From Knowledge to Action

How Real-World Labs Can Promote Societal Change Towards More Sustainability

In some situations, humans do not act logically: We are against industrial livestock farming, but we buy cheap meat. We are eager to care for the environment and for our health and still use the car instead of the bicycle, even for short distances. We have a wealth of knowledge, but often fail in putting theory into practice – real-world labs at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) dedicate their research to this gap between knowledge and action and try to close it.

We want to involve people in our research and development, says KIT Vice-President for Transfer and International Affairs, Professor Thomas Hirth. Society is asking what science does, why we do it, and how people benefit from our research. We have the responsibility to provide answers. At the same time, we need the perspective of citizens to ensure that the solutions we come up with can succeed.

That is why the interaction with society is also an essential component of KIT's concept for the future, with which KIT was successful in the Excellence Strategy Competition of the Federation and the Federal States. Implementation is ongoing, as demonstrated by the Karlsruhe Transformation Center for Sustainability and Cultural Change” (KAT).

Die Titelgrafik des Forschungsmagazins lookKIT zeigt eine Wissenschaftlerin, die sich mit Bürgerinnen und Bürger unterhält. Im Hintergrund sind weitere Personen und ein Assistenzroboter. modus: medien + kommunikation gmbh
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For details on the exchange between science and society as well as on the activities of KIT during the Science Year under the motto “Nachgefragt!” (Participate!), refer to the lookKIT research magazine.

Please click here to read lookKIT 2/22

Knowledge and Action Are Linked by Experiment

“A real-world lab is a research institution in which science and society work hand in hand to develop and test sustainable solutions,” explains Dr. Oliver Parodi, head of KAT. Parodi and his interdisciplinary team are eager to find out how the step from knowledge to action can be taken. “Without looking at the people and their daily routine, we will not get any further here,” he says. This is why real-world labs go beyond the limits of traditional research by creating interfaces between science, economy, politics, and society, which mutually influence each other.

 “Real-world labs are a form of cooperation in which all persons involved collaborate in a fair and equal manner, putting the focus on mutual learning in an experimental environment,” adds Professor Armin Grunwald, head of KIT’s Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis where KAT is hosted. “To solve important future issues today, a close collaboration between science and society is necessary.”

“Knowledge and action are linked by experiment,” says Oliver Parodi. This is why real-world labs are becoming increasingly important. For example, enterprises and universities conduct tests on self-driving cars or delivery drones, new ideas for telemedicine services or for public administration. At the same time, real-world labs play a major role in achieving more sustainability. They provide an environment for testing promising climate-friendly and environmentally compatible technologies and products, behavioral patterns, and business models. “To change the world, you need protected, real-world spaces for devising and trying things out,” as the researcher puts it.

Exploring and Shaping the Change

“Science and technology are necessary, but they alone will not be able to save us,” Parodi explains. He is convinced that the conversion to a future-proof society and a sustainable economic system is rather a task for the society as a whole – everybody has to assume responsibility for future generations and is called upon to take action. Moreover, change simply will not work if science, economy, or politics just dictate how people have to live. “We must search for, fight for, and try out sustainable solutions together.”

To support this conversion, KIT founded the Karlsruhe Transformation Center for Sustainability and Cultural Change in February 2022. “The researchers undergo transformation processes themselves and participate in them. In this way, they gain insight that cannot be generated just by observation from outside,” states Armin Grunwald. “All this is not only about knowledge, but about reshaping the society, and researchers are part of the whole process.” According to Grunwald, the goal is to build bridges together in order to overcome societal borders, individual interests, and traditional, outdated structures. “With KAT, we are creating an institution of change, taking topics such as climate protection, energy turnaround, and a culture of sustainability to a practical level,” adds Parodi.

Blick von außen in den Zukunftsraum: Zahlreiche Menschen im Gespräch sind durch die Glasfront zu erkennen. KIT
As an important link between science and the citizens of Karlsruhe, the "Zukunftsraum" is part of the Real-World Lab "District Future - Urban Lab".
Portrait von Dr. Oliver Parodi Markus Breig, KIT
“To change the world, you need protected, real-world spaces for devising and trying things out,” says Oliver Parodi – head of KAT

Common Venture for Climate Protection

KAT assists individuals, municipalities, and organizations, who have set out for a more sustainable future, in their transformation processes and actively accompanies them in their daily work. Besides various universities, companies, and NGOs, municipalities such as Freiburg, Karlsruhe, and Braunschweig have already made use of the KAT advisory and support services on their way to more sustainability. The researchers of KAT build bridges between different moral concepts and patterns of thinking. They establish trust, extend networks, and develop common visions.

An example is the “Klimaschutz gemeinsam wagen!” (Common venture for climate protection) project. KAT aims at creating a culture of sustainability with the citizens of the Karlsruhe Oststadt district. Climate-friendly alternatives and new everyday routines for nutrition, mobility, and consumption are worked out, tested, and explored. One goal is to reduce CO2 emissions, the other one is to create a common awareness for climate and environmental protection. This also includes the support of the local gastronomy, staff and student restaurants on their way to achieving a more sustainable operation and food offer.

“Our so-called self-experimentation offer was received especially well,” says Sarah Meyer-Soylu, head of project. Interested persons could test how their lives would change if they abstained from eating meat or using animal products in general, stopped using their cars, bought regional or seasonal products, consciously avoided waste or saved electricity. 280 citizens of Karlsruhe took part in the self-experimentation, 130 of them as well as 175 students from the Ludwigsburg teacher education college documented their experiments.

While the active self-experimentation phase is over now, people who feel like taking part can still do so. In addition, all individuals wanting more climate-friendly mobility in the future can still hire cargo bicycles. “The bicycles will still be available to the project until its term in September,” explains Meyer-Soylu. “Afterwards, we will make them available for hiring to all citizens of Karlsruhe.” Overall, the project and the associated activities achieved proven savings of 330 tons of CO₂ equivalent.

“With KAT, we have created an effective and visible driving force for a future-oriented development,” resumes Oliver Parodi. “We are showing how life and economy can become sustainable in the society as a whole: by means of dialogue, interaction, knowledge and joint learning, participation and moderation as well as mediation in cases of conflict. Here, real-world labs provide fertile ground and exciting opportunities to actually make the transition from knowledge to action.”

Martin Grolms, Timo Schreck
July 13, 2022

An einem Tisch sitzen Menschen und diskutieren miteinander. Im Hintergrund steht eine Tafel, auf der „KI und Autonomes Fahren“ steht. Magali Hauser, KIT
Permanent exchange with the citizens as in the dialogue on AI in everyday life shown here is a key element of real-world labs. (Photo: Magali Hauser, KIT)