Creativity and innovation are now established as key competitive weapons in the globalised knowledge economy (Chesbrough, 2006). Corporates, non-profits, SMEs and governments now recognise that innovative ideas can and often should come from outside their organisations’ boundaries, and thus, begin to utilise the knowledge of the external “crowd”.

In the past years, different forms of new innovation intermediaries have grown at a considerable pace across the globe, bridging between individual creativity and organisational innovation, and creating uncountable choices for organisations to acquire external knowledge and innovate with different types of stakeholders. Urban innovation districts have been developing in cities, concentrating a variety of innovation intermediaries (Katz and Wagner, 2014). A spectrum of different forms is developing, from physically permanent coworking places (e.g. innovation hubs, coworking spaces), to purpose-built initiatives for collaboration (e.g. living labs, innovation labs).

These initiatives promote innovation via physical proximity, openness, and interdisciplinarity of participants’ backgrounds, skills and expertise, just to name a handful of basic assumptions. They are ‘collaborative spaces’ where value is created collectively by their users or members, and where people “meet, interact, experiment, ideate and prototype new solutions” (Bason, 2010). They are ‘creative platforms’ built on trust, concentration, motivation, knowledge, and instruments for focusing creative efforts and skills. They allow the free sharing of information and knowledge, fuelled by well-orchestrated encouragement, and in some cases, apply advanced facilitation methods to further guide collaboration.

Even though several terms occur under the broad term ‘innovation intermediaries’, such as experimental spaces or hubs, interaction spaces, future centres, shared spaces, innovation studios, experimentation spaces, creative platforms, concept factories, and innovation gyms, the present article overviews the “pure” organisational types only that focus on utilising openness, diversity and facilitation in their innovation processes. These are corporate R&D labs, coworking spaces/ innovation hubs, Living Labs, and innovation labs. As they share some overlapping features, it is not always clear what distinguishes one from another, and which model can be used in which organisational context in a way that best promotes innovation. Some might even consider them as buzzwords, with no true meaning behind them at all. With this in mind, the present article makes an attempt to bring in some clarity to the plethora of emerging innovation intermediaries.


Types of Intermediaries promoting Urban Innovation

Corporate R&D labs

Corporate R&D labs are created by large companies to take advantage of the lean model. They are innovation arenas established for specific research projects. Such spaces usually aim at supporting all the different phases of the innovation process, spanning from focusing on the front-end of innovation to the later stages of product development as well as implementation. Today’s R&D labs are spaces where employees are allowed to experiment with new agile ways of working, to take ‘thinking time’, to collaborate with people from different disciplines, and to immerse in their passion projects. More and more often, they are embracing the open innovation paradigm (Chesbrough, 2006).

An example of such a space is Hewlett-Packard’s HP Labs, an award-winning research facility that focuses on technologies like natural language detection, audio/video analytics, immersive experiences, 3D printing, and more.

Coworking spaces and innovation hubs

Coworking spaces and innovation hubs are often used as synonyms. The reason for that is that coworking spaces are becoming more like inspirational and learning spaces which is the key mission for innovation hubs (Gryszkiewicz and Friederici, 2014). People join coworking spaces to become a part of something bigger than just themselves, to work for a common mission while making a positive impact on each other’s lives. Even though both initiatives provide an appealing physical environment (dedicated workstations and hot-desks in shared areas, private offices, bookable meeting rooms, informal spaces such as couches, break out areas, a cafeteria, kitchen or lounge, and basic office amenities, such as WiFi, whiteboards and printers), their primary focus is on creating and supporting a community of diverse but like-minded people (Fuzi, 2016). Members of such spaces are normally entrepreneurial individuals, freelancers, start-ups and small firms. Hosts or community managers play an important role as they help facilitate more interaction, networking and collaboration among members, as well as between members and outsiders. They offer various learning opportunities for their members in the form of workshops, professional meetups, events, but they also let them bring in their own events. There is no coworking space / innovation hub that looks alike, they all have their own identity and character. What determines the approach that their operators take and the tools they select to fulfil the vision, mission and objective of the coworking space / innovation hub is the target audience, and the impact the place intends to have on its members and the wider ecosystem.

The Impact Hub Network is just one example of an innovation hub, already present in almost 100 locations across the globe. Their ambition is to create “a unique ecosystem of resources, inspiration, and collaboration opportunities to grow the positive impact”[1], as well as a diverse community to inspire and connect its members. Countless local coworking spaces are being set up worldwide, one recent example is The Office in Luxembourg, which has grown from a freshly converted garage to full house and a long waiting list in just several months.

Living Labs

Living Lab is an open innovation environment in a real-life setting, in which user-driven innovation is fully integrated within the co-creation process for new services, products and societal infrastructures[2]. Many types of Living Labs exist such as firm-centred, public sector-centred, academia-driven and citizen-centred. The key difference between these types can be found in the goal of innovation activity, the type of innovation, and the initiators of the innovation process.

An example for a firm-centred Living Lab is the Botnia Living Lab, one of Sweden’s first and largest operating open testbeds for mobile services. A few years ago, Botnia Living Lab tested the Skygd mobile security service, which was developed in collaboration with researchers at Lulea University of Technology and developers from Skygd AB (today Skyresponse). The beta testing was carried out with the involvement of about 20 young women. Additionally, experts of the living lab also provided support for testing and the evaluation. The purpose of the testing was to examine the usability of the service and how it responds to the need for personal security in a real environment. It was a necessary step for fine-tuning the service before market launch (Fuzi, 2013).

Innovation labs

Innovation labs bring together an unusual and wide range of participants, cutting across the boundaries of industries, professions, ages and cultures, to fuel collaborative innovation. They are characterised by an ambition to address major pre-identified challenges, to create, elaborate, and prototype radical solutions, while targeting high impact (Gryszkiewicz et al., 2016). They apply rich innovation toolboxes in a targeted collaboration process, while keeping the long-term systemic perspective (ibid).

One example is the Climate Innovation Lab, commissioned by the Minister of Environment and Secretary of State for Sustainable development and Infrastructure in Luxembourg. It has gathered more than 100 participants with very diverse profiles (citizens, youth, researchers, innovators, enterprises, start-ups and SMEs, NGOs and associations from civil society, local climate team members and advisors, finance specialists, public authorities, and more), dedicated content experts, process facilitators and an internationally known climate action expert, to work side-by-side and develop almost 20 concrete innovations for climate action. Lab participants were invited following an extensive stakeholder mapping exercise, as well as an open application process. The lab was built around a carefully designed and intensively facilitated innovation process, supported by targeted content work, communication and project management.



Future success of any ambitious initiative is likely to depend upon the effective management of a dynamic innovation ecosystem. Keeping this in mind, various organisations from corporates to SMEs to governments have started to open up their boundaries in order to allow the in-flow of innovative ideas from the outside world. This paper presented an overview of the emerging innovation intermediaries drawing on real world examples with an attempt to conceptualise their key distinguishing characteristics.

The table below summarises these characteristics with the hope of supporting better decision-making when it comes to adopting the most appropriate model to promote innovation in a given context. The key questions that anyone wishing to involve an innovation intermediary needs to answer are “What exactly do I want to achieve?”, “How concrete are the innovation challenges that I want to tackle?”, and “How much do I want to steer the innovation process?”.


Table  1  Characteristics of different forms of urban innovation intermediaries

Type of initiative Key characteristics
      Corporate R&D lab In-house initiative Established for specific research field/project Most modern IT infrastructure is used Close collaboration with fellow colleagues Limited but available financial resources Stimulating, inspirable, reflective atmosphere The whole R&D process can be managed
          Coworking spaces/ Innovation hubs Open Flexible Diverse (interaction with people from a range of backgrounds/disciplines) Cost-effective – Office infrastructure provided & cost shared between members) Opportunity for serendipitous encounters to occur Different areas for different activities are provided (space for quite self-reflection, collaboration projects, “immersion in concentrated activity”) Facilitated environment offline and online Access to network and collaborative community
    Living lab Open Flexible Diverse group of stakeholders can participate (not only employees of the company) End-user involvement in the innovation process Networking physically and virtually Sustainable financially
    Innovation labs Open or semi-open for heterogenous participants (broad representation) Facilitated collaboration via various methods/ tools Continued involvement throughout the innovation process Ambition to solve large-scale innovation challenges A systemic long-term perspective Aiming for high impact

Source: This paper was originally presented at the ISPIM conference in Stockholm 17-20 June 2018. Suggested citation: Fuzi, A., Gryszkiewicz, L., Sikora, D. (2018) A Spectrum of Urban Innovation Intermediaries: from Co-working to Collaboration (ISPIM, 17-20 June 2018, Stockholm)

Acknowledgement This publication is part of the project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 739636. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Agency and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

References Bason, C., 2010. Leading public sector innovation: Co-creating for a better society. Policy Press. Chesbrough, H.W., 2006. Open innovation: The new imperative for creating and profiting from technology. Harvard Business Press. Fuzi, A., 2016. Space for creative and entrepreneurial activities? Co-working spaces in the entrepreneurial landscape of an economically challenged region (PhD Thesis). Cardiff Metropolitan University. Fuzi, A., 2013. A nyílt innováció egyik eszköze: Living Lab?, in: Inzelt, A. and Bajmocy, Z.: Innovációs Rendszerek. Szereplők, Kapcsolatok És Intézmények. JATEPress, Szeged, pp. 180–195. Gryszkiewicz, L., Friederici, N., 2014. Learning From Innovation Hubs: Fluidity, Serendipity, and Community Combined. Gryszkiewicz, L., Toivonen, T., Lykourentzou, I., 2016. Innovation Labs: 10 Defining Features. Stanf. Soc. Innov. Rev. Katz, B.J., Wagner, J., 2014. The Rise of Urban Innovation Districts. Harv. Bus. Rev.

[1] The Impact Hub website.

[2] EnoLL website.


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 739636. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Agency and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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