by Melisa Krawielicki, BOKU

@Universität für Bodenkultur Wien, Professor Sebastian Pfotenhauer, Technical University Munich (TUM) explores test beds as places where we can test how societies can be reconfigured for a new set of technologies.

Test beds are usually thought of as places where we test technology under real-world conditions. However, in a manner similar to a new set of technologies. With this statement at the beginning of his talk called “Testing future societies? Developing a framework for test beds and living labs as instruments of innovation governance”, Professor Sebastian Pfotenhauer, Technical University of Munich (TUM), immediately gave away an important conclusion.

Defining test beds

Test beds (also known as “living labs” or “real-world laboratories”) are a prominent innovation tool that is deployed by companies and research institutions to drive innovation in a designated experimental space. They aim to provide a controlled experimental space that aids the collection of feedback on a new technological invention under realistic conditions. After making this invention to perfection in a safe way, it can be expanded (“scaled up”) from the test bed to other parts of society. Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, Sidewalk Toronto in Canada and the Catalonian Living Lab in Spain are examples of test beds.

In the context of test beds, they are “frame future society”. Therefore, reinvent the way we perceive society. Pfotenhauer illustrated this fact using two examples of test beds in Germany.

Two case studies of the testing of future energy systems

The “Energiewende” in Germany has resulted in many test beds as part of the work on more sustainable living alternatives for the future. Two prominent examples are the “European Energy Forum” (EUREF), an urban smart energy campus in Berlin, and the “Energy Avantgarde Anhalt” (EAA), a regional renewable energy network in Saxony-Anhalt.

EUREF has become a flagship initiative of a new sustainable way of urban living. With its hip and “berlinesque” flair, it attracts a young and innovative crowd. Because the property is privately owned and its infrastructure is fenced off, it is fairly easy to advance further discoveries in this controlled environment. The EUREF has become more than a showcase for public demonstrations.

The EAA, on the other hand, is not fenced off, is located in a rural environment and is spread over a much larger territory than the EUREF. Located in the state with the highest average age and second-lowest GDP per capita in Germany. Moreover, the EAA is – in contrast to the EUREF – relatively open to any citizen wishing to join the project. However, not many have seized this opportunity.

Three tensions of test beds in society

Because of the unique combination of defining elements that make up a test bed, it is not possible to do so in the same time. This creates certain tensions, three of which Pfotenhauer elaborated on during his talk.

Controlled experimentation versus messy co-creation – usually scientists want to work in a controlled, replicable environment, so they need a certain unpredictability to test how a product functions in an unexpected situation.

Testing versus demonstrating viability – Not every experiment ends with a positive result. Trial and error is an acceptable scientific method. However, if there is any doubt, it is not.

Unique real-world settings versus scalable solutions – Test beds are under pressure to perform under very unique social conditions but at the same time to produce results.

Legal protection of society

There are many practical considerations when it comes to implementing a test bed in research. Do we want an opt-in or opt-out system? How to do this is the only way to opt out?

In any case, the legal protection of the individual affected by the testing is crucial for the acceptance of test beds. According to Pfotenhauer and his SCALINGS colleague Iris Eisenberger, this can be facilitated through different regimes.

First, it is possible to obtain informed consent for participation in a test bed, which can be compared to the one in a medical context. This regime is often used when testing robots that interact with individuals, for example. Second, persons can rely on judicial protection if they have legal standing in court. The law can determine what circumstances it is. Third, legal protection can not be achieved by an individual but on a general level. Nevertheless, the legislator’s conditions must be in accordance with the fundamental rights of the individual. Here, the key challenge is to balance the innovator’s rights to protect his or her property,

The process of researching the progress of research has been completed. The ethical boundaries of test beds and, in particular, the comparison of animal testing and human testing, prompted many follow-up questions.

The report in PDF format is available here .