Calling partial bullshit on the “Living Lab” concept: can UBC really study itself?

The phrase “UBC as a Living Lab” only recently trickled into my awareness. I admit that it immediately reacted in my brain to produce a cloudy mixture of suspicion and cynicism. The words have that jargony ring of strategic plans with names like “place and promise”, and school mottoes like “a place of mind” – those sweet nothings invented by overpaid PR firms to push UBC up the ranks of university prestige-politics. In theory, UBC as a Living Lab is the idea that UBC can and should study its own environment (built, and social)  to improve its sustainability, serving as a model for other communities and the world. Ideally, UBC as a Living Lab is all the UBC-centric applied scholarship that contributes to sustainibility above and beyond what would be expected otherwise. In practice, I fear that it may serve as part of the expansionist prestige-accumulation machinery that clothes an unnecessary construction bonanza under the guise of academic achievement and sustainability. Let talk this through a bit.

The knowledge-making maneuver the Living Lab approach makes isn’t all that straightforward. It is still research, yes, but the researchers are explicitly developing and hoping to implement normative, directional, claims (ie. sustainability – an inevitably a political idea) into the built/social environment. This fact muddies the waters of conducting research considerably.  Typically, perfectly interesting, successful research can be conducted on failing, collapsing, imploding, systems. Not so here. Living Lab-type studies have been intimately involved in the very planning and execution of the sustainability-enhancing projects they study.  Thus the measure of success can’t just be the quality of findings, but the actual outcomes and relevance of the test case. So why self-reflexively study UBC?

According to John Robinson, UBC’s Associate Provost of Sustainability, professor in the IRES and Geography department, and a key instigator and champion of the idea, universities in general (and UBC in particular) have unparalleled opportunities to experiment with sustainability. He argues that these opportunities result from having relatively self-contained supply and demand for services under a single governance body which has the freedom, mandate, and money to try new things. In this way, universities function as a sandbox and benefit the public by learning from their experiences. On the other side, you have Hadi Dowlatabadi, also a professor in IRES and at the Liu Institute;  he says that far from making it an ideal place to study, the exceptional governance and financial position of the university makes studying it essentially irrelevant. The green buildings, power plants, and other initiatives undertaken here are of little relevance to designers and builders because they would be completely financially impossible in a conventional setting where federal and provincial grants do not fund up to 80 % of capital costs through programs like CFI and BC-KDF.

I sympathize with both sides of this argument – on the one hand, if universities can’t spend money on innovation and weather failures in sustainability projects, who will? UBC can afford to mess up, learn and improve potentially faster than other sectors, and thus in the long run, benefit the public. But, if major projects like new buildings at UBC are funded so differently than anywhere else and end up with failed systems (as has been the case for the campus’s flagship green building, the Centre for Integrative Research on Sustainability, CIRS), they don’t really provide value to the larger community as a prototype. In the case of CIRS, the sewage treatment, heat exchange, and custom controls systems do not work, resulting in energy savings well below those predicted in the design, even though the building is only at 65% occupancy. To Hadi, this failure cannot be forgiven. “You can sell this idea to a gullible president [Toope, at the time -ed], but you can’t sell it to a developer,” he told me. We did a little calculation on the whiteboard in his office showing that it would take on the order of a few hundred years to recoup the high building cost of CIRS through its energy savings.

To me, this operational clusterfuck could be forgiven as a productive failure (just like in high tech!) if it was driving improvements. I’m cautiously optimistic that this could be the case, but there are a few stumbling blocks here.

First is the way that research works. Research boils down to the MSc and PhD projects of individual graduate students, reading and writing away on self-contained theses. Anne-Mareike Chu, an MSc student in RMES who studies green buildings (and is co-supervised by John and Hadi) sees value in the Living Lab concept – according to her, the idea means that UBC’s many sustainability initiatives can be looked at together as a “test bed” in larger structures. But she concedes that there is no specific mechanism for moving the knowledge gained through her research to the builders, renovators and managers of buildings at UBC. Meetings and presentations are organized on an ad-hoc basis and depend on the student and their supervisor. That shouldn’t surprise anyone – it’s the rambling, ambling way that graduate school works.  After talking to Anne-Mareike, I found out that there is actually a protocol being developed that integrates some lessons, called “The Sustainability Process for Major Capital Projects”  – under the responsibility of John Metras, UBC’s head of infrastructure development. Given that a grad student involved in a Living Lab-type project didn’t know about its existence (or didn’t think it relevant to mention), I don’t know how dynamic the document and accompanying process can be. But OK, maybe it’s only in its infancy**.

So lets be generous and assume that lessons are eventually learned. Where will they be applied? This brings me to the second problem: in order to have things to design, study, and monitor, the Living Lab program seems to have entered into an unholy union with the construction glut that UBC has engaged in over the last decade. Enter the Copp building development. The demolition and reconstruction of this building is part of the latest iteration of Campus and Community Planning’s U-Blvd concept, which I wrote about last week. But, the site is actually outside the borders of the University Boulevard Neighborhood Plan, and is designated in the ‘Academic’ area. This would make non-residence housing on the site a contravention of UBC’s legally binding Land Use Plan (LUP). To get around this, the Copp redevelopment is going to be a “Living Lab”. See, it’s still academic! But we can still build 6 floors of housing for non-students! (It is planned currently as staff and faculty rental housing – someone please show me the proof that there’s enough demand for this). The plan cooked up for Copp is dubiously legal under the LUP, despite the assurances of Campus and Community Planning. It is further complicated by the fraught history of UBC’s push for market housing in the U-Blvd neighborhood, and by the hostage-like linking of this project to a science teaching lab renovation through a dense financial web of intrigue. Point is, whatever the good intentions of the champions of the Living Lab concept, and however cool their plans for the new building, I fear that they are being played by people whose vision of UBC (whether stated explicity or not) is essentially antithetical to sustainability.

The fact that researchers here are studying the built environment around them through a Living Lab ethos is unremarkable unless there’s a mechanistic way to require/reward the feeding of findings back into the decision making system. It’s much much worse than unremarkable if it provides intellectual cover for unnecessary, rapacious development which does nothing to serve the public (as a public university is mandated to do). The fact that UBC is very good at making more of itself at a cancer-like pace exemplifies the expansionist funding model of the public university currently in vogue, but, no, it is not sustainability.  My next post will discuss the paradox of overbuilding for sustainability, and more generally expansionism as a funding model for the public university and the role housing plays in this.


I was wrong about the lack of processes through which Living Lab findings can move and have moved into operations. Thanks to John Robinson for the following information:

Formally, there are the Campus as Living Lab Steering Committee, chaired by John Metras and John Robinson and the Campus as Living Lab Working Group, both of which have 10-15 staff, faculty, and partner members. The agenda is to generate, discuss and review all CLL projects. Less formally, there is an operational management group, which meets periodically to discuss sustainability issues. This consists of the heads of campus planning, infrastructure development, building operations, energy and water services, student hospitality and housing, payment and purchasing, and parking and security.


Further reading:

Campus as a Living Lab webpage

Forbes interview with John Robinson about the Living Lab concept

UBC documentation on Copp building linked to life sciences teaching labs

Neal’s explanation of the funding maneuver that does this

Briefing Note on Copp Living Lab Residential Building 2015 04 25






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  1. Maayan, thank you for your engagement. I wanted to respond to your blog wearing my hat as UBC’s Canada Research Chair in Preventive Medicine and Population Health and the original instigator of this project.

    When I came here 8 years ago to study novel approaches to disease prevention, one area I was particularly interested in was architecture as an increasingly-recognized social determinant of health, and as a researcher and elected member of the University Neighborhoods Association I participated in the design and development of multiple campus projects, including helping lead components of three remarkable structures (the Bioenergy Research Demonstration Facility, School of Population and Public Health renovations, and skatepark) on campus.

    What I’ve been left with afterwards as an academician is some satisfaction, but also a huge frustration. Why, I wondered, was UBC building any structures without addressing as many important research questions as we could every time we did so? Surely, I thought, we could, and surely, I therefore also thought, we had some moral imperative to do so as an institution of higher learning and research.

    In fact, developing this residential project at UBC has become one of the most rewarding and responsive experiences I have ever had as a researcher. Several years before repurposing the Copp building thusly was suggested, I came up with these 9 reasons why I thought UBC should pursue creating such an experimental residential building, and began discussing them extensively at planning meetings:

    (1) Better-reflecting UBC’s commitment to faculty and staff by creating additional and different types of affordable and attractive housing for them and their families.
    (2) Providing a stronger reflection in UBC’s residential options of our commitment to environmental, social, and financial sustainability.
    (3) Having the living lab include experiments from more UBC disciplines, and across disciplines.
    (4) Integrating the academic and residential spheres of campus by having scholars and residents collaborating in a deep and permanent way.
    (5) Producing residential options on campus that are called something other than “dismal and isolated” by architectural critics, options that could be as architecturally alluring and important as the best of what we’ve done in the academic sphere.
    (6) Modelling a desirable way to fill the under-occupied midrise apartment buildings on South campus which are compliant with the letter of UBC’s 50% work:live occupancy mandate, but non-compliant with its spirit.
    (7) Providing justifiable comfort to those concerned that UBC is indifferent to the potentially erosive effects on social sustainability that often comes with continuing densification.
    (8) Being an exemplary company town, as we’ve made a commitment to >50% work-live.
    (9) Creating a significant research legacy, a shining star for Campus as a Living Lab, as over half the world’s population live in urban environments and they are losing their connection to place, community, and self, with terrible personal and societal effects — figuring out how to reverse this uprootedness is one of the most critical issues of our lifetime, for academicians, planners, and builders.

    I think these reasons might answer some of your questions, and again, thank you and others for becoming part of this important process.

    Posted by Erica Frank, MD, MPH | May 5, 2015, 8:12 am
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