Counterpoint: Living Lab is much more than a gimmick

John Robinson, UBC’s Associate Provost of Sustainability, and professor in IRES and the Geography department, responds to Maayan’s critical take on UBC as a Living Lab.

Living Lab concept and post-normal science
The term “living lab” was invented by me in the context of the CIRS project. It was only later, at my suggestion, that it was applied to UBC as a whole. So I bear some major responsibility for the “jargony ring”.

As for the epistemology of the concept, I think there are two key issues here: First, as Maayan noted, sustainability is itself a normative and political concept. In this sense, our research fits under the umbrella of engaged research, participatory action research, civic science, issue-driven interdisciplinarity, trans-academic work, post-normal science, mode 2 science, etc. (there are many terms). I am quite proud to be part of this tradition. Second, there is an argument (with which I agree) that all research of any kind is deeply normative, in that it is based on certain underlying philosophical presuppositions about knowledge and meaning. From this point of view, a claim to being neutral merely masks this underlying normativity. Both points suggest that the muddying of the waters in research Maayan described is actually important to do.

Relevance of Living Lab findings
Our partners in the community do not agree that projects with different funding models are not relevant to industry. We have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the City of Vancouver (and are developing one with Metro Vancouver) based on exactly the opposite premise: there is much to learn from each other. A moment’s reflection will make this clear. If we learn something useful about how to build or operate a bioenergy plant at UBC, this may be of direct value to a partner organization considering such development, even if the funding model is completely different. There are many technical and behavioural issues that are independent of the financing of the activity. The series of workshops we ran on district energy with various municipalities within Metro demonstrated this clearly.

More generally, there are at least two ways in which our living lab activities are of great potential interest to our partners. First, we have a highly skilled staff in the areas of planning, infrastructure development, building operations, food services, etc. who are working to implement sustainability at UBC. Many of the lessons they have learned (e.g. how to commission a building better) are of value independent of the funding model.

Second, none of our partners can undertake ongoing research on the development process itself, on the operations of the infrastructure, on the experience of the building operators or the residents/occupants, etc. Little of this depends on the funding model of the infrastructure. How people react to sensor-controlled lighting is not dependent on how the building was funded. This research is pure value-added information unavailable to our partners otherwise. This is a huge area where we can develop and make available knowledge that will not be otherwise created.

For example, the problems uncovered in the CIRS building commissioning process have already led to changes in the way UBC commissions buildings, the use of design charrettes has influenced the design process in later buildings, the technical guidelines for the Orchard Commons project were developed in conjunction with CIRS, etc. None of these depend on the funding structure for CIRS. Also, we are working actively with one developer in the city (Bentall Kennedy) and in discussion with another about a partnership (Concert Properties).

Living lab to operational processes
There are in fact quite a number of processes that connect Living Lab research with the university’s operations. At the most general level, there are two ongoing group processes related directly to sustainability: The first is the Campus as Living Lab Steering Committee, chaired by John Metras and myself, and the second is the Campus as Living Lab Working Group, both of which have 10-15 staff, faculty, and partner members. There have been dozens of meetings between the two of these groups over the past few years, and the agenda is to generate, discuss and review all CLL projects.

In addition there exists a more informal operational management group, which I invite to lunch 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.

In addition to this there are quite a large number of more formal internal operational level processes, including an operational sustainability strategy (2013-16) that covers water, energy and emissions, material and waste, commuting and getting around campus, housing and amenities, engagement programs and integration. There are 7 Campus Community Plans that bear on sustainability (Land Use, Campus Plan, Public Realm, Housing Action Plan, Neighbourhoods, Transportation, and Integrated Stormwater) as well as a Climate Action Plan, and two other action plans under development (Zero Waste, Water Conservation), and (also under development) a Community Energy and Emissions Plan and a Green Building Strategy. Underneath these are unit level sustainability frameworks for Student Hospitality and Housing, Building Operations, IT, and Payment and Procurement, with others under development.

We can argue about the content of any of these plans and activities, but I don’t think it is fair to say that there are no processes through which living lab research findings can move (and have moved) into operational activities.

Overbuilding and sustainability
I think the question of what amount of new construction can be considered sustainable is critical. I would put the question this way: What is the future of universities, and is a residential experience going to continue to be an important part of that? I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that, which suggests the need to try and create some kind of adaptive and flexible planning process. This is actually an ongoing discussion in Campus Planning but I don’t think anyone has developed any particularly good answers.

From a sustainability point of view, having students (and staff and faculty) living on campus has real environmental benefits, of course. But I think there are also potentially large social sustainability benefits as well. One of the key ideas underlying the commons developments [Ponderosa Commons is the first of this concept to be built. Orchard Commons is next. – ed.] is to combine residence units, classrooms, offices, retail, fitness, art, childcare, bike facilities, a Collegium for non-residential students, etc., all in the same complex. That seems to me to be a good idea.

So, while there may be temporary exceptions, I don’t think we are now in a situation of building beyond need, although some of our research on sustainable buildings has demonstrated that the occupancy numbers used in design of office buildings often over-estimate actual occupancy at the design stage. But that is a slightly different issue, I guess.

This is not to say that the process has been perfect over the past few decades (far from it), nor that there are not many agendas in play in the current situation. To me, the important question is how to try and make whatever process there is move in the direction of greater sustainability. In this case, I think we can do something quite valuable and important from a living lab point of view, and contribute to what, as I said above, I think is a more sustainable use of the land in the area.

I can only say that, in my experience, the people in charge of the various departments listed above are quite strongly committed to sustainability goals, and indeed devote quite a bit of time to this issue. People may of course disagree with them (and me) about what sustainability implies for a university but that is rather different from the claim that they don’t care about it.

New Copp building development
I think create dense pockets of residential/academic/social activity is where we need to go if we are to really create a more sustainable community on the campus. To be clear, the Copp redevelopment will be faculty and staff housing. Whatever your views on the history and the process (both of which are important, I agree), do you really oppose the very idea of having faculty and staff housing on that site? If your answer is yes, then the issue is indeed one of process: whose views get heard and how the decision is made. I can only encourage you to make your case.

As to the living lab component, it is true, as I understand it, that the Copp project must be a living lab for it to be able to have housing on the site. To me, this is a huge opportunity to create a true living lab project. Rather than trying to add research and teaching on sustainability to an existing project, we have the chance to design it in from the pre-design stage. I think the design brief linked below conveys some of the excitement we have at this prospect.

Universities serving the public and competitiveness
I am not a big fan of the “world class” ambition when it is expressed in terms of the various published university rankings, though, paradoxically perhaps, I am a fan of the STARS rating system for sustainability in universities (it is much more focused than the extremely general overall ratings). But I don’t think I understand how this relates to being “competitive”, which Maayan connected to a “growth-based funding paradigm”. It seems to me that two things are being mixed together here: the question of what makes a good university; and how the university is funded. They are obviously connected but the use of the word “competitive” connects them in a particular way which I think does not capture very well what is going on.

To me, being any kind of university, and a public one in particular, has to do with the role of the university in the community. That is part of what it means to serve the public. If the concern is that having dense communities isn’t the only goal of a public university, then we agree, but I think it is a very important one. But I think the main point was that making UBC bigger should not be driving the academic agenda. If that is right, then I agree. But to me, that does not mean that getting bigger is inherently bad, especially if it serves other important goals of the university (like being a more sustainable community).

Briefing Note on Copp Living Lab Residential Building 2015-04-25


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