Tue 13 Jul 2021

Live Case 6: Reflecting on Our ROBUST Journey and Looking Forward

The compilation of the Gloucestershire report by the Living Lab (LL) team gave us the opportunity to reflect on the achievements and challenges from participating in the ROBUST project.  

This Living Lab experience has been valuable.  It has reinforced an excellent and informed professional network beyond just the research and practice partners, including stakeholders from government departments, regional bodies, businesses, local authorities, and others.  
As the practice partner, and a local authority, Gloucestershire County Council (GCC) has mandatory and discretionary responsibilities within the county but operates within national policy guidelines and adheres to tight budgets.   The research partner, the Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI) from the University of Gloucestershire (UoG), while focused on ROBUST objectives is also motivated by scholarly outcomes from the project. 
Living Lab – Working in Partnership
The Living Lab (LL) approach gave us the resources and space to explore new ideas and consider innovation and change. This appeared to work most successfully when timescales and objectives were similar between UoG/CCRI and GCC or between the LL partners and external organisations; for example, the work being driven by the UK government’s Crown Commercial Service investigating mechanisms for local food procurement.

Research and practice partners working together provide a broader perspective on innovation possibilities, plus valuable academic input combined with delivery experience and local knowledge. The partners have valuable strengths and experiences.  
For example;
•    The emerging work on the Gloucestershire Food Strategy and the forthcoming renewal of the GCC procurement process for the next 5-year Schools Food Contract occurred in parallel with the ROBUST project research activity on Food Systems. ROBUST resources were used to make conversations happen and hold workshops during which opportunities for Dynamic Procurement Systems (DPS) could be discussed. This included matters like the potential for local smaller producers to supply the public sector. This development work fed into the plans to establish the South West Food Hub to pilot a DPS trial across the southwest of England in 2022.
•    GCC has Lead Local Flood Authority status and Gloucestershire has significant water courses within its borders but together with neighbouring counties has suffered three incidents of major flooding since a devastating flood of 2007. The catchments of the major rivers are located across several counties and within both England and Wales.
•    GCC is a regional advocate of nature-based solutions to water management and its membership of the Regional Flood and Coastal Committee (RFCC) proved influential.  Meanwhile, UoG was able to devote research time to reviewing scholarly, practitioner and institutional barriers to such solutions in regional flood risk interventions. 
•    Knowledge has been gained on Natural Flood Management (NFM) techniques through a rural sustainable drainage trial in 2014 along tributaries of the Thames, which rises in Gloucestershire. This experience and knowledge, combined with a willingness to work with seven county/unitary flood risk authorities on a regional basis, has enabled the establishment of a subgroup related to this work.  This subgroup reports to the regional group (RFCC) about future NFM project activity along two of the major river catchments in Gloucestershire, the Severn and Wye. This subgroup and its terms of reference were established with the benefit of ROBUST support and resources.  
•    The national and international drive and commitment to reduce carbon emissions relates closely to the Circular Economy principles being discussed in the Business Models theme. Within our county this policy arena is a key focus, especially for what is now a draft Local Industrial Strategy as well as the Gloucestershire Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (2019). ROBUST support enabled two online workshop meetings to be held. Local partners were therefore able to discuss this topic, which is currently a particular focus for the public sector.  

What We Have Discovered in Our Living Lab
To those practice-based organisations which are considering using a Living Lab (LL) process, we would recommend finding partners with similar or linked objectives and setting up regular communications. A previously established or current working relationship will inspire confidence and provide a good starting point.

For the LL to work well in a practice context you need:

  • Resources, including time and energy from key people;
  • Commitment from the organisations involved and support from influential staff/decision makers for the duration of the LL;
  • Professional and regular communications; and
  • Agreed timescales and plans for the activity and objectives. 
    • For our LL (and throughout ROBUST) these were articulated in the Research and Innovation Agenda.

The ROBUST project has been a positive experience, notwithstanding the unexpected and ongoing international pandemic which began during 2020. This pandemic hugely affected our daily work priorities, our lives and communities and it spilled over into our planned ROBUST activity. Nevertheless, despite the challenge, one year on, good progress has still been made across our three priority themes: Food Systems, Ecosystems Services and Business Models.
For longer-term projects such as ROBUST, a degree of change is always to be expected. The current and unprecedented reliance on ICT resources and new ways of working remotely has been essential and looks set to continue. A flexible approach to our tasks and a willingness to communicate and agree on changing work priorities has been required throughout this period of change.  
Looking Forward …
Our Gloucestershire LL team have highlighted outcomes and conclusions from the ROBUST project. The most important of these is the development of new forms of governance that support urban-rural synergies. In particular, these synergies relate to the flow of water along and between rural and urban sections of river catchments and the flow of food from rural production to urban consumption areas. 
With the closing of the ROBUST project, we anticipate that the outputs and outcomes we have achieved will continue to provide a useful legacy for future work. This, of course, includes a positive working relationship between GCC and CCRI colleagues and other key external stakeholders.

Related Communities of Practice

Mon 16 Nov 2020

Live Case 5: Embedding Research in Regional Policy Processes

In Gloucestershire, innovations agreed in our research and innovation agenda (Feb 2019) were:

  • Sustainable Food Systems: Reduce food and materials waste in the food sector via supply chain management
  • Ecosystem Services: Develop more integrated approaches to water resource management
  • Circular Business Models (CBMs): Introduce shared learning about circular economy and natural capital

We have largely, but not fully, achieved our goals, which were adapted along the way.

One important learning experience was the need to look beyond the county border to achieve our goals. This complicated the stakeholder range, and made us look to the English Midlands in relation to ESS, and towards the south-west for food. We feel this expansion will produce stronger and lasting rural-urban synergies in the long run.

Our LL informed the development of the Gloucestershire Food Strategy, especially around the localisation of public procurement for which the team helped establish a Dynamic Procurement System (DPS) taskforce. Our research will result in a rewording of the next 5-year school food tender document as a stimulus to introduce DPS-sourced food in the supply contract. DPS is an exciting new IT development which allows smaller-scale producers more conveniently to supply the public sector. The last few months of LL activity will be directed towards connecting Gloucestershire producers with a regional trial for DPS operation via the South West Food Hub. The LL helped secure the location of the DPS pilot.

The focus of the LL in Ecosystem Services has been to connect urban flood risk management (usually engineered flood protections) with rural land use interventions called Natural Flood Management (NFM). While NFM is an effective, low-cost intervention dependent on community and landholders’ support, its implementation has been piece-meal. The LL team worked with seven county/unitary flood risk authorities to recommend the initiation of regional, strategic approach to NFM. Consequently, in January 2021, the Regional Flood and Coastal Committee will formally consider a recommendation to institute a NFM sub-group.

The Glouchestershire LL team is preparing a draft circular strategy paper / roadmap that will contribute to the implementation action plan of the Gloucestershire Climate Change Strategy. Achieving greater efficiency and more effective demand management of Gloucestershire’s resources will compliment the county’s already well-publicised ambition to shift to greater low-carbon energy use over the coming decade. Simultaneously, the team is also preparing a scoping document of the county that will showcase activities which are already taking place that complement the emerging circular agenda (e.g. the Gloucestershire Tree Strategy).

Related Communities of Practice

Thu 16 Jul 2020

Live Case 4: Making Lasting Progress In Uncertain Times

Lockdown and ‘social distancing’ restrictions as a consequence of Covid-19 have meant that ROBUST meetings and events within the Living Lab (LL) now happen in a virtual environment.

One of the critical impacts in our LL was the cancellation of our WP5 regional workshop, planned for 17 March. As in other LLs, we had planned a ‘backcasting’ exercise to help us articulate a vision, a base-line, priorities and actions leading to the formulation of a Green Infrastructure Strategy for Gloucestershire. Green Infrastructure (GI) is "a network of multi-functional green space and other green features, urban and rural, which can deliver quality of life and environmental benefits for communities".

The perceived benefit of a unified GI strategy was that in Gloucestershire, planning authority is delegated to six district councils, who have varying environmental contexts, economic and housing needs. A joint GI approach could have helped guide planners in their approaches to enhancing ‘natural capital’, namely ‘the world’s stocks of natural assets’ .

Two things have resulted from this postponement.

Firstly, the Local Nature Partnership in Gloucestershire (a multi-stakeholder alliance which oversees the implementation of environmental policy at the local level) is mapping the county’s natural capital and suggesting land uses which optimise it. ROBUST will help with this by continuing our efforts to establish a new Natural Flood Management practitioner group, whose job it will be to co-ordinate and execute rural land use interventions which reduce urban flood risk in downstream river catchments.

Secondly, we hosted two online backcasting workshops. These were linked to two LL themes: sustainable food systems and new business models/labour markets.

The first workshop, on 7 April, explored how public sector food procurement (e.g. schools and hospitals) could help to ‘transform demand for local produce for the benefit of people, business and nature’. This goal is one of the three pillars of the Gloucestershire Food Strategy. LL experiments in favour of introducing dynamic procurement systems (DPS) – an IT food ordering and distribution consolidation tool – for school meals in Gloucestershire is now written into local food and industrial policy. This is another solid legacy for the ROBUST project. Gloucestershire farmers, including tenants of the County Council, will be supported by the LL to engage with a regional DPS pilot from January 2021.

The second workshop, on 30 June, discussed ways in which ROBUST can help integrate circular economy principles into countywide policies and activities looking ahead to 2030. We aim to complement existing activities and strategies including the Gloucestershire Energy Strategy and Gloucestershire’s Climate Change Strategy.

The circular economy is already present implicitly in discussions taking place within Gloucestershire but has a particular fit with the developments focused on climate change mitigation and adaptation. The circular economy is an explicit part of the Local Industrial Strategy, especially in relation to the agri-food economy. As the circular economy is so broad in scope, it was agreed to focus on three areas in greater depth, acknowledging that these are interconnected:

  • Food waste - as a critical resource, embodying nutrients and energy that are an essential rural-urban interaction.
  • Construction - with embodied carbon and complex material flows, it is a key target for circular approaches, not least in eco-renovation.   Improving the circularity of these material flows may enhance the quality of rural-urban relationships, in an urbanising county with important quarrying and mineral extraction industries.
  • Water - clean water is a vital circular resource and one that may come under increased pressure from climate change. It is a material flow that singularly links rural and urban areas.

A separate development at CCRI has been the establishment of a COVID-19 and food resource library, updated every week by Damian Maye. It collates reports, articles, opinion pieces, and similar news items relevant to ROBUST, particularly the sustainable food systems theme. It has proved to be highly useful and very well used source of developing COVID data in relation to food.

Linked to this, Matt Reed has organised four webinars that discuss the impacts and opportunities of COVID on local food, which again links to the sustainable food systems theme. The webinars have covered public procurement, vegetable box schemes and cities, and involved guest speakers inside and outside academia, including from Japan. The webinars can be revisited on the CCRI youtube channel.

Despite the lockdown, we have used IT to overcome most restrictions in physical contact to progress our RIA. This was initially challenging and presented a different approach to meetings, but online connectivity has proved an essential tool.

We see our LL experiments supporting policy and practice advances in rural-urban synergies. At the time of writing, lockdown has been eased (e.g. some children are back at school), but many employees are still working remotely or are on state-sponsored furlough, are anticipating their return. However, localised infection spikes have emerged in the UK, reigniting concern.

The anticipated return to "normal" seems fragile and several months away; in fact, future working practices may be very different.

Related Communities of Practice

Tue 26 Nov 2019

Live Case 3: Co-Creating New Knowledge and New Connections

We held the Gloucestershire Regional Living Lab meeting at the University of Gloucestershire's new business school.  The venue was just down the corridor from the Local Enterprise Partnership office, the body charged with promoting the development of the county.  Our Lab has already been in contact with many of those active in creating change in food and flood management.

At this event, we introduced our next focus - the circular economy.  After Damian Maye presented the ROBUST project, Robin Drake from Gloucestershire County Council introduced the concept of the circular economy, and we then moved into a discussion.

Although the participants were divided into three groups to reflect the topics of the Lab, it was quickly apparent that the linkages between the themes are so close they cannot be discussed in isolation.  The circular economy table was suddenly talking about food, while the food table spoke about food waste and the ecosystems table about farmland management. 

Our 19 participants from differing backgrounds quickly identified local examples of how integration was already happening. From the motorway services built to exacting locally set eco-standards and selling local food, through to a professional football team in the county with vegan catering, practical solutions are bringing the themes together.

These examples exemplified how one change could catalyse others, creating a series of innovations linking the rural to the urban in novel ways.

But bottlenecks were identified in areas where the high expectations of local citizens were frustrated by analogue systems struggling in a digital age.

The land use planning system is both complex and slow in responding to the changes needed to create a sustainable environment, with those who disagree able to delay or block progress.

Leadership is often lacking to create the momentum to consolidate change, but who should take on that responsibility is not apparent.

Still, there is a desire for better environmental performance.  Investment is needed to achieve the next steps: school kitchens have to be built, accreditations paid for and local supply chain capacity boosted.  But all too often the cheaper, more comfortable, short-term decision is made.  

The morning ended on a positive note as participants from education, local government, civil society groups and business found areas of agreement.  By reaching across the themes of the Lab, the team was able to bring people together.  The participants in the Lab co-created new knowledge but also new connections to other people in the county.

Related Communities of Practice

Wed 08 May 2019

Live Case 2: Putting Research to Work in the Region

The Living Lab in Gloucestershire aims to assess the potential and feasibility of circular economy (CE) and natural capital (NC) growth models in the county and their potential for synergies and improved urban-rural linkages.

The initial, Envisioning phase, of the Living Lab builds on earlier work in WP2 that identified relevant policy documents, governance tools and issues of current importance in the county in relation to urban-rural relations with our three themes: Sustainable Food Systems, New Business Models and Labour Markets, and Ecosystems Services.

Our starting point for the Living Lab was to explore the feasibility of deepening a circular economy (CE) approach to growth in the county. Our enthusiasm for CE was stimulated by the high profile this concept enjoys in several recent national strategy documents, local versions of which are being developed, namely the Industrial Strategy, the 25 Year Environment Plan (25YEP) and the Waste Strategy. The former sets out policies for increasing productivity and competitiveness in priority industry sectors, while the second envisages the substantial enhancement of natural capital through changes in land management. The Waste Plan aims to cut waste production and enhance the sustainability potentials of waste management in society and industry.

We have used the envisioning stage work to connect with wider stakeholders in the county via two strategic priorities linked to local economic development (Local Industrial Strategy) and the local food economy (County Food Strategy).

This has enabled us to tap into existing networks rather than 'create' a lab from scratch, and to align the Living Lab work with tangible policy outcomes that will extend beyond the duration of ROBUST. The latter will be further extended in the next phase.

Appreciative Inquiry workshop, March 2019

In our initial Envisioning phase we have:

  • Carried out desk-based research to provide basic profiles of the county in line with our three CoP themes – Ecosystem Services, New Business Models & Labour, Sustainable Food Systems (background papers).
  • Carried out simple GIS soil quality mapping of the county (Rob).
  • Interviewed 15 individuals representing food business, local authorities, commercial and environmental networks, water companies and civil society.
  • Conducted stakeholder mapping to identify key players in our CoP themes (Janet and Carey).
  • Produced two GIS maps of soil quality and land use in the county.
  • Facilitated a stakeholder workshop attended by 6 individuals using appreciative inquiry techniques.

Finally, in an internal but expanded workshop (attended by 11 individuals including the project team), we discussed key findings of the envisioning phase, which resulted in a revised RIA and broad outline of how the experimental phase should be structured. Outputs from this phase include interview and workshop transcripts, stakeholder maps and GIS maps.

In the next phase, the Gloucestershire Living Lab will establish three competency groups, which will, in turn:

1. Explore opportunities within public procurement contracts (which are a form of governance) for increasing market opportunities for local producers in rural and urban areas of the region. This work will also inform the emerging Local Industrial Strategy and support the implementation of the associated Gloucestershire Food Strategy.

2. Identify and assess the potentials for CE business models, particularly in the land-based economy, and in the Forest of Dean, where manufacturing represents 25% of the economic base of the district.

3. Support efforts in the county, including via the council’s farm estate and within third sector networks which manage land (such as the National Trust and the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust) to enhance and improve the soil condition and biodiversity of tenanted farms.

The use of competency groups is designed to avoid dependence on the project team in developing practical outcomes, while the close link to existing policies and networks means, we hope, that experiments linked to institutional arrangements remain pragmatic and realistic.

Related Communities of Practice

Wed 16 Jan 2019

Live Case 1: Exploring the Circular Economy model in Gloucestershire

In Gloucestershire, a range of new policies are emerging that affect the way that urban-rural relations in the county will develop, and that are pertinent to the Communities of Practice. Key policies include:

  • the Industrial Strategy, which highlights regional competitive advantage and plans for a high-skills economy;
  • the Resources & Waste Strategy, that aims to maximise value flows by reducing waste and reusing materials;
  • and the Agriculture Bill, which links the enhancement of natural capital, including through food production, to future agricultural subsidy.

More locally, the public consultation around the "Gloucestershire 2050 vision" has devised possibilities for economic growth, environmental enhancement and urban expansion. Such policies are explicitly connected to ambitions for a circular economy. They envisage a reduction in food waste, maximising values and lifecycles of materials, and ensuring that rural and urban benefits emerge from land management. We will therefore focus our Living Lab around the question: how viable is a Circular Economy (CE) model of growth and prosperity in Gloucestershire? In terms of our Communities of Practice we anticipate that the Living Lab will test, for example:

  • How the use of contracts in public and private food procurement could reduce food waste and support supplier conformation
  • What existing CE attributes, such as joint ordering, designing for component reuse, and social investment of profits are evident in local businesses, and how their adoption be expanded
  • Possibilities for flood and water authorities to incentivise rural land managers in practices that reduce urban flood risks.

Catalysting change in the region

Our Living Lab aims to be responsive to user needs and integrate with existing policy developments to ensure co-operation by local actors, and be radical in its focus on circular economy.

Local versions of the strategies outlined will need to be prepared. Our Living Lab work can inform these processes. In addition, a Living Lab-of-sorts has taken place in the form of Gloucestershire 2050 vision. This has been a lengthy public consultation process that encouraged citizens, firms and institutions to visualise and discuss interventions which might benefit the county’s future economy and environment. Examples include a new River Severn crossing and substantial urban expansion. The 2050 Vision currently makes little mention of food, and many of the development objectives of the vision are centred on ‘hard’ developments – housing, motorway connectivity and industry clusters. The Living Lab could help, for example, by emphasing the interdependence of town and countryside.

In summary, we see the Living Lab as an independent process which is both highly complementary to policy development in the county, but able to focus on specific urban-rural functions by testing opportunities for changes in governance.


One current challenge is the uncertainty linked to Brexit. Setting this aside, we note that policy frameworks for the county seem linked to conventional metrics such as productivity, Gross Value Added and workforce retention. New indicators will be needed to track progress towards the circular economy that can be embedded in policy processes.

It will be important that (i) the Living Lab tackles innovation needs, rather than discusses problems linked to particular industry arenas; (ii) the Living Lab proceeds on the basis of evidence generated in response to research needs identified in the Living Lab process; and (iii) the Living Lab leads to realistic and tangible results and indicates future directions beyond ROBUST’s timeframe.

Related Communities of Practice


News about Rural-Urban Europe and the ROBUST project is published regularly in the INFORMED CITIES newsletter.

ROBUST is a European research project involving 24 partners from 11 countries. ROBUST receives funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 727988.

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