laboratory rats”.
      This is contradicted, however, by the recent advent of a bundle of creativity-driven “lab” projects that cultivate co-creation as a way to enrich and enhance our real world (Berkhout et al., 2010; Blikstein & Krannich, 2013; Feola & Nunes, 2014; Gershenfeld, 2012; Seyfang & Haxeltine, 2012; Seyfang & Smith, 2006; Wieczorek, Raven, & Berkhout, 2015). Here, the term “lab” is used in the sense of a “shared working space” in which there is no harsh distinction between inside and outside, a place where one starts reconstructing, innovating and inspiring one’s surroundings in a practical manner.
      The RWL research approach seeks to bridge the extremes of classical scientific experiment (“placeless research”, (see Kohler (2008, p. 766) and a “just-do-it” workshop mentality (e.g. creative labs). RWLs are always embedded in a real-world context with real (sustainability) problems to be solved and hence contrast with the objectifying concept of laboratories mentioned above. All in all, we propose that RWLs draw their terminological power and catchiness from the (linguistic) promise of combining the value of concrete action paired with scientific rigour and persuasiveness. In our experience, the term is acceptable to practitioners and helps to establish stable science-practice teams.”

      Looking forward to further feedback and exchange!

      • Thanks for a very convincing response!
        I take it that the term usually does need (brief) explanation at first use, and it is deliberately giving science a strong voice (equal to the sum of others? “concrete action paired with scientific rigour and persuasiveness”). I can see the value of that – and also why legitimisation is a problem in some circumstances.

        • I’m glad the response seemed helpful!
          Yes, brief explanations are needed at first use.
          We also observe that the term (at least in German-speaking areas; “Reallabor”) develops a life of its own. This helps a lot in respect to dissemination and applicability of the concept. In turn, this also blurs the concept because different stakeholders use their own definitions and foci. But I still see this rahter as a strength for real-world change than as an unwanted side effect.

  2. Thanks for the useful blog. I find the dimensions in Gidden’s modalities of structuration very useful to think through and flesh out what makes the context where the research process exist. As you have pointed towards the end, it can lead to identifying patterns or experiences about what works in what context and why. I wonder if you have come across any work in the direction of eliciting these patterns or experiences utilizing Gidden’s framework or similar.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.