What Are Living Laboratories?

Defining Living Laboratories

Put simply, living laboratories can be defined as any productive/educational use of the campus landscape. Under such a broad definition, many things that may not be formal labs can be considered living laboratories, from streams on campus to campus buildings. Various organizations and publications have crafted more detailed definitions of what a living lab can be:

  • “hands-on learning opportunities for students” that “merge academics and campus facilities management to provide students with real-world skills and, for the institution, a path to meet its sustainability goals” - American Association of Community Colleges (AACC)
  • “a given place where problem-based teaching, research, and applied work combine to develop actionable solutions that make that place more sustainable” - Portland State University
  • “outdoor garden classrooms, created and maintained by Greater Newark Conservancy at Newark Schools” - Greater Newark Conservancy

Regardless of their scope, size, or definition, all living labs have experiential education at their heart.


Living laboratories have many benefits for universities and their students:

  • facilitating experiential learning and making curricula relevant (through multidisciplinary and experiential learning)
  • reducing the college’s carbon footprint
  • using institutional resources efficiently
  • improving college completion
  • enabling businesses to test products and technologies while building tighter partnerships with universities
  • helping governments and NGOs achieve larger sustainability goals while building partnerships with universities
  • fostering internal partnerships within universities
  • enhancing student learning through relevant and impactful courses
  • instilling students with relevant skills that have real-world impact
  • providing support for operational staff for implementing certain projects
  • launching a new, innovative model for high education


Living laboratories are complex. They involve a lot of players, and oftentimes a lot of moving parts. As a result, there are a lot of potential issues with living labs. There can be a lack of awareness of projects, and a lack of communication between all the players involved with living labs. There can be many issues with implementation and maintenance, from a lack of resources to get a project started to a lack of resources to continue one. Other hurdles include the mindset of the university community (their interest and commitment to living labs) and the feasibility of living lab projects. Still, the challenges of living laboratories are outweighed by all their benefits.