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Questioning the Flemish living lab projects

Date interview: March 24 2016
Name interviewer: Saskia Ruijsink
Name interviewee: Tim Rootsaert
Position interviewee: Business Developer of iMinds living lab

Values Social-technical relations New Organizing Media Internal crisis For-profit enterprises Finance Experimenting Challenging institutions Breakthrough

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

In 2009 IBBT and iLab.o started to be involved (CTP3) in setting up three ICT living labs in Flanders (see iMinds CTP2 that explains how this also marks the real start of iLab.o as an organisation that operated under the umbrella of IBBT). The living lab projects did not take off in the form of an open call, but the Flemish government decided to have projects organised and facilitated by a knowledge institution: IBBT (this is the Interdisciplinary Broadband Technology Institute/ Interdisciplinair Breedband Technologie Instituut, the predecessor of iMinds).  

The three projects were the VPP (Vlaamse Proeftuin Platform – Flemish Living Lab Platform), LeYLab and Mediatuin (Media Garden). Those ICT living labs were prepared in 2009 and actually took off in 2010. The government funded the projects with the idea of investing in digital innovation and technology and for boosting the private sector in Flanders. It should offer companies an opportunity to generate value by allowing them to experiment and learn what cooperation with users and researchers can give them.  

The VPP and LeYlab were living labs in which the two main telecom providers of Belgium took part:

  1. The LeYlab living lab was consortium of companies that was set-up around Belgacom and focused on providing fibre to the homes of people and supporting people by giving them access to smart devices (N.B. Belgacom is now Proximus)
  2. The VPP living lab was consortium of companies that was set-up around and focused on smart grids including a focus on increasing the self-sustaining capacity of elderly people by given them digital services.

The Mediatuin living lab focused on media (radio, television) and operated more or less independent from those main telecom providers.  

The first two living labs projects each received 2.5 million Euros of funding and Mediatuin received 1 million Euro. With LeYlab and VPP most of the money was spend on rolling out infrastructure as to improve the digital networks, while Mediatuin focused on a user panel and expertise.  

At the start of the living labs projects Tim Rootsaert works for the Radio centre (Radiocentrum) and he was from that position part of the Mediatuin living lab team. It was his job to stimulate innovation in the radio sector, as he explains: “You might not believe it, but the radio sector is one of the most conservative and classic industries in the media that exists. (..) In Belgium more than 90% of all the people who listen to the radio listen to it via FM.” He adds that the content of the radio shows is not conservative, but the Belgian people are conservative in adopting technology.   

In the Mediatuin living lab the initial project idea was mainly structured around value creating of the content for radio making, supported by technological innovation. One of the partners then stepped out of the consortium and the project effectively stopped functioning. Dimitri Schuurman was employed by the University of Ghent and was part of the project team as a researcher. At the moment that the Mediatuin project started to fade out Tim and Dimitri started to question the idea behind this living lab more fundamentally: was it actually achieving what they intend to achieve with a living lab? Shouldn’t they run it in a completely different manner? They actually kick-started a more fundamental discussion about the value and innovative and experimental character of a living lab. They focused more on external parties and not only on the consortium itself. They engaged the project funders (the final decision makers) in this debate. Eventually this resulted in a new situation: they got a card blanche to run the living lab project differently, following their ideas of a more externally oriented living lab. They engaged with entrepreneurs and organisations in the media sectors and offered them a living lab trajectory structured around pivoting, iterations, insights and a bottom-up process. Dimitri focused on the methodology and Tim focused on service offering. They developed the living lab approach as a service and their clients, even in the beginning, always paid something for it, even if it was far below the actual price. 


This CTP is mainly produced by Tim Rootsaert and Dimitri Schuurman: two young, ambitious and energetic professionals who questioned the status quo in the living lab project that they worked in. Tim worked for the Radiocentre, a consortium partner in the Mediatuin living lab project and Dimitri worked in this lab as researcher and he was a representative of the University.  

Besides Tim and Dimitri other actors played a critical role:

  • The other consortium partners in the Mediatuin living lab project were also critical in co-producing this CTP. Telenet was a big player in the consortium and they stepped out of the project and that was actually a crucial move that co-produced this turning point (see contestation). After this move, the other consortium partners were not very engaged anymore and they accepted that Tim and Dimitri wanted to take another direction in the project.
  • The project funding was coordinated by IWT, a governmental funding agency. They eventually gave Tim and Dimitri carte blanche and told them: go ahead, experiment and make sure you re-design the project in a better way, so we can actually achieve all the results that you claim.  

As Tim says it, they got the following response: “So guys, you with your big talk, it is just fine, go ahead and proof it.” Tim said that he and Dimitri then felt a huge pressure: “Ouch, now we really have to set-up some projects (..), we have raised our voices and now they say: it is all right, you get money, go ahead… oh shit!”  

So part of the co-production was done by others in and around the living lab who gave Tim and Dimitri the possibility to re-focus the living lab project. That implied that they had to engage with entrepreneurs and organisations in the media sector who were interested in innovation.  They started off by going around the entire media-sector and asked all organizations that were involved in it: “What kind of challenges and problems are you facing? How do you deal with users? What are the advantages and the disadvantages?” They actually developed a state of the art inventory of user innovation in the media sector. Based on this round they found around 10 entrepreneurs and organisations that were interested to start a living lab trajectory. They paid around 4.000 euro for a trajectory (today that would cost somewhere between 15.000 and 25.000 Euro). The logic behind asking money is for Tim obvious: “if you do not ask anything there is no real respect and no ownership from the client”.  

Tim and Dimitri then further develop the living lab approach as a service for supporting innovation and each of them takes his own natural role in this process. This works well since they complement each other. 

Related events

This critical turning point happened in a series of related events:  

2009: The foundations for the project were laid by the engagement of iLab.o and IBBT in the facilitation of the three Flemish living lab projects. The purple government (see iMinds CTP1 and CTP2) understood that technological innovation, digital transformation, e-government, etc. could flourish best in an open innovation environment. Prof. Pieter Ballon and the Operations Manager of iMinds Living Labs then played a big role in putting living labs on the policy agenda.  

2010: The three living lab projects (VPP, LeYLab and Mediatuin) that were initiated in 2009 formally took off in 2010. After six months the project was not moving forward and Telenet steps out of the consortium. The CTP actually took place right after the decision of Telenet to leave the consortium: it got clear that the project is not moving forward in the current set-up and Tim and Dimitri force it into a different direction  

2011: An evaluation that showed that VPP and LeYLab were not successful: they only developed internal business cases within their own consortium, but they did not reach anybody outside their consortium, while this was the intention of the Flemish Government.

Tim states/mentions: “The end of the story is: those two other living labs, I am not exaggerating, they developed 0 (zero) cases with external client, entrepreneurs, public institutions or other external partners. Not one, not two, just zero.” 

We were successful based on the evaluation: “We had project turn-over, we motivated people, we evangelized (spread the message about the importance of open & user innovation, eds.), we created a model and I do not say it was sustainable, but it was potentially sustainable. Voila, that was it!”

2009-2012: IBBT is the project leader of the EU project APOLLON: advanced pilots of living labs operating in networks. Prof. Pieter Ballon is the project leader. This helps IBBT to develop a strong European Network and to generate knowledge and academic credibility.

In 2014 the FIWARE project starts, this is funded under the EU FP7 programme and it allows iMinds to do large scale, systematic experiments that built their knowledge base. iMinds is project leader of Creatifi, this is one of the projects under FIWARE, in addition iMinds is involved as a partner in several other projects under FIWARE.  

The EU projects are important for validation. The Flemish living lab projects are not disconnected from the European activities (e.g. the APOLLON project, see iMinds CTP2) since those activities provided credibility to the living lab researchers. As Tim Rootsaert explains:” If you go to the industry, or any kind of partner with the notion: look, we are living labs, we are research drive and we will solve your problem with our approach… Then you need to reach a certain academic level in your research.” He adds that you need to do larger research projects for that, such as the EU funded projects (see related events: APOLLON, FIWARE), because the bilateral projects with the industry have only a very small margin for experimenting and doing research.   

2015: An impact study shows that the living lab methodology has matured and proofs to add value to SMEs. The efforts of Tim and Dimitri in 2010 were critical in achieving this. 


This critical turning point was full of contestation. Its starting point was the conflict in the consortium. The project focused on content creation and Telenet was interested in developing a new digital radio channel for this that would be accessible via the TV-set top box or Telenet.  It did not go well. And Tim Rootsaert understood that this would not be solved easily. It seemed that Dimitri Schuurman was sharing his worry. As a consequence the main question that Tim and Dimitri then kept on asking was: “Why are we doing this?” They were worried that the project focused too much on themselves as a consortium. And they said they would simply not follow the project logic anymore, they refused to remain so internally focused. This resulted in conflict as Tim explains: “Then Telenet left the consortium, and it felt as if a bomb exploded in our project.” Eventually the only partners that were still engaged were the Radiocentre (with Tim) and the research group of the University (with Dimitri).  

Even if a bomb exploded, the sky got cleared in rather interesting and exciting manner for Tim and Dimitri as is explained in the co-production section; they got a carte blanche to redesign the project. Tim and Dimitri felt pressure before and just after the conflict exploded, but once it exploded they actually got more support than they had imagined. It even put pressure on them; they knew they had to perform now (see co-production). But that also created excitement.

Tim explained that they then redesigned the project plan and budget: “it focused on infrastructure provision, we turned that focus into service provision.”  

So in the beginning of the living lab projects the Mediatuin appeared to the lab with the biggest problems, but eventually they got successful and the other living labs underperformed (see related events). It seemed that the contestation was an important and useful wake up call.  

Once Tim and Dimitri started to ‘go external’ they did experience some resistance and they had to ‘evangelize’: sell the idea of user innovation, of lead users of going beyond the voice of the customer. As Tim explains, the SMEs often gave answers like “we already do a survey… but it is not the same. What people say is not what people do. With our approach we created a debate and the people started to think.” Eventually this changed and people are now actually used to and much more open for living lab trajectories.


When the Mediatuin living lab project was running for about 6 months Tim Rootsaert realized that the project was not going well. The other partners involved also saw that it was not moving forward as desired. However, only Tim Rootsaert and Dimitri Schuurman were really strong about their position: they constantly questioned why they were doing the living lab project, what it should achieve and they decided that they did not want to go on with the project in the way it started off. They anticipated that something had to change. In that sense, they intuitively knew that they were on a cross-road, with the project for sure and possibly also in a broader sense: with respect to the enhancement of the living lab approach. However, they could not foresee what the results of this would be.  

Once they got the carte blanche to ‘do it their way’, they realized they had to do something good, otherwise they could not have the impact they wished for. So this was actually also a clear anticipation in the next step, just after the big turning point in the operation of the living lab. They knew that the living lab approach (and hence their project) could only work if it added value to the existing methodologies that were already in use in Flanders. Their approach had to be innovative: they should not just focus on usability, they should not just work with panels for customer research, since there are enough marketing offices who do that.

Tim and Dimitri understood that they had to unleash some latent needs of their potential clients and that was all about supporting them in their innovation trajectory: guide them in a process where they develop their innovative ideas from concept until prototype or even a bit further. In a learning-by doing-trajectory they found out that one of the most significant added values that they could give to SMEs (N.B. the majority of clients are SMEs, but also other organizations can benefit from this approach) was the creation of small virtual world. The living lab environment actually can create a ‘virtual mini-sub-society’, or in other terms, it can stage a market, in which organizations can test if there is (latent) demand for their innovations and what kind of changes would make their innovations fit better with this (latent) demand. As Tim explains: “With a living lab you can actually stage a market (..). So you can validate your marketing strategy before you are on the market. You then start (..) searching for the needs and wants.” He further explains that in a living lab setting you can look for latent needs. We found out that only if people are confronted several times with an innovation, they get the chance to appropriate it, and only then you know if it has potential. If you do this trajectory of multiple confrontations with lead-users, you can work fast, there is no need to follow users for 6 months for example. Lead users are potential users of your innovations that are selected, based on their attitude towards certain innovations (e.g. they are an innovator, early or late adopter of a certain type of innovation) and not (as is traditionally done) based on their demographic characteristics. Since Tim and Dimitri found out along the way, that in the business of innovation you work with assumptions, since what you do is new. In the innovation trajectory you thus have to make those assumptions explicit. And it is highly useful for organizations to then create some more solid ground. This can be done by staging a market with the purpose to validate those assumptions.  

So in conclusion, Tim explained that anticipation was important in two moments: 1) there was the realization that the project needed to change drastically; 2) there was the realization that the living lab approach really needed to be innovative itself and should focus on guiding innovation trajectories.


An important lesson was that change can happen when you follow your own values and principles, mobilise sufficient support and take risks. Tim Rootsaert was very clear about his values and principles in the living lab project: he clearly stated that he did not want to continue the project in the way it started off. He actually was in a way disobedient and he took a risk: he was a young ambitious and talented professional and he knew that this could lead to a lot of resistance from other people involved in the project. However, even if there was resistance (see contestation), he managed to also get enough support; Dimitri Schuurman was an important support, at ‘his level’, but the support at the IWT (see co-production) was also critical.  Eventually, he managed to proof that his ideas were viable.

During the process the living lab team members who currently work at iMinds living lab generated a common language that helped them in understanding the innovation process through a living lab lens. This shared framing is to a large extent developed in the PhD research of Dimitri Schuurman, which was among others based on the living lab project work in which he was involved (also see iMinds CTP5 and 6). It frames the living lab supported innovation process in three layers, or levels in which the lower level (micro) is the most concrete and the highest (macro) the most abstract:

  1. Macro: On a macro level, a Living Lab is looked at as a platform; or as “a public-private-people partnership consisting of different stakeholders, organized to carry out Living Lab research and Living Lab projects (Schuurman, 2015, p.185).”
  2. Meso: At “the meso level, we discern the Living Lab innovation projects that are being carried out within the Living Lab constellation. We can also refer to this as a Living Lab project (Schuurman, 2015, p.185).”
  3. Micro: We understand the activities in a Living Lab project as the micro level. “Mostly, this consists of a specific Living Lab methodology (Schuurman, 2015, p.186).”

Tim explains that the EU activities are very important at the Macro level, while the Flanders living lab initiatives and Tim’s own contribution mainly focused on the micro level (developing methods, supporting external organizations/ SMEs and by doing that also test the methods) and to some extent also on the meso level (the larger project setting, in this CTP the Mediatuin in which this happened). Tim also adds that this framing helped the team of living lab facilitators to understand what they were doing. Another lesson is that Tim mostly developed his knowledge at the micro level in a learning by doing approach: “I can now explain our approach in a very controlled and structured way, but by then, we all did it subconsciously, we projected what we heard on our knowledge.”  He explained that the process was very much about trying out and about checking what does and what does not work. “Eventually we understood: yes here we are at the right place”. They realized they could add value by supporting innovation trajectories, rather than validating products; it was a process-oriented service.  

The failure of the VVP and Leylab showed that it is risky to develop a living lab around a certain project and consortium structure that is rather narrowly designed. The technology was developed based on certain standards that excluded experimentation with other standards. The cooperation was set up between engineers and researchers and this excluded other partners to join and it determined the focus: they created technology for the companies (the ones who were the consortium partners) and papers for the researchers.  As a consequence those two projects remained internally focused, while the Mediatuin got successful by opening up and including external partners. They assured commitment and ownership of their external partners by asking a modest fee for their service (see co-production).



Schuurman, D. and De Marez, L. (2012), Structuring User Involvement in Panel-Based Living Labs, September 2012, accessed 28-06-16

Schuurman, D. (2015) Bridging the gap between Open and User Innovation? Exploring the value of Living Labs as a means to structure user contribution and manage distributed innovation. Dissertation in order to obtain the title of Doctor in the Communication Sciences, University of Ghent.



From: Schuurman, D. and De Marez, L. (2012), Structuring User Involvement in Panel-Based Living Labs, September 2012, accessed 28-06-16

Box 1. LeYLab (NL)

LeYLab was set up in September 2010 following a public call in Flanders for living labs with "converged broadband access networks" as the central theme. LeYLab was operational by July 2011 and its fibre network is located in two geographically restricted areas (Buda and Overleie) in the City of Kortrijk. The goal of LeYLab is to stimulate innovation and to measure the relevance of new services for the personal lifestyle and living environment of the test users. The consortium of LeYLab consists of 11 industrial partners and the research partner IBBT-iLab.o. The living lab focuses on three thematic domains: e-care, multimedia, and gaming. The fibre internet connection functions as a facilitator for the testing of innovative services and products. In January 2011, a large communication and recruitment action was set up to motivate people living in the selected areas to participate in the living lab. Eventually, 115 addresses were connected to the fibre network; the addresses are mostly residential but also include cultural organizations, schools, and companies. In order to facilitate testing of different services for different devices, the consortium decided to provide some of the connected homes with extra devices (e.g., Android tablets, mini-PCs connected to flatscreen TVs) besides the fibre connection. All connected addresses received multiple surveys in order to allow profiling of the test users for the relevant thematic domains and all data and actions running on the LeYLab fibre network were monitored and logged.

Box 2. Vlaams Proeftuin Platform

The Vlaams Proeftuin Platform (Flemish Living Lab Platform) officially started in October 2010 to support the development of innovative information, communication, and entertainment (ICE) products and services. Its mission is to boost the valorisation of ICE research and development in Flanders and to support joint value creation for all stakeholders. Vlaams Proeftuin Platform is a consortium of four industrial partners and the research department IBBT-iLab.o. The living lab focuses on three domains: Smart Cities, Smart Grids, and Smart Media. A large panel of 2015 users has been built up and has been thoroughly profiled within the three domains through bi-monthly domain-specific surveys.

Box 3. Mediatuin

Mediatuin (or media garden) started in October 2010 to optimize, co-create, and validate media innovation with a cross-media focus. The Mediatuin consortium consists of three industrial partners (SonicAngel, Netlog, and Telenet), the research department IBBT-iLab.o, and REC Radiocentrum (a non-profit organization aimed at stimulating and educating young media talents). The thematic focus of Mediatuin is media, with special attention given to radio and music. By means of a large intake survey, a dataset of more than 7000 respondents was collected with more than 2000 people willing to be involved in living lab projects as test users. This survey was very detailed and focused on the thematic domains of Mediatuin, thus offering a lot of relevant data for the projects that were set up.  

Table 3. Characteristics of the three panel-based living labs

Living Lab Domains Aim Infrastructure
LeYLab multimedia e-homecare gaming experimenting with new applications that request a fast Internet connection digital inclusion, bringing any multimedia service to everyone on any device optimizing the life of care-demanding citizens through new technologies fibre internet connection 43 Android tablets 36 mini-PCs connected to flatscreen TVs project-based infrastructure
Vlaams Proeftuin Platform smart grids smart media smart cities energy management and energy reduction user research on smart media applications and services to evaluate innovative media experience increasing the self-sustain of elderly people no permanent infrastructure, only project based
Mediatuin cross-media innovation co-creating and validating cross media innovations and formats no permanent infrastructure, only project based

Source: Adapted (removed 1 column) from Schuurman, D. and De Marez, L. (2012), p. 35 

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