GAIA Call for Papers – Special Issue 2024 on RwLs


Call for Papers: GAIA Special Issue 2024

Impacts of Real-world Labs in Sustainability Transformations

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After almost 10 years of research and action in Real-world Labs (RwLs), this special issue of GAIA aims to present and analyse the current state of the art of methodology, scope and objectives in RwL research. In particular, we invite empirical evidence and reflection on the impacts of RwLs on sustainability transformations. This special issue was initiated in the context of the RwL conference, held in June 2022 in Karlsruhe, which brought together 300 researchers, practitioners and intermediaries. With 115 contributions presented at the conference, the broad variety of projects and the emergence of a growing and dynamic transdisciplinary community was showcased. Nevertheless, it became clear that the growing interest in this field of transdisciplinary and transformative research, needs a thorough and encompassing perspective on the traceable and substantial impacts of RwLs and adjacent approaches on sustainability transformations.

Origin, orientation and methodology of Real-world Labs

The normative anchor point of RwLs lies in the concept of a "Great Transformation" (WBGU, 2011) of our societal structures, lifestyles and economies: a comprehensive, deep and programmatic transformation towards a future-oriented and sustainable society. RwLs as an action-oriented research approach aim to support – and accelerate – these fundamental changes for sustainability transitions (Caniglia et al., 2020; Beecroft & Parodi, 2016; Parodi, 2019; Wagner & Grunwald, 2015, 2019; Schneidewind et al., 2016; Bergmann et al., 2021).

Since their first introduction, there have been diverse and fruitful debates around RwLs as a mode of research, their similarities and differences to other transdisciplinary and transformative approaches, and their methodical and methodological implementations (Schäpke et al., 2018, 2018a; Rogga et al., 2018; Defila & Di Giulio, 2018; Di Giulio & Defila, 2019; Beecroft et al., 2018). RwLs are part of a broader field of social experimentation in dedicated labs, with adjacent approaches like Sustainable Living Labs (Liedtke et al., 2015), Urban Transition Labs (Nevens et al., 2013), T-Labs (Charlie-Joseph et al., 2018; Pereira et al., 2020), Challenge Labs (Larsson and Holmberg 2018) and Urban Living Labs (Puerari et al., 2018; Voytenko et al., 2015) – all of which are welcome to be addressed in this issue.

RwLs share a number of characteristics with these labs: they build on the ideas of real-world experimentation under participative control (Caniglia et al., 2017), of open (social) innovation, and of transfer and upscaling of successful examples (Schäpke et al., 2018). They facilitate participatory processes in a transdisciplinary mode of research that include practitioners throughout the process, from co-design via co-production to co-evaluation (Schäpke et al., 2018, 2018a; McCrory et al., 2020; Wanner et al., 2018). RwLs enable learning about transition and impacts at a local as well as at a larger scale (Singer-Brodowski et al., 2018; Krütli et al., 2018). Apart from these similarities, different approaches and projects choose different ways to engage with sustainability (McCrory et al., 2022) and follow different paths for transferring or upscaling their learnings (von Wirth et al., 2019; Lam et al., 2020).

Aims and scope: Impacts of Real-world Labs on Sustainability Transformations

Building on existing conceptual, methodological and typology-oriented scholarship, we want to draw further attention to the different impacts and impact mechanisms of RwLs and their adjacent approaches. We understand impacts as demonstrable and practical effects and results of RwLs on sustainability transformations, through real-world experiments and RwL structures. This also includes preliminary steps like generated products, immediate outputs and achieved outcomes (see Luederitz et al. 2017; Williams and Robinson, 2020). Our core interest lies in the analysis of RwLs impacts on and for a transformation to sustainability.

Initial concepts for assessing the impact of real-world experiments have been proposed (Luederitz et al., 2017; Wiek et al., 2014; Williams and Robinson, 2020; van Mierlo et al., 2010 ) and the importance of the structural dimension of RwLs has been emphasised (Schneidewind et al., 2018; Torrens and von Wirth 2021; Kivimaa and Rogge, 2022). Empirical and comparative evaluation of RwL impacts nevertheless remained scarce. Hence, we welcome comparative inquiries or single case studies, qualitative as well as quantitative assessments, possibly building on these or other substantial evaluation frameworks. In order to enhance rigour, depth, comparability, and cross-case learning, we welcome the systematic analysis of impacts. Contributions should describe the impacts of their RwL with reference to addressed fields (mobility, energy, consumption, biodiversity, equity, etc.); the types of impact aspired (physical change, introduction of new actor groups, changes in governance or regulation, technical innovation, learning, inner transition, socially robust knowledge etc.); the mechanism, practices or theory of change (direct/indirect impacts, effect chains, process information on inputs, products and outputs, creating space for learning, systemic interventions, synergies etc.); the scale of impacts (within the RwL, beyond the RwL, neighbourhood/regional/(inter-)national level, certain actor groups etc.); the temporal pattern of the impacts (short/mid/long-term); the relation between intended and actual impact (intended/unintended, expected/unexpected, positive/negative from different actor perspectives etc.); the geographical and/or cultural setting; and feedback-effects from the impacts to the RwL itself. Additionally, we explicitly invite contributions produced in co-authorship with practitioners.

We invite systematic analysis of RwL impacts in the following topical areas (further impact-related topics can be proposed):

  • Socio-ecological systems change including, e.g., nature-based solutions, circular-economy, biodiversity in urban contexts or nature conservation and RwLs
  • Individual, collective, and social learning in and through RwLs including (higher) education perspectives, relating learning to sustainability transformations
  • Communication, inner transition, relational approaches and cultures of sustainability as well as related practices and their impact
  • Governance, institutions, and policies supporting democratic participation and transformation
  • Social and technical innovation as well as exnovation and unlearning, including the interplay of both phenomena
  • Regulatory sand-boxes and experiments and their impacts on sustainability transformations
  • Arts, design and culture in transdisciplinary research
  • Systems of RwLs, including networks of collaboration of RwLs as part of a larger RwL-infrastructure
  • Spatial planning and geography of transitions in relation to RwLs Scaling and transfer, including practicable ways to amplify the impacts of RwLs and RwLs as amplification catalysts
  • Perspectives and roles of practitioners for the generation and evaluation of impact, including the establishment of communities of practice
  • Methodologies of monitoring, evaluation and impact assessment of RwLs

Types of contributions

Authors are encouraged to use the different article formats offered in GAIA. Besides regular Research Articles, this includes Forum Contributions as well as Design Reports. For details, please see the Guide for Authors:


Deadlines, Submission, and Review Process

Authors are encouraged to submit abstracts to the SI guest editors. Upon acceptance, authors will be invited to submit full manuscripts. Papers will be peer reviewed. Upon acceptance, they will be published Open Access, with no author fees charged. Papers should be written in English with a short summary (if possible) in German and English. However, in exceptional cases, papers in German may also be accepted.

Please submit your abstract (500 up to 1,000 words) indicating the article type (research article, forum contribution or design report) via E-Mail to:

The SI guest editor team includes Felix Wagner, Richard Beecroft, Pia Laborgne, Oliver Parodi (all Karlsruhe Institute of Technology), Matthias Wanner (Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy) and Niko Schäpke (University of Freiburg). Christoph Kueffer (University of Applied Sciences of Eastern Switzerland, St. Gallen) is the responsible GAIA co-editor of the SI.

Important Dates

EXTENDED 30.11.2022 or earlier: Submission of abstracts (500 to 1,000 words)

January 2023: Invitation for full paper submission

30.04.2023 or earlier: Submission of full papers, followed by reviews, reworking papers, and final decisions on manuscripts

approx. February 2024: Publication of Special Issue



Beecroft, Richard, and Oliver Parodi, 2016. ‘Reallabore als Orte der Nachhaltigkeitsforschung und Transformation’. Technikfolgenabschätzung – Theorie und Praxis 25 (3), 4–8.

Beecroft, Richard, Helena Trenks, Regina Rhodius, Christina Benighaus, and Oliver Parodi, 2018. ‘Reallabore als Rahmen transformativer und transdisziplinärer Forschung: Ziele und Designprinzipien’. In: Antonietta Di Giulio and Rico Defila (eds.), Transdisziplinär und transformativ forschen, edited by. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden.

Bergmann, Matthias, Niko Schäpke, Oskar Marg, Franziska Stelzer, Daniel J. Lang, Michael Bossert, Marius Gantert, et al., 2021. ‘Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research in Real-World Labs: Success Factors and Methods for Change’. Sustainability Science, January.

Caniglia, Guido, Christopher Luederitz, Timo von Wirth, Ioan Fazey, Berta Martín-López, Kristina Hondrila, Alexandra König, et al., 2020. ‘A Pluralistic and Integrated Approach to Action-Oriented Knowledge for Sustainability’. Nature Sustainability, October.

Caniglia, Guido, Niko Schäpke, Daniel J. Lang, David J. Abson, Christopher Luederitz, Arnim Wiek, Manfred D. Laubichler, Fabienne Gralla, and Henrik von Wehrden, 2017. ‘Experiments and Evidence in Sustainability Science: A Typology’. Journal of Cleaner Production, May.

Charli-Joseph, Lakshmi, J. Mario Siqueiros-Garcia, Hallie Eakin, David Manuel-Navarrete, and Rebecca Shelton, 2018. ‘Promoting Agency for Social-Ecological Transformation: A Transformation-Lab in the Xochimilco Social-Ecological System’. Ecology and Society, 23 (2).

Defila, Rico, and Antonietta Di Giulio (eds.), 2019. Transdisziplinär und transformativ forschen, Band 2: Eine Methodensammlung. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden.

Di Giulio, Antonietta, and Rico Defila (eds.), 2018. Transdisziplinär und transformativ forschen. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden.

Kivimaa, Paula, and Karoline Rogge, 2022. ‘Interplay of policy experimentation and institutional change in sustainability transitions: The case of mobility as a service in Finland’. Research Policy, 51(1), 104412.

Krütli, Pius, Christina Pohl, and Michael Stauffacher, 2018. ‘Sustainability learning labs in small island developing states: A case study of the Seychelles’. GAIA-Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 27(1), 46-51.

Lam, David, Berta Martín-López, Arnim Wiek, Elena Bennett, Niki Frantzeskaki, Andra Horcea-Milcu, and Daniel Lang, 2020. ‘Scaling the impact of sustainability initiatives: a typology of amplification processes’. Urban Transformations, 2(1), 1-24.

Larsson, Johan, and John Holmberg, 2018. ‘Learning while creating value for sustainability transitions: The case of Challenge Lab at Chalmers University of Technology’. Journal of Cleaner Production, 172, 4411-4420.

Liedtke, Christa, Carolin Baedeker, Marco Hasselkuß, Holger Rohn, and Viktor Grinewitschus, 2015. ‘User-Integrated Innovation in Sustainable LivingLabs: An Experimental Infrastructure for Researching and Developing Sustainable Product Service Systems’. Journal of Cleaner Production 97 (June), 106–16.

Luederitz, Christopher, Niko Schäpke, Arnim Wiek, Daniel J. Lang, Matthias Bergmann, Joannette J. Bos, Sarah Burch et al., 2017. ‘Learning through Evaluation – A Tentative Evaluative Scheme for Sustainability Transition Experiments’. Journal of Cleaner Production, 169 (December), 61–76.

McCrory, Gavin, Johan Holmén, Niko Schäpke, and John Holmberg, 2022. ‘Sustainability-Oriented Labs in Transitions: An Empirically Grounded Typology’. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 43 (June), 99–117.

McCrory, Gavin, Niko Schäpke, Johan Holmén, and John Holmberg, 2020. ‘Sustainability-Oriented Labs in Real-World Contexts: An Exploratory Review’. Journal of Cleaner Production, 277 (December), 123202.

Nevens, Frank, Niki Frantzeskaki, Leen Gorissen, and Derk Loorbach, 2013. ‘Urban Transition Labs: Co-Creating Transformative Action for Sustainable Cities’. Journal of Cleaner Production, 50 (July), 111–22.

Parodi, Oliver, 2019. ‘Wider eine Engführung des Reallabor-Konzepts’. Ökologisches Wirtschaften – Fachzeitschrift, 33 (2), 8.

Pereira, Laura, Niki Frantzeskaki, Aniek Hebinck, Lakshmi Charli-Joseph, Scott Drimie, Michelle Dyer, Hallie Eakin et al., 2020. ‘Transformative Spaces in the Making: Key Lessons from Nine Cases in the Global South’. Sustainability Science, 15 (1), 161–78.

Puerari, Emma, Jotte de Koning, Timo von Wirth, Philip Karré, Ingrid Mulder, and Derk Loorbach, 2018. ‘Co-Creation Dynamics in Urban Living Labs’. Sustainability, 10 (6), 1893.

Rogga, Sebastian, Jana Zscheischler, and Nadin Gaasch, 2018. ‘How Much of the Real-World Laboratory Is Hidden in Current Transdisciplinary Research?’ GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 27 (1), 18–22.

Schäpke, Niko, Franziska Stelzer, Guido Caniglia, Matthias Bergmann, Matthias Wanner, Mandy Singer-Brodowski, Derk Loorbach, Per Olsson, Carolin Baedeker, and Daniel J. Lang, 2018. ‘Jointly Experimenting for Transformation? Shaping Real-World Laboratories by Comparing Them’. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 27 (S1), 85–96.

Schäpke, Niko, Matthias Bergmann, Franziska Stelzer, and Daniel Lang, 2018a. ‘Labs in the real world: Advancing transdisciplinary research and sustainability transformation: Mapping the field and emerging lines of inquiry. GAIA-Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 27(1), 8-11.

Schneidewind, Uwe, Mandy Singer-Brodowski, Karoline Augenstein, and Franziska Stelzer, 2016. ‘Pledge for a Transformative Science. A Conceptual Framework’, 191. Wuppertal Paper. Wuppertal: Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy.

Schneidewind, Uwe, Karoline Augenstein, Franziska Stelzer, and Matthias Wanner, 2018. ‘Structure Matters: Real-World Laboratories as a New Type of Large-Scale Research Infrastructure. A Framework Inspired by Giddens’ Structuration Theory’. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 27 (S1), 12–17.

Singer-Brodowski, Mandy, Richard Beecroft, and Oliver Parodi, 2018. ‘Learning in Real-World Laboratories: A Systematic Impulse for Discussion’. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 27 (1), 23–27.

Torrens, Jonas, and Timo von Wirth, 2021. ‘Experimentation or projectification of urban change? A critical appraisal and three steps forward’. Urban Transformations, 3(1), 1-17.

Van Mierlo, Barbara, Barbara Regeer, Mariëtte van Amstel, Marlèn Arkesteijn, Volkert Beekman, Joske Bunders, Tjard de Cock Buning, Boelie Elzen, Anne-Charlotte Hoes, and Cees Leeuwis, 2010. Reflexive monitoring in action. A guide for monitoring system innovation projects. Communication and Innovation Studies, WUR; Athena Institute, VU.

von Wirth, Timo, Lea Fuenfschilling, Niki Frantzeskaki, and Lars Coenen, 2019. ‘Impacts of Urban Living Labs on Sustainability Transitions: Mechanisms and Strategies for Systemic Change through Experimentation’. European Planning Studies, 27 (2), 229–57.

Voytenko, Yuliya, Kes McCormick, James Evans, and Gabriele Schliwa, 2016. ‘Urban Living Labs for Sustainability and Low Carbon Cities in Europe: Towards a Research Agenda’. Journal of Cleaner Production, 123, 45–54.

Wagner, Felix, and Armin Grunwald, 2015. ‘Reallabore als Forschungs- und Transformationsinstrument: Die Quadratur des Hermeneutischen Zirkels’. GAIA –Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 24 (1), 26-31. https://doi:10.14512/gaia.24.1.7

Wagner, Felix, and Armin Grunwald. 2019. ‘Reallabore zwischen Beliebtheit und Beliebigkeit.: Eine Bestandsaufnahme des transformativen Formats’. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 28 (3), 260–264. https://doi:10.14512/gaia.28.3.5

Wanner, Matthias, Annaliesa Hilger, Janina Westerkowski, Michael Rose, Franziska Stelzer, and Niko Schäpke, 2018. ‘Towards a Cyclical Concept of Real-World Laboratories: A Transdisciplinary Research Practice for Sustainability Transitions’. DisP – The Planning Review, 54 (2), 94–114.

WBGU (German Advisory Council on Global Change), 2011. World in Transition – A Social Contract for Sustainability. Berlin: WBGU.

Wiek, Armin, Sonia Talwar, Meg O’Shea, and J. Robinson, 2014. ‘Toward a Methodological Scheme for Capturing Societal Effects of Participatory Sustainability Research’. Research Evaluation, 23 (2), 117–32.

Williams, Stephen, and John Robinson, 2020. ‘Measuring Sustainability: An Evaluation Framework for Sustainability Transition Experiments’. Environmental Science & Policy, 103 (January), 58–66.