Institute for Technology Assessment and  Systems Analysis (ITAS)

The Real-world Lab – a Transdisciplinary Framework to Support and Connect Learning Cycles

Project description

Real-world Labs”, a new format of transdisciplinary and transformative sustainability research, currently receive an astonishing amount of attention – even though the question of what constitutes their novelty has not yet been answered comprehensively. This thesis develops the Real-world Lab approach systematically from a perspective of transdisciplinary research. It is based on the experience with establishing and developing one of the first Real-world Labs in Germany: The long-term oriented “District Future - Urban Lab” in Karlsruhe/Germany. The aim of this Lab is to transform one district to a model of a sustainable urban space in cooperation with civil society actors. To do so, it combines strategies from research, practical transition and education.

The texts included in this cumulative dissertation represent different stages in the quickly evolving methodological Real-world Lab discourse and the respective practice. The first two texts develop a practice-based definition for Real-world Labs and relate them to similar scientific discourses. The second two stem from a stabilisation phase of the Real-world Lab discourse. One of them develops goals and design principles for Real-world Labs as a supporting framework for transdisciplinary projects, the other integrates current conceptual discussions on learning theories. The last two texts focus on the level of projects within a Real-world Lab, using transformative project courses in higher education as examples to discuss both didactical and analytical questions. The framework text integrates the findings and insights from the previous publications into one coherent model of transdisciplinary research in a Real-world Lab, the “apple”-model.

Based on discourses on transdisciplinarity, sustainability sciences, educational theory and didactics, as well as on similar types of interdisciplinary or social labs, the thesis addresses three core questions: What is new about Real-world Labs? What potential do they offer for transdisciplinary projects? And what is the role of learning processes in Real-world Labs? Methodological reflection of Experience gathered in the Karlsruhe case, Real-world Labs represent a format between Urban Living Labs and Transition Labs. Its most distinguishing features are, among others, the long-term orientation, the inclusion of education and learning, and the clear distinction between laboratory and experiment. Based on a critical discussion on the function of a Real-world Lab, the thesis derives a double relation to transdisciplinarity, understanding it both as an infrastructure for transdisciplinary projects and as a transdisciplinary intervention in itself. Based on this distinction, the text offers a suggestion how to develop transdisciplinary experimental strategies beyond the classical understanding of experiments from natural sciences. A Real-world Lab can support such experiments by offering a framework, which is comprised of material infrastructures, competencies of different actors involved, gathered knowledge and social networks. Experiments in Real-world Labs typically take place in parallel and take several learning cycles, which makes interlinking across project boundaries another distinctive feature of Real-world Labs.

The thesis integrates these aspects into the “apple”-model of transdisciplinary research in a Real-world Lab. In this model, the Real-world Lab serves as a node both between internal and external learning cycles, and between scientific, educational and practical ones. By identifying the processes in a Real-world Lab as learning cycles, potential links to other learning processes become apparent on different levels: For learning processes within the Real-world Lab, it serves as a learning environment. The Real-world Lab itself can become a learning institution, and it can provide a starting point for societal learning processes.

Administrative data

Supervisor: Prof. Daniel Lang, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Advisor: Prof. Michael Stauffacher, ETH Zürich; Prof. Armin Grunwald, ITAS
Related projects:
Doctoral students at ITAS: See Doctoral studies at ITAS


Dipl.-Ing. Richard Beecroft
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)
Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS)
P.O. Box 3640
76021 Karlsruhe

Tel.: +49 721 608-24674