Fri 21 May 2021

Live Case 6: Breaking New Ground

In Latvia, the ROBUST Living Lab was based in Tukums, where the municipal council was the practice partner and the Baltic Studies Centre (BSC) was the research partner. The primary goal of the Living Lab was to develop a strategic planning document; a cultural strategy that would inform the governance of cultural life and cultural institutions in the medium term. This was the first-ever attempt at a cohesive approach to culture in the history of the municipality, and its development was framed by discussions regarding the administrative-territorial reform that will redraw municipal boundaries in July 2021. Ultimately, the Living Lab was successful and the strategy was approved by Tukums municipal council on 23 December 2020, though it will be amended after the reform comes into effect.

ROBUST played a significant role in bringing the strategy to life. The municipality had previously considered the possibility of developing a cultural strategy, but the idea had not managed to gather sufficient momentum. However, the supportive framework of ROBUST and the experimental Living Lab approach provided the necessary impetus for the municipality to explore the strategy in practice. Between 2018 and 2020 the core team of researchers from BSC, municipal employees and moderators engaged by the municipality organised several events involving a broad range of stakeholders. This allowed different perspectives to be voiced. While some challenges arose in terms of ensuring that all perspectives were heard and taken into account, the process was inclusive and collaborative in spirit. Representatives of the municipal government noted that working together with researchers had underlined the importance of assessing the impact of different activities to improve future plans and initiatives.

Our combined experience suggests a number of conditions that have to be met if a Living Lab is to function properly and work towards its goals:

Primarily, we note that fruitful collaboration between the practice and research partners requires that sufficient time be allocated to meetings and collaborative activities. While this may seem obvious, the somewhat opportunistic approach of the Living Lab may not always synchronise with the more rigid routines of a municipal government. In our case, this meant that the team had to proactively make time for this work, and adjust to work around everyone’s busy schedule. In view of this, we concluded that it may be wise for the practice partner to delegate the responsibility of communicating with the researchers to specific municipal employees specialising in the area in question, while researchers should devote more time to communicating the value of such projects to the municipal council.

In addition, the Living Lab should be embedded in a broader enabling environment. Specifically, we believe that the success of a Living Lab is dependent on broad support within the municipality or organisation. This is useful in that it allows the involved municipal employees to focus on project work without being tasked with additional responsibilities. Additionally, a positive attitude towards the Living Lab can also help in gaining access to key people within the municipality. We also note that continuity within the municipality (or lack thereof) can shape the fate of a Living Lab as the level of support for associated activity can, and often does, vary over time.

Finally, the Living Lab must be aligned with the vision of the municipality or organisation in question. While participants should be free to explore different ideas and options, these have to be related to a core issue of interest to the municipality. This ensures that there is sufficient energy to move and develop practical and realistic solutions

Overall, our experience shows that addressing the issues described above is important for an enjoyable and productive collaboration in a Living Lab format. Indeed, while our team eventually achieved its main goal, the additional responsibilities of our practice partners and limited support for and investment in the Living Lab from the upper levels of management within the municipality hampered our work. Therefore, making time for the Living Lab, ensuring that it operates within an enabling environment and involves people with the energy to tackle a pressing problem creatively is a good place to start.

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Mon 16 Nov 2020

Live Case 5: Cautious Optimism

The Tukums Living Lab has two core foci – the municipal cultural strategy and the future of the Tukums market. While work on the strategy has largely been successful, the outcome of the initiatives related to the Tukums market is not yet clear.

The primary output of the Tukums Living Lab is the municipal cultural strategy, which was developed in a participatory manner. The goal was to create a plan that would allow the municipality to coordinate and plan cultural life, whilst strengthening cultural connections within the municipality and creating a cultural offer that would attract visitors from outside the municipality.

The process appears to have been successful, and the team is confident that the strategy will be approved by the municipal council before the end of the project. A draft of the strategy was reviewed by Tukums municipal council in September and October. There will likely be a public event to discuss the strategy before the end of 2020, though Latvia is currently experiencing a second wave of Covid-19 restrictions, so the exact format of this discussion is currently unclear.

The research partner will also interview cultural sector representatives who participated in the workshops and working group meetings to determine whether they found the process useful. Furthermore, the ability of Tukums municipality to implement the cultural strategy will be hugely dependent on the national administrative-territorial reform, which will come into effect in 2021.

Regarding the Tukums market, the focus has gradually shifted away from looking at food as regional identity marker and developing local certification schemes, which is what was envisioned in the initial stages of the Living Lab. The Living Lab has gravitated towards broader discussions about the market's future, and the municipality has initiated the process to assume responsibility for managing the market. This meant that the more specific aspects that the Tukums Living Lab wanted to work on had to be postponed, at least for the time being.

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Thu 16 Jul 2020

Live Case 4: Seeing the Possibility for Real Change

The COVID-19 outbreak forced Latvia to enter a state of emergency on 12 March, but the restrictions were considerably milder than in other EU member states affected by the virus, so it would be inaccurate to call it a lockdown. While there were limits on how many people could gather in one place, there were no restrictions on the freedom of movement within Latvia.

Nonetheless, authorities urged people to exercise caution and consider whether travel was necessary. Similarly, even though many services were not deemed essential, Tukums municipality and many other public institutions in the region continued to operate. However, municipal employees had to take on additional responsibilities (e.g. sourcing disinfectant) that involved managing the pandemic’s impact. Cultural institutions operations were largely suspended due to the restrictions placed on large gatherings. As a result, staff devoted their time to practical managerial matters that had been put off prior to the pandemic.

Fortunately, the living lab managed to organise several face-to-face events before the restrictions went into effect. Two stakeholder meetings were held on 14 January and 4 February, respectively. The purpose was to discuss different ideas and visions for the municipal cultural strategy, which is the main focus of the Tukums living lab.

Likewise, a regional workshop was held on 6 March. In it, the participants discussed the possibility of turning Tukums into a major tourist destination with a well-planned and coordinated cultural life across the municipality, good infrastructure (incl. cycling paths) and facilities for the film industry. Unfortunately, the participants were much more comfortable focusing on the obstacles that prevent them from implementing this vision, rather than the actions that must be taken to effect change.

Understandably, there were no face-to-face meetings between the practice and research partners during this period. The core living lab team primarily communicated via email, though a webinar was organised on 9 April to discuss the impact of COVID19 on culture, food and infrastructure (public transport).

Overall, we observed a rapid re-alignment of supply and demand and more frequent reliance upon digital tools. For instance, purchasing food online was uncommon in Latvia prior to the pandemic, whereas now supermarket delivery services are in high demand. Likewise, a lot of cultural content was placed online for people to enjoy in isolation, enabling new ways to experience culture. It is unclear whether this will change and revert to the pre-pandemic rhythms after the restrictions are lifted (the state of emergency ended on 10 June). 

Unexpectedly, the reliance on online and digital tools has not had any significant disruptive effects on communication within the living lab. The living lab would likely have organised one or two face-to-face meetings during this period, but members of the Tukums living lab already routinely communicated via telephone or email because the practice and research partners are based in different places (Tukums and Riga respectively). Furthermore, the living lab had already managed to organise the planned stakeholder engagement events prior to the pandemic.

Nonetheless, the pandemic has had an indirect impact on the main project of the living lab. For instance, the need to work remotely had exposed some ambiguities in the employment contracts of people working at cultural institutions. Likewise, COVID-19 has underlined the growing importance of digital culture, which should be considered when drafting the cultural strategy.

Overall, the response to COVID-19 has shown the ability of cultural institutions and food businesses in Tukums - and in Latvia more broadly - to adapt to unexpected changes. Not everything has gone smoothly and some of the social and economic consequences are still to come, but the pandemic clearly illustrates that change is possible. The members of the living lab can only hope that this will lead to a more optimistic outlook and a willingness to work towards making Tukums a major tourist destination with a vibrant cultural life.

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Tue 29 Oct 2019

Live Case 3: A Regional Conversation on Food and Culture

The Tukums Living Lab organised a regional workshop in Tukums on 8 October 2019 to discuss cross-sectoral interactions between culture, food and public infrastructure and social services. Twenty-five participants discussed a range of topics, from obstacles and issues that hamper innovation and the success of new initiatives, to possible ways of moving forward and encouraging mutually beneficial urban-rural synergies.

In addition to the ROBUST team, representatives from the Tukums Municipality Council, local cultural institutions, farmers and small food businesses, the regional Tourism Information Centre and the media participated in the workshop.

The workshop began with introductory remarks by the Chairman of Tukums Municipality Council, Eriks Lukmans, and a short overview of ROBUST's goals by Talis Tisenkopfs (BSC).  Tukums Municipality Council representatives (Dace Ernsteine and Arturs Doveiks) then presented the results of a recent online survey about food and culture in the municipality, which sparked a lively discussion.

The discussion focused on culture and food, with public infrastructure and social services rarely mentioned. Overall, the discussion focused on different aspects of intra-sectoral cooperation (food), though specific examples of cross-sectoral cooperation were also explored. The participants repeatedly came back to the regular interaction between food and cultural activities in the form of seasonal and festive markets.

The challenge for the future is to create inclusive events that attract a wider audience from beyond the municipality but continue to build on existing traditions. Cross-sectoral cooperation was also envisioned in the shape of different products, and workshop participants saw good potential for developing regional and local product brands.

However, participants acknowledged that local food producers cannot rely on such strategies and need a place to sell their products on a regular basis. A decision was made to move forward with activating a local association of small producers and looking into the possibility of opening a booth at a local supermarket.

After the workshop, the Tukums Living Lab noted a few lessons that could be drawn from the way the conversation unfolded.

First, in the context of ROBUST, Tukums is a comparatively small town, and thinking about urban-rural linkages within the municipality was complicated, as Tukums itself straddles the urban-rural divide. This meant that connections between the urban and the rural were conceptualised on a broader canvas and included the inhabitants of Riga and other major towns and cities in Kurzeme. Thus, the scale of urban-rural relations should be considered when discussing them in different fora.

Second, the team enabled participants to discuss matters that were of interest to ROBUST amongst themselves, which allowed for a free-flowing discussion that people seemed to enjoy.

Finally, while many of the participants were mutually acquainted, the workshop provided a chance for them to network, and it appears that some previously considered ideas have been revitalised as a result of the workshop.

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Tue 30 Apr 2019

Live Case 2: Planning on the Brink of Reform

The main goal of the Tukums Living Lab is to develop a planning document that would facilitate the governance of cultural life in the municipality in a manner that is both resource-efficient and maintains the rich cultural and historical heritage of the region.

The Envisioning phase has been productive as it has allowed the Living Lab team to co-create a vision for the future of cultural life in collaboration with professionals in the cultural sector, the eventual users of cultural services and representatives of Tukums municipality - though much remains to be done.

More specifically, due to the fact that the Living Lab team is involved in a project whose timeframe is by and large determined by the workflow of Tukums municipality, the Envisioning phase can be divided into two phases, the second of which is yet to come.

The first phase involved meetings and brainstorming sessions with the practice and research partners. This resulted in an aim to develop a comprehensive approach to cultural life that respects the diversity of urban and rural contexts across Tukums municipality as much as possible. It was deemed crucial that different perspectives and practical considerations are brought to bear upon the planning of cultural life in the region.

The plan was articulated in focus groups and open discussions between researchers and several municipal government representatives, which generally went well due to the good working relationship established during previous projects.

The second phase will involve empirical work to provide a secure foundation upon which an appropriate document can be prepared for submission to the municipal council. This phase will combine a more detailed assessment of the current situation and a SWOT analysis of cultural life in the region (incl. in relation to food and the use of e-services).

Interviews and working group meetings with industry professionals will be organised, and other methods from the ROBUST toolkit will be employed as needed.

The overall purpose is to develop an understanding of cultural life in the region that reflects the diversity of actors and organisations that are involved in it, so that their needs and insights could be utilised in the preparation of the strategy. The list of the stakeholders involved was the result of stakeholder mapping by Tukums municipality representatives.


Meeting of the Tukums Living Lab, 17 April 2019. Photo by Talis Tisenkopfs

Moving Foreward

The plan is to present the results of this work on 5 September 2019. This plan, however, means that the Envisioning phase of the project will be much longer than previously anticipated.

This also means that there will be an overlap with the Experimentation phase, which was planned to involve needs assessment and priorities setting in working group meetings and public events. This overlap will, however, provide an opportunity to use different methods with a wide variety of stakeholders.

Looking back at the plans we articulated at the beginning of 2019, several issues have emerged that we have to contend with in the Living Lab. Firstly, a concrete timetable to develop the strategy (which, incidentally, is now officially referred to as a “development plan”, rather than a strategy) was approved by the municipality. As indicated above, this requires extending the envisioning phase.

Secondly, and more importantly, a national administrative-territorial reform will likely be implemented in 2020-2021. This means that the administrative boundaries of the municipality will be redrawn and include parts of other, currently neighbouring municipalities.

Crucially, this means that a greater range of cultural institutions would be managed by Tukums. This leaves the Living Lab and Tukums municipality in a rather peculiar predicament.

The plan is to develop and approve the strategy (or “development plan”) by the end of 2020. However, shortly after the strategy is approved, it would have to be revised to incorporate the needs of other territories in the newly-created administrative unit. Consequently, our practice partners intend to develop a strategy that could potentially be adjusted to suit the new administrative arrangement, thereby the Living Lab has the potential to facilitate new forms of governance at a wider territorial scale.

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Wed 16 Jan 2019

Live Case 1: Co-Creating a Regional Cultural Strategy in Tukums

The Living Lab in Tukums aims to preserve and foster the rich cultural life of the region by identifying key development objectives and priorities in the cultural sector and agreeing upon their governance arrangements. The primary focus of the Living Lab is the first ever cultural strategy for the entire municipality. While hardly innovative in itself, the process will aim to be participatory and combine the insights of cultural practitioners and cultural services users from across the municipality, as well as those of the researchers and representatives of the municipal government. The Living Lab will, therefore, aim to develop a comprehensive approach to cultural life that respects the diversity of urban and rural contexts across Tukums municipality as much as possible. This will be achieved by using several methods to ensure that different perspectives and practical considerations are brought to bear upon the planning of cultural life in the region. The methods will likely include stakeholder mapping, joint visioning exercises and scenario building workshops with the hope that non-traditional forms of planning will help to articulate novel approaches to organising and preserving cultural life.

The Living Lab has already started to develop governance and coordination structures to organise work on the cultural strategy. The core Living Lab team responsible for the daily organisation of activities includes representatives of Tukums municipality (including the Director of the Municipal Department of Culture), as well as researchers from the research partner (BSC). Furthermore, there is also an intention to hire a professional consultant who would be a member of the management group and facilitate work on the cultural strategy.


Work on the strategy will provide an opportunity for the municipality to develop a more resource-efficient way of managing cultural life in the region and improve the quality and accessibility of culture in the region. The strategy has the potential to consolidate cultural life in the region by strengthening the connections and improving the flow of people, resources and ideas between various parts of the municipality – urban and rural areas in particular. Existing relationships between the municipal government and people in charge of cultural life at the local level are characterised by insufficient cooperation and tension regarding the level of autonomy that should be granted to parishes. Work on the cultural strategy will provide a space to try out new ideas, understand why previous attempts have failed and hopefully reconcile conflicting approaches.


The nature of the endeavour means that various different stakeholders and agents will be involved in the process. Consequently, one of the key challenges for the project will be to align the diverse perspectives and visions of cultural life in Tukums municipality sufficiently in order to prepare a cohesive cultural strategy. Furthermore, the somewhat open-ended nature of the process may lead to frustration from some parties who may be unfamiliar with the methods and facilitation techniques employed as part of Living Labs. Finally, while the goal of the Living Lab is to streamline the way cultural life is organised, the ambitions of the cultural strategy will be limited by the financial resources made available by the municipality. Hopefully, however, none of the visions will be too resource-intensive to derail the process.

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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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