From the use case to the living lab

The energy transition requires technical, economic, and digital innovations, new business models, and regulation changes. On the way from the idea to practical application, living labs offer a protected framework for scientists and practitioners to try out innovations in the real world. This way, technical aspects can be validated, regulatory insights can be gained, and the processes between involved actors can be tested in real-world operations.

FfE has built up a wealth of experience in testing energy industry innovations in field tests and living labs from many ongoing and completed projects. For example, in the project unIT-e², various use cases for intelligent charging concepts for electromobility are investigated in simulations and laboratory and field tests.

This article provides a guide from the idea to the use case development and the booming field test or living lab. After different definitions of the term “living lab” are described in the first part of the article, recommendations for action are given in the following sections, which are derived, among other things, from the experiences of past and current FfE projects. The recommendations for action lead from the idea to the use case to the field trial, and finally to the living lab.

What is a living lab?

Innovations and business models are tested in living labs in actual operations. Science, practice, and civil society stakeholders work together on these projects. Such innovative projects are highly complex. This applies not only to technical and business processes and regulations but also, in particular, to communication in the collaboration between sectors, technologies, and project partners. Real-life testing of innovations can depict this complex cooperation. [1]

There are various definitions of the term “living lab.” For example, the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection (BMWK) defines living labs as “test spaces limited in time and space in which innovative technologies or business models are tested under real conditions” [1]. The focus here is on legal leeway and an associated regulatory interest in knowledge. To this end, experimentation clauses are used, with which the legislator can, for example, allow exceptions from bans, permits, or proof requirements for testing new technologies.

According to BMWK’s definition, living labs are thus experiments limited in time and space in a natural environment. The living lab concept in the funding program “Schaufenster intelligent Energie – Digitale Agenda für die Energiewende” (SINTEG) goes beyond this definition. Here, the living lab is also understood as a test space intended to create transferable solutions through transdisciplinary collaboration between science and practice and thus contribute to sustainability transformation in a social problem area. It also emphasizes collaboration with the civilian population for joint knowledge production. [2]

The SINTEG living lab concept is based on work done by the Wuppertal Institute. Here, different understandings of the living lab concept are reflected. Furthermore, building on experiences from various living lab projects, key components and processes are outlined through which actors from science and practice produce knowledge by repeatedly reflecting on and varying a living lab experiment. [3]

The concept of the living lab thus goes beyond the classic field test since, in the living lab, not only the technical testing but also the interaction of different disciplines and actors is in the foreground of the interest in knowledge. While only technical aspects are validated in a classic field test, a living lab takes a more comprehensive account of real needs and requirements [2]. However, field tests can be components of a living lab. For example, the unIT-e² living lab project includes various fields divided into four clusters.

From the idea to the use case

So, how do you get from an idea to a successful living lab? The use case development should always be at the beginning of a living lab project. It creates a common language for the exchange within the scheme, the recognition of synergies, and the step-by-step product development. It serves to ensure interoperability in a networked system of diverse components. FfE has a wealth of experience in this area from projects such as unIT-e², C/sells, InDEED, and BDL.

In the first step, business use cases are developed to convert an idea into a rough concept. Roles, responsibilities, and relationships among the actors involved are defined, and business services, processes, and business and action benefits for the actors involved are worked out. Political and legal framework conditions are also taken into account. In the second step, the process and system description defines the necessary components, how processes are designed, and what information is exchanged. In the third step, the chronological sequence of the methods is worked out and transferred into sequence diagrams. Existing standards and norms are also taken into account.

Field test

A field test tests an innovation or a prototype under natural conditions. In contrast to testing in laboratory tests and simulations, insights into the interaction of the various components and actors involved can be gained here. In the unIT-e² project, there are many such field tests.

First, the stakeholders involved must agree on framework data, i.e., the goals, scope, location, and duration of the field test and the use cases that will be implemented. In planning and executing the field test, the roles the various actors will each have in the field test must be defined. This also includes the selection and acquisition of suitable pilot customers. The design of contracts and a data protection concept play a central role here.

Another critical point is the development of a measurement concept. In the Electric Mobility Showcase Program of the German Federal Government, a compilation of measurement data to be collected to ensure the comparability of results from different projects is provided. [5] for the Electric Mobility Showcase Program gives a compilation of measurement data to ensure the comparability of results from other projects.

At the end of the field test, the technology installed at the pilot customers must be dismantled, which requires corresponding organizational effort. The measurement data recorded during the test will be evaluated and processed. In addition to communicating the results to the interested (specialist) public, they can also be used in standardization processes.

Living Lab

The BMWK’s handbook for living labs guides the implementation of living labs [1]. It lists the most critical questions companies, researchers, and administrators should ask and answer when planning and implementing a living lab. They are divided into three areas: “Preparation and planning,” “Legal aspects,” and “Design and implementation.”

Preparation and planning should not only consider the objectives and the targeted involvement of the stakeholders but also examine the available resources and funding opportunities.

Legal aspects play a central role in the preparation and planning phase. Legal hurdles and possible exemptions must be identified, and liability risks must also be clarified and hedged. Experimentation clauses enshrined in laws can often be used on the path to exemption. External legal advice may be necessary when preparing a living lab.

The duration and location must be chosen appropriately when designing and implementing a living lab. An applied experimentation clause may already specify a time limit. Responsibilities for supervision and evaluation must be clarified. An independent contractor can be beneficial in this context to improve the validity of the results, for example, by better identifying the strategic behavior of companies involved in the project. Suitable indicators for the evaluation must be defined based on jointly defined objectives of the living lab. For this purpose, it must also be clarified with the stakeholders involved, among other things, which data will be collected and made available. Finally, it must be explained how results must be used in a targeted manner – i.e., who within and outside the living lab receives which results and when and how they are to be dealt with. This includes public relations work and, for example, the transfer of data to legislative bodies to further develop standards.


On the road to climate neutrality, living labs are a valuable tool for practically testing innovations and involving all relevant actors directly in scientific work. In this way, knowledge can be gained about technical and business processes, regulation, and communication between the various actors and the civilian population. In this way, the practicality of new technologies, use cases, and business models can be tested and, if necessary, improved by adapting them. In addition, collaboration and knowledge transfer between science, practice, and civil society can strengthen the acceptance of tested innovations and found solutions among the actors involved.

This article has outlined some recommendations for action to move from an idea to a use case, to a field trial, and finally to a living lab. Further information and more detailed recommendations for action can be found below under “Further information” and in the bibliography.

The contents presented were developed in the unIT-e² project. The research project is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection (BMWK) (funding code: 01MV21UN11 (FfE e.V.)). The project executing organization of the three-year joint project is the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

More Information

[1] Freiräume für Innovationen – Das Handbuch für Reallabore. Berlin: Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi), 2019.

[2] Widl, Edmund et al.: Pionier für Reallabore – Synthesebericht 4 des SINTEG-Förderprogramms. Berlin: Studie im Auftrag des BMWK, 2022.

[3] Rose, Michael et al.: Das Reallabor als Forschungsprozess und -infrastruktur für nachhaltige Entwicklung. Konzepte, Herausforderungen und Empfehlungen – 2. aktualisierte und erweiterte Auflage. Wuppertal: Wuppertal Institut für Klima, Umwelt, Energie gGmbH, 2019.

[4] Faller, Sebastian et al.: Anwendungshilfe Use Case Methodik – Eine praktische Anwendungshilfe für die Use Case Entwicklung. München: Forschungsstelle für Energiewirtschaft e. V. (FfE), 2020.

[5] Harendt, Bertram et al.: Minimaldatensets zur Erhebung von Forschungsdaten in der Elektromobilität – Ergebnisse aus den regionalen Demonstrationsvorhaben in der Elektromobilität. Aachen, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main: Deutsches Dialog Institut GmbH, Ingenieurgruppe IVV GmbH & Co. KG, NOW GmbH Nationale Organisation Wasserstoff- und Brennstoffzellentechnologie, 2017.