We claim that ULLs can be an effective approach to integrate local communities into research and experimentation in a meaningful and inclusive way, especially if diverse community groups are represented in the research process. However, there is a gap in research and literature on who is involved or excluded (Bulkeley et al., 2018) as well as specific guidelines and minimal precedent regarding inclusiveness, even though achieving inclusiveness presents an important practical challenge (Evans and Karvonen, 2013; Voytenko Palgan et al., 2016). Instead of expecting stakeholders to come to the researchers, projects need to take as many steps as possible to reach out to them, thus increasing the likelihood of the involved stakeholders accurately representing an area (Marvin et al., 2018) and different needs, knowledge, and perspectives.
Literature review, as well as exploratory interviews with project partners and an internal workshop within the "Creating Interfaces" project consortium, helped to identify key factors and challenges for achieving inclusiveness in ULLs.
Time plays an important role in ULL success and influences other important aspects of the ULL process such as building trust and networks. Simply put, it takes time to establish a good working knowledge of the respective context, specific stakeholders, as well as needs of different societal groups.
Time relates to the available time of project personnel and stakeholders, the planned length of the ULL project, and of the optimal procedures for involving stakeholders. Active and early involvement is important to ensure that stakeholders can shape the ULL process and for the creation of a common vision and the identification of needs (Menny et al., 2018). The level and way of involvement differ in the three typical stages of ULLs: 1. Design, 2. Implementation, 3. Evaluation (Menny et al., 2018). These stages may overlap in time (Ibid.). Due to the ongoing project work, the paper concentrates on the two first phases.
In the project "Creating Interfaces", outreach was done by the local project partners. First, discussions took place during the proposal writing process (initial project design phase) with local stakeholders and a focus on the municipalities. This included an initial definition of themes and starting points.
While the overall thematic focus is generally defined in the design phase (in dialogue with local stakeholders), during the implementation phase, all involved stakeholders should agree on needs, objectives, and methods (Beecroft et al., 2018) and ideally share a common mission and vision (Nevens et al., 2013). A challenge can be to find a common language and create a mutual understanding (Klautzer et al., 2020).
The agreement on needs, objectives, and methods was realized in the ULLs of Project "Creating Interfaces" through regular meetings and smaller workshops with stakeholders. Outreach to citizens started at the beginning of the project first by reaching out to involved institutions, community associations, press, and social media. In Tulcea, the local research partners identified as the main challenge for inclusiveness the comprehensive identification of local stakeholders that form and shape the urban FWE Nexus. This was mainly achieved by qualitative interviews and a survey. The study topic was already well known and researched in Tulcea, facilitating the process. In Wilmington and Słupsk, local partners faced difficulties in the design phase selecting a study topic given the abstract nature of the urban FWE Nexus concept (Wiegleb and Bruns, 2018).
In Słupsk, collaboration and identification of topics for further research and activities took place in close cooperation with the local government. Based on interviews with representatives of institutions, public entities, and non-governmental organizations, the project sought to uncover the aspect of the FWE Nexus that has the biggest potential for wide discussion, stakeholder engagement, and searching for solutions. The most promising starting point appeared to be food as well as water management. Further research through analysis of existing data and a survey conducted among Słupsk citizens (having children) showed that the topic of food in educational institutions was an important issue. The institution's previous experience, specifically public kindergartens, in improving the quality of nutrition helped engage the discussion. The research challenge, however, was to integrate the food discussion into the broader context of the FWE Nexus. Another issue was the choice of date and time for the public ULL workshop, which was held on a Saturday (a free day for many professions in Poland). This choice was meant as a way to meet the needs of the citizens, who were not obliged to leave their work to take part in the workshop. However, with a relatively low level of civic activity in Słupsk, citizens could be reluctant to dedicate half of a free day, especially regarding the specific target groups of parents. Similar challenges emerged in Wilmington as to the starting point topic and timing of the workshop.
An important challenge for all three ULL was the limited availability of the project team as well as of local stakeholders including citizens. Interviews with investigators in the project revealed an underestimation of the time required for the ULL implementation and capacity limitations due to the framework conditions of the project (e.g., funding).
Trust and transparency
Even though trust and trust-building in ULLs are often mentioned as important aspects or even prerequisites of living labs, these aspects still lack thorough investigation (for analysis on trust in knowledge production on the example of biodiversity see Gustafsson, 2013). Beecroft et al. (2018) relate the importance of trust-building to the non-hierarchical and non-determined characteristics of living labs and to the need to build sustainable working relationships, adding that this requires enough time. Franz (2015) describes trust-building activities in living labs like sewing courses and small talk that bring people together and help to build a basis of trust for further activities. He also stresses that a shift of research strategies towards long-term engagement was necessary. Building trust takes time (Nevens et al., 2013) and evolves through relationship-building. Both trust and transparency require good reciprocal communication with the stakeholders before and during the ULL and towards the citizens. For this specifically, communication skills are needed that should ideally be fostered in the education of researchers and practitioners as well as inside transdisciplinary projects and programmes (Jaeger-Erben et al., 2018).
Transparency is an important basis for transdisciplinary cooperation (Daedlow et al., 2016). A lack of transparency regarding underlying interests and concerns as well as goals in a project and levels of involvement and influence could put the ULL research at risk of being illegitimate (Beecroft et al., 2018; Lux et al., 2019). Furthermore, different stakeholders bring in different expectations (Beecroft et al., 2018) and a lack of transparency can create false expectations and conflicts. Providing as much transparency as possible can reassure stakeholders about what they are participating in. It can prevent disappointment and may lead to more active and sustained involvement in the project. Obtaining a commitment from public officials supporting the effort can provide legitimacy and help to build trust among participants (Thomas, 1995). Further, scope, goals, and options must be clearly communicated.
In the "Creating Interfaces" ULL, relationship-building was started through exchange with stakeholders in the city administration and different institutions for exploring local needs and questions jointly addressing citizens in the next step. Because of the complex and abstract nature of the urban FWE nexus, efforts for explaining and linking this approach to local needs and problems were needed. Besides three major workshops similar in all ULL, the local partners kept in contact through meetings and smaller workshops. In all cases, addressing and involving the citizens was not easy and needed channels of personal contacts and contacts through institutions/associations close to them as additional ways of addressing them beyond classical media communication. Having a “foot in the door” locally (through local partners) was a key factor for success in this endeavour. In Słupsk, direct relations between kindergarten managers and parents helped to engage them in the activities.
It should be emphasized that the experience in Słupsk showed that the process of building trust may concern representatives of public institutions even more than the citizens themselves. In participatory processes, such as the ULL process, expectations and needs articulated by citizens are often treated as criticism of public institutions. The institutions are not always able to respond directly due to the procedures in force, staff resources, or other issues—such as resistance to change of thinking and behaviour resulting from long-lasting habits (such problems emerged in cooperation with kindergarten managers).
Communication, translation, and learning
Targeted communication addressing different publics throughout the process and good communication skills present a key factor for inclusiveness and the success of the ULL. This is especially important for a complex topic such as the urban FWE Nexus, which most people do not immediately or easily understand and often needs explanation. Developing FWE Nexus literacies is a prerequisite for engaging stakeholders on meaningful solutions that suit the needs of the urban communities.
This factor touches on a fundamental challenge of transdisciplinary sustainability research: the need for translation. If the TDR approach is taken seriously, cooperation should go beyond noticing and considering separate disciplinary contributions towards some common understanding and also aim at producing mutual and transformational learning (Defila and Di Giulio, 2018; Mitchell et al., 2017).
In synthesizing knowledge for transdisciplinary FWE Nexus research, the SUGI and other nexus research projects have developed and applied different approaches for generating a comprehensive understanding of the urban FWE Nexus and translating it into “products” for use in science or by local stakeholders. Visualizations of the nexus provide a way for translating the concept and analysis between disciplines and to society, and a basis for understandable and relevant outputs of research. The different approaches, experiences, and lessons learned of the projects constitute a valuable potential for developing further sustainability and nexus research by cross-project knowledge transfer and synthesis. Stakeholders, on the other hand, can use visualizations to understand and communicate on such complex systems and system interlinkages, e.g., identifying constraints, interconnections, different perspectives, and unknowns (Bammer, 2019). Based on our experiences, we claim that this can enhance inclusiveness by enabling stakeholders to better understand the concept and interlinkages and thus for providing meaningful contributions in a knowledge co-creation process. The project "Creating Interfaces" experimented with ways of visualizing the urban FWE Nexus’ interconnection understandably and appealingly, in cooperation with local stakeholders and citizens. However, the impact of visualisation on learning and understanding cannot be reported yet due to the ongoing research.
The translation into visual content can also enhance mutual learning, one of the key characteristics of living labs identified in the literature (for insights in learning processes of ULL see e.g., Voytenko Palgan et al., 2016). However, “learning” also refers to a “learn and adapt” approach in the project responding to the need to integrate local knowledge and adapt the project according to local needs and expectations to make it meaningful for the local communities. This was undergone in all three ULL of the project "Creating Interfaces".
Build on local needs, create value
To achieve active participation, stakeholders need an incentive to participate. Creating value by addressing local needs is one incentive for active stakeholder participation and for achieving a meaningful local impact (Beierle and Cayford, 2002). This incentive can be reinforced through commitments of local decision-makers to incorporate the co-created knowledge into practice (Thomas, 1995). In our ULLs, this proved to be a difficult aspect, especially in the lack of direct options for resources for doing so but also given dominant governance practices (e.g. silos).
Regarding the ULL process, user orientation in the sense of taking into account the potential users of the outcomes is one of the key aspects defined in the reflective framework for research in societal responsibility (Ferretti et al., 2016, Haller et al., 2016).
Working with local stakeholders, especially citizens, directly on the urban FWE Nexus proved difficult in all three ULL since the urban FWE concept proved to be too abstract and far from the participants' imminent concerns. In the "Creating Interfaces" project, the decision was taken to locally approach and tackle the FWE Nexus by entering through one specific nexus element (food, water, or energy). The respective element identified with stakeholders as the most relevant one during the project definition phase, allowed to base the local activities on expressed needs. The interlinkages were then explored, aiming to make the nexus more tangible. In Wilmington, a participatory modelling (PM) exercise on the local nexus interlinkages was realized with citizens and local stakeholders during the public ULL workshop. PM is defined “as a purposeful learning process for action that engages the implicit and explicit knowledge of stakeholders to create formalized and shared representations of reality” (Voinov et al., 2018). Including PM into the ULL workshops allows to create and understand interconnections of the urban FWE Nexus, to grasp needs, wishes, concerns, or possible conflicts as well as the interdependencies between the stakeholders [citation redacted].
In Słupsk, food in public institutions was chosen as an entry point, in Wilmington community energy, in Tulcea water, and specifically irrigation of local gardens. For the stakeholders involved in Słupsk, it was important to provide information about the health effects of food on children in kindergartens and about the origin of food. The issue of the relationship between food locality and quality was one of the important topics discussed during the ULL workshop in Słupsk. These expectations allowed us to link them to elements of the FWE Nexus (e.g., energy—transport of products, water consumption for food production, nutritional values, production conditions). Researchers can play a relevant role here in enhancing the visibility of non-obvious connections and interfaces between elements of the urban FWE Nexus. In Wilmington, the initial choice of linking the ULL to local community energy was changed to food waste reduction after the first ULL workshop and subsequent interviews. This topic proved to better meet the knowledge needs of the community as well as being more tangible.
Network and ownership building as continuing process
Maintaining contact and providing ongoing feedback even while not engaging with stakeholders enables them to feel involved and valued throughout the project’s timescale, especially if it is long (Durham et al., 2014). Additionally, it is crucial to follow up with those involved after the project has run its course, to make sure that the research and information collected was beneficial in the long term for the community. How long the outcomes are sustained and have impact is strongly related to local ownership of the process and the outcomes and linked to the intensity of involvement (Wittmayer and Schäpke, 2014). Based on our experiences we claim that the nature of traditional research project funding does not facilitate this process of taking over (co-)ownership by local society. The importance of skills and resources for process facilitation and enabling of active involvement of local stakeholders is not adequately considered. The engagement, again, needs time and resources as well as local acceptance of the coordination of the ULL after the project ends.