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Consolidating 3 Flemish living lab projects

Date interview: March 24 2016
Name interviewer: Saskia Ruijsink
Name interviewee: Koen de Vos
Position interviewee: Operations manager of iMinds living lab

Social-technical relations New Organizing National government ICT tools Finance Expertise Experimenting Evangelizing Emergence Academic organizations

This is a CTP of initiative: Living Labs ‐ Imec living labs (former iMinds Living Labs) (Belgium)

The second critical turning point (CTP2) takes place in 2009 and it is about the development of iLab.o that consolidates in the start of 3 living lab projects (see CTP3) that were set up around ICT use and focused on mainly Flemish entrepreneurs and were managed by iLab.o, the predecessor of ‘iMinds living labs’.  

What kind of organisation is iLab.o? It is part of the IBBT (this is the Interdisciplinary Broadband Technology Institute/ Interdisciplinair Breedband Technologie Instituut), which is the predecessor of iMinds (the umbrella organisation that hosts among others the current iMinds living labs). IBBT funded the Open Innovation Centre Brussels (the OICB and one of the first ENoLL members) in the beginning of the 2000’s. The OICB operated institutionally within the larger structure of the SMIT (Studies Media Information Telecommunication) research group of the Free University of Brussels (VUB/ULB). In 2007 the Open Innovation Centre Brussels (OICB) was re-branded to iLab.o and as mentioned, ‘iLab.o’ is the predecessor of the current ‘iMinds living labs’. In 2008 the remnants of iCity (a project that focused on providing Location Based Services powered by WiFi in Hasselt) were merged with IBBT.  iLab.o then also absorbed some of the  people that used to work for iCity (also see iMinds CTP1). In 2009 the interviewee joined the iLab.o team as operations manager and he played a big role in laying the foundations of what is now known as the iMinds living lab. One of those foundations was deciding who joined the iLab.o team.

At its early stages iLab.o had two main ambitions and related activities:

  1. iLab.o wanted to make sure that the Flemish living lab projects take off. Those projects aim to give Flemish entrepreneurs an impulse; to stimulate open and user driven innovation in Flemish businesses and to use the Flemish funding that is available to materialize this. The interviewee played a critical role in this process. He understood the strategic importance, but also knew how to translate that in operational terms: who should do what, which funding can we use for what, what value can and should we create.
  2. iLab.o also wanted to create a stable link to the developments at European level. There was funding available at a European level for living labs since the European Commission acknowledged that Europe needed to invest more in cross-border collaboration for innovation, among others to expand the market of the different European countries and of Europe as a whole. Prof. Pieter Ballon played a critical role in realising this European ambition since he was strategically thinking about the European opportunities and led the acquisition process in these programmes.

The ambitions resulted in 3 living lab projects that were operated by iLab.o (under the IBBT umbrella) in Flanders and that received 6 million Euro of funding from the Flemish Government. Additionally IBBT (of which iLab.o was a part) was the project leader of a European research project APOLLON (funded by the EU) that aimed at networking and harmonizing Living Lab approaches throughout Europe.


This critical turning point is co-produced by a number of key actors and/ or organisations and by a number of key persons:

  • iLab.o which is the predecessor of the current ‘iMinds living labs’ and its larger umbrella organisation IBBT (the predecessor of the current ‘iMinds’) and the iCity project of which its remnants were absorbed with IBBT in 2008. This link to iCity also suggests an important connection with Frank Bekkers (see iMinds CTP1), an entrepreneur who is very much focused on making change happen. iLab.o is the key organisation in this CTP and its existence became prominent with the kick-off of the 3 Flemish living projects. The interviewee (operational manager of iMinds Living Labs)  played a critical role in making iLab.o a successful unit that managed to move beyond doing three pilot living lab projects and move towards a more sustainable organisations that is still active in promoting the living lab approach within Flanders.  The IBBT at large was at this time also involved in the APOLLON project and that gave credibility in terms of an academic research base as well as networking and it provided IBBT with a certain status within Europe.
  • The SMIT (Studies Media Information Telecommunication) research group of the Free University of Brussels (VUB/ULB), offered an institutional basis and connections to researchers for iLab.o (and before for the OIBC, see section on content) and IBBT. Prof. Pieter Ballon was the project leader of the EU funded APOLLON project. He was the director of iLab.o (and he now is the director of iMinds living labs) and he is also the head of the SMIT research group. He played an important strategic role in making sure that iLab.o got international recognition. In addition the Research group for Media and ICT (MICT) (of which Dimitri Schuurman was part at that time) was important. MICT, was led by Prof. Dr. Lieven De Marez, who has been a firm believer in Living Labs as an innovation framework from the outset and this team has been the research methodology driver for the local projects, while SMIT was having a more international role.
  • The Flemish government provided a supportive policy framework including considerable funding for 3 Flemish living project of 6 million Euros. The logic behind this initial project funding was to start up a project that focused on developing an approach (working with living labs) that could continue to exist afterwards, but then without this project subsidy. Since the interviewee worked in Brussels as direct advisor of a minister before joining iLab.o (see iMinds CTP1) he had a large network in Brussels and also knew the most important Flemish players and additionally he had highly developed professional intuition that helped him to deal effectively with the Flemish government in the course of the three living lab projects. He could easily interpret policy objectives and knew how to engage with the financing governmental departments.
  • The three Flemish living lab projects were driven by 2 major telecom companies: 1) Telenet and 2) Belgacom (now this is Proximus). Additionally there was a living project that was independent  from the large telecom companies and this once was called ‘Mediatuin’ (see iminds CTP3).
  • The European Commission and the European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL) played an important role at European level. The EU funded (the funding stream was the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme, ICT Policy Support Programme - CIP ICT PSP programme; that made large scale pilots possible) APOLLON project and this project was important at the level of knowledge creation and also more strategically, for positioning, network development and for creating a credible image. During the closing event of APOLLON in May 2012 there was a minor impact study presented and it showed Mario Campo Largo (who joined the event as the principal scientific officer with the European Commission DG INFSO - Information Society), that the Living Labs approach can be taken seriously as an innovation paradigm. This helped to increase the importance of Living Labs for European projects. Besides the predecessors of iMinds were already a founding member of ENoLL since the beginning and that is also important and very strategic as it offers credibility, knowledge and network. Prof. Pieter Ballon is a board member of ENoLL since its inception. Eventually the work of iMinds living labs also gets boosted by the outcome of an impact evaluation in 2015 (see related events).

Related events

This CTP is related to several preceding and evoked events. The overview below zooms in on the events related to the moment that iLab.o really took off with the start of the three Flemish living lab projects.

Flemish Developments European / Global Developments

2004 Elections in Flanders in which coincides with the launch of iMinds (then named IBBT) on 22nd of April of 2004

2004 The predecessor of iMinds (IBBT) starts with the iCity project in Hasselt that aimed to provide free WiFi in the city.

2004 Elections in Flanders: the foundations are laid for policy support and funding for living lab pilots

2007 iLab.o is established

2009 Elections in Flanders and Brussels: continuous support of living labs in Flanders/ Flemish living labs

2009 the interviewee joins iLab.o

2013 A case was developed by asking companies if the living labs approach helped them

2014 IBBT becomes iMinds and iLab.o is becomes iMinds living lab  

2015 impact study showing that investment in living labs lead to an effective value creation (see iMinds CTP5)

2000’s EU aims to develop Europe as one market (like US and it states)/ stimulates cross-border business development          

2006 1ts wave of ENoLL: iCity and OICB become member (later this is iLab.o)

2007 launch of iPhone

2009-2012 : EU project APOLLON/ European living labs

2010: ENoLL becomes iVZW based in Brussels (international not-for-profit association) and iMinds is one of its founding members

2015 City of Things in Antwerp: merging Flemish and European Ambitions

2000’s EU aims to develop Europe as one market (like the US and its states) and it stimulates cross-border business development; this is related to overcoming the European Paradox (see iMinds CTP1, related events). The interviewee says: “Start-ups in the US immediately have access to a market with 30.000 users, since there are 318 million inhabitants there, while the EU market is much more fragmented in terms of culture and regions. So here you have an SME that has 3 programmers and that has 3000 users after 2 years. We then think we are doing well. But actually, that is not much of an achievement for a start-up.”

In 2004 there were elections in Flanders, which coincides with the launch of iMinds (then named IBBT) on 22nd of April of 2004. The living lab approach can count on political support of the Flemish government.

In 2006 ENoLL was established. iCity and the Open Innovation Center Brussels (OICB) were founding members and prof. Pieter Ballon is a board member since ENoLL’s inception. Later iCity and OICB were replaced by iLab.o, the predecessor of iMinds living lab, now iMinds is the ENoLL member.

In 2007 the OICB was re-branded to iLab.oIn 2008 the remnants of iCity were merged with IBBT. iLab.o then also absorbs some of the  people that used to work to work for iCity.

In 2007 the iPhone was launched and this also marked an important moment in the shift towards mass adoption of smart phones. A critical external event for the development of ICT based innovations in general.

In 2009 there are elections in Flanders and this results in a government that continues supporting living labs in Flanders. Even though the major funding of 6 million, for the 3 Flemish living labs (see iMinds CTP2 and 3) was already mobilized in 2008.

In March 2009 the interviewee leaves the cabinet (government of Brussels region) and he joins iLab.o. the interviewee played an important role in role in reorganizing iLab.o, this was mostly addressed in the CTP interviews with Tim Rootsaerts and Dimitri Schuurman (see iMinds CTP 3-6). He selected the best people from iCity and IBBT and he formed the team that is what is now known as iMinds Living Lab. It has ambitions at Flemish and European level as is explained under content.

From 2009-2012 IBBT, prof. Pieter Ballon leads the EU project APOLLON: which stands for ‘Advanced Pilots Of Living Labs Operating in Networks’. This helps IBBT to develop a strong European Network and to generate knowledge and academic credibility.

In 2010 ENoLL becomes an iVZW based in Brussels (international not-for-profit association) and iMinds is one of its founding members.

In 2012 the IBBT is changed into iMinds.

2013 iMinds living labs started to build up a case to understand its own added value. It starts its own evaluation with the companies that it works for and with and starts to get the feedback that working with living labs indeed creates added value.

In 2015 an external office did an impact evaluation that also shows the added value of the living lab approach. This creates a strong internal position of iMinds living labs within the larger iMinds structure.

In 2015 iMinds is a main partner in the City of Things in Antwerp and in this project Flemish and European Ambitions are merged.


There was political support, including funding for developing three living lab projects. Also there was a young organisation with experienced and strategic leaders and dedicated professionals to work on the projects. However, there were tensions within the projects and also the more long-term continuation of existence of iLab.o and later iMinds living lab is not always a given.  

It was hard to get a real open innovation model off the ground. There was an opportunity that the big telecom providers (and ICT infrastructure owners) such as Telenet would really start experimenting in the living lab. It would have been interesting to see how they could really engage users in the development of creating new products and services.  Additionally to see if other companies could start offering services and start developing business models for that by using the infrastructure of Telenet. But Telenet was not eager to give open access and hence the openness and experimental character of the living lab project was limited. Eventually they did lower their prices considerably, but this was not as a consequence of cost reduction or other innovations that were developed in the living lab activities, rather it was a consequence of the competition and natural price correction mechanisms in the market.  

There was also collaboration with the IBBT project team that worked on the APOLLON project (see co-production) lead by prof. Pieter Ballon. They worked among others on business modelling. They did good and sound analyses of various business models and could explain why certain models failed why others were successful under certain conditions. The idea was that the researcher would support the living lab projects giving advice on business model. However, in reality, the academics could perfectly analyse business models, but they could not make good business models. The interviewee says: “I remember that I walked in an office with a very expensive feasibility study in my hands, the vice director immediately went to the chapter ‘Business Model’ and told me: this does not have the type of information and argumentation that will warm up organisations like HP and Cisco for making investments, I can really not work with this.” So the academically sound feasibility studies were not appreciated by the entrepreneurs, since they had little practical value and did not guide convincingly and concretely how investments had to be made.  

Finally, the CTP was very important in laying the foundations for the future of iLab.o (iMinds living labs). However, within the larger IBBT (iMinds) organisation the value of this department was often questioned. It was not clear if there was enough commitment from all actors involved to continue investing in it. More recently the impact study in 2015 was the most critical related event in this respect as it provided appreciation and externally validated credibility for the work of this team.


As is explained in iMinds CTP1 the interviewee  intuitively knew that he was, professionally, at a turning point and he had to make move. He decided to leave the Brussels government just before the elections. When he talked about following his own ambitions and dreams in the field of working on interesting, innovative and impactful projects with ambitious people, in the field of ICT he said: “I felt it in my bones, after this legislature it will be difficult in Brussels.”  He then also anticipated that there would be political support for living labs and that this could mean that iLab.o was at the beginning of a period of dynamic and exciting project work with considerable impact. He also was sure he wanted to work with ambitious and dynamic people, who share his passion for innovation and want to move forward. His move towards iLab.o/ iMinds proved right and he now works with a dynamic team of 35 to 45 people.  

The personal anticipation of the interviewee also relates to the anticipation of this CTP. In a way, he knew, or at least expected that he moved to a dynamic place that would become leading in promoting innovative ICT applications in Flanders and even beyond (as iMinds living labs has an important EU focus as well). He also understood that the 3 living lab projects were a very good opportunity, for him personally, but also for iLab.o as an organization. At the start of the 3 projects in 2009 he could not yet fully foresee and oversee the strategic relevance of EU related activities in which prof. Pieter Ballon was mostly engaged. But the realization of this importance came later.  

As anticipated, the 3 initial living lab projects also proved to be very important for laying the foundations of the current organization of iLab.o. / iMinds living labs. Even if the continuation of the existence of it was not always fully guaranteed (see contestation) eventually it also proved to be successful as an organization. The reaction (anticipation) towards this insecurity was the development of a case to understand the added value of the living lab approach. This was important. And then, the general opinion about iLab.o’/ iMinds living labs’ importance within the larger iMinds structure was heavily influenced by the outcomes of the recent impact study (see related events). 


There are some important lessons that were derived from this CTP that evolved around the 3 kick-off living lab projects which were run under the guidance of iLab.o. The interviewee explained that they learned things that are served as useful guiding principles for the living lab projects that were developed at various SMEs in Flanders. Based on the experience with the feasibility studies and business modelling (see contestation) it became very clear that iLab.o would not generate project plans with numbers to the SMEs that they work with. As the intervieweesaid: “we went to an entrepreneur and then we said: ‘we will do a living lab and we will give you insights in what your users want, we will then give you a good problem-solution-fit and you can then use that to improve your business model, but we do not do the business model ourselves.’ Even if we had a group of people who said that they did business modeling.

The interviewee explains that he learned that there are different levels (this is also further discussed in the CTPs that are based on an interview with Dimitri Schuurman, iMinds CTP5 and 6). Different actors operate at different levels and they often do not easily communicate with each other. Also you need different skill sets at the different levels and you need to know which one to mobilize when and for whom. To give an example: Prof Pieter Ballon operates at a higher (macro) level. He discussed platform economies in his PhD study; this study had a highly predictive nature and it predicts development patterns of a platform economy that fully resonates with what happened in the case of the iPhone and app store or with Uber. As the intervieweeexplains: “Uber is currently a platform for taxis. You can hardly start a new one that will be as successful, since Uber has the critical mass, to become a dominant platform.” It is very important to have people as Prof Pieter Ballon on board since he thinks at a macro level, and he understands trends that are still in the making. But that kind of thinking is not useful if you run projects, where you need to understand the micro level and be able to formulate concrete advice. the intervieweelearned to make sure that the right expertise went to the right place, so the thinking at the various levels would actually complement each other.  

Additionally, the role of the intervieweewas very much to push his team to get prepared for a next step. He would typically mobilize his team by constantly pushing them a bit forward, slightly out of their comfort zones: “Guys, it is almost over here, isn’t it? We are running out of funding, what will we do? Shall we try a few projects, how will we continue?” As explained, Pieter Ballon operated at a higher level and by doing so he brought in project funding, of large projects. Those projects then also needed to be administered and financially managed to make them really operationally and financially successful and there the intervieweeplayed a crucial role.  

The interviewee also pushed his team to close projects properly: by building a case to see if the living labs added value (see related events) and to check if and how the SMEs benefitted from the living lab projects. This approach proved successful and the number of projects rapidly grew from 1 to 5, to 10 projects per year. It got easier to get in new projects, in the beginning there was much time spend on selling the idea and concept of a living lab. the intervieweeillustrates this: “we had to evangelize in the beginning and the share of evangelizing got smaller and smaller”. This was also influenced by the European positioning of the living lab approach and it got a real push from the impact study in 2015. 

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