“Community Living Labs: A Place-Based Approach to Regeneration” – An Interview with Salvatore Di Dio

Salvatore Di Dio is an Associate Professor of Design at the University of Palermo. He was also the co-founder and former managing director of PUSH, a Lab for social innovation and sustainability, founded in Palermo in 2013. Its research activities intersect design, social sciences and digital technologies with the aim of developing solutions to enhance communities and protect the environment. The Madonie Living Lab is a collaborative project with over twenty village communities in the Madonie mountains of Sicily. The goal is to find solutions for sustainable, resilient, inclusive and accessible regeneration of rural communities enabling low carbon footprint lifestyles and businesses.

What is the purpose of the Living Labs?
Living Labs serve as a nexus of learning, networking, and experimentation. Their objective is to foster local regeneration and serve as a hub for projects that involve multiple community stakeholders, often referred to as the quadruple or quintuple helix model. This model promotes collaboration among academia, government, businesses, civil society, and sometimes the environment. Living Labs have a distinct focus on promoting civic activism by nurturing local, genuine seeds of social innovation. They offer an inclusive space for anyone and everyone, ensuring that even the faintest whispers of innovative ideas – the weak signals – are heard and supported.

Our design approach is where places and social practices are fully interconnected towards a coordinated way for interpreting culture-led regeneration of territories. 

What makes this different from other community development projects?
The uniqueness of Living Labs lies in their integrated approach. While most community development projects target specific issues or cater to distinct groups, Living Labs provide an ecosystem for holistic community regeneration. They are not just spaces equipped with high-tech facilities like 3D printers or VR, but they actively promote social inclusivity and activism. The emphasis is not just on tangible outputs but also on fostering a culture of continuous innovation, discussion, and active civic participation. Furthermore, in areas like Madonie, Living Labs address both social and environmental challenges, making them essential catalysts against desertification of various kinds.

What do you need to succeed?
Success in operating a Living Lab comes from a delicate balance of several vital components. First and foremost, the spirit and drive of passionate individuals are paramount. These are the champions who give life to the lab, ensuring it pulsates with energy, ideas, and collaborative spirit. Agility and continuity form the next essential pillar; the lab must have the adaptability to shift with changing community needs, yet remain a consistent beacon for innovation and participation. The financial dimension cannot be ignored; while the ideal of serving as a public entity is noble, the practicalities of ensuring consistent funding, especially in contexts like Italy, means that a Living Lab often has to navigate the complexities of blending public service ideals with private funding realities. Building and nurturing solid partnerships further strengthens the lab’s foundation.

Collaborations with entities like PUSH, Avanzi, and Farm Cultural Park can be thought of as a lifeblood, infusing the lab with expertise, support, and broader networks. Finally, a deep and unwavering commitment to openness, both in terms of being receptive to diverse ideas and in maintaining accessibility to all, ensures that the Living Lab remains a true hub of community-driven innovation.

How can other communities borrow and learn from this approach?
Communities can start by establishing spaces dedicated to collaboration and open discourse. Engaging stakeholders from diverse backgrounds, ensuring inclusivity, and focusing on both technological and social innovation are key. Workshops, like the World Urban Campaign Urban Thinkers Campus, foster dialogue, build trust, and trigger innovation. While the framework of a Living Lab can be borrowed, it should be adapted to cater to the unique challenges and strengths of each community.

What is your philosophy with respect to organization? What models are best for regeneration?
The community cooperative is a model of social innovation where citizens are producers and users of goods and services, it is a model that creates synergy and cohesion in a community, putting together the activities of individual citizens, companies, associations and institutions, thus responding to multiple needs of mutuality.

We are actively promoting the following aspects of cooperatives and their contribution to creating value for and in the communities they serve:

  • What is a community cooperative, with a specific insight into the national and regional regulatory framework;
  • How a community cooperative is born, who can be its promoter and how to ensure the full involvement of citizenship;
  • How a community cooperative dialogues with the stakeholders of the territory;
  • What services for and with citizenship can it develop and what forms of social entrepreneurship to activate;
  • How to ensure the economic and social sustainability of a community cooperative;
  • Strengths and weaknesses of social contexts that equip themselves with a community cooperative;
  • What role a community cooperative plays in the “inner areas.”

What are your plans beyond the Living Lab?
While the Madonie Living Lab is poised to be an epicenter of innovation with its plethora of technical devices, its true essence lies beyond its walls. The lab is just the beginning. The broader vision is to instigate sustainable change throughout Sicily’s inner areas. By organizing gatherings of experts, we aim to foster an environment of trust and cooperation, ensuring that the sparks of innovation ignited within the lab translate into meaningful, tangible impacts on the community. The end goal is not just to innovate but to rejuvenate and fortify the fabric of our society.

Thanks for your time!

INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar