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Fostering learning for transition through urban experiments

Dr. Els Beukers and Prof. dr. Luca Bertolini

Urban experiments are an increasing part of urban planner’s toolbox to support urban transformation. Sometimes in large scale set-up, like the recent cut-off of the Weesperstraat in Amsterdam for through traffic; in small scale urban guerilla activities; or in experiment settings like living labs, novel practices or urban field labs. However, whether and how experiments can generate genuine alternatives and far-reaching transformations in cities remains questionable. `

A key area of discussion is the role of learning in urban experimentation. Learning is a, if not the, central aim of experimentation, since “an experiment only fails when nothing has been learnt from it” (Nevens et al., 2013, p. 119). Notwithstanding the understood importance of learning through experiments in transition processes, learning still seems poorly implemented in urban experimentation. In a database analysis of the transformative capacity of urban experimentation (Wolfram, 2016) of 400 experiments in 225 cities, Castan Broto et al. (2019) found reflectivity and social learning as the least satisfied criterion, with a satisfaction rate of less than 1%. There seems thus to be a discrepancy between a shared understanding of the importance of learning and reflectivity as key mechanisms of the transformative capacity of urban experiments, and a lack of, or unclarity on, fostering learning and reflectivity in the practice of urban experimentation. In order to contribute to addressing this apparent discrepancy, Els Beukers and Luca Bertolini (UvA) worked on a research with two main goals. First, to synthesize an experiential strategy for learning for transition through experimentation. Second, to apply this strategy to the context of an urban mobility experiments program in the Netherlands, called Innovatieprogramma Mobiele Stad (IMS). IMS was developed as a coherent program of eleven sustainable urban mobility experiments. Furthermore, seven interactive learning events where organized for and together with urban planning professionals to reflect and jointly learn based on the developed strategy for learning. Within this research program, the UvA team took a meta perspective with the aim to foster learning and monitor whether and how learning was likely to have taken place. `

In two articles, Beukers and Bertolini describe this journey of:

  1. First, conceptualizing a synthesized strategy for experiential learning for transition through experimentation was developed (Beukers and Bertolini, 2021), based on insights from Transition Studies and the experiential learning theory (Kolb, 1984);

  2. And second, applying, testing, and refining this experiential learning and transition strategy to the context of the IMS (Beukers and Bertolini, 2023).

The first article identified three shortcomings on learning through experimentation: (1) lack of an explicit strategy for learning for transitions through experiments; (2) lack of monitoring whether and how learning and transitions take place; and (3) lack of maintaining attention for learning throughout the whole process of experimentation for urban change. To potentially overcome these shortcomings a synthesized strategy was developed, based on insights from transition studies and the experiential learning theory (Kolb, 1984). Its main added value would be to facilitate learning experiences beyond the experiment boundaries, including indirectly involved participants and society at large. This strategy is not presented as a blueprint, but as a set of guiding principles to foster learning in urban experimentation. These principles are ordered in three parts: How the learning process should be understood (concepts on learning); How to organize the conditions for learning (modes, methods, and concrete directions); And who should be the involved learners (the supposed learners). The second article shares the lessons learned about how to foster learning beyond the experiment boundaries for transition through urban experiments. The synthesized strategy for learning appeared to help fostering learning for unstable groups of participants with diverse backgrounds, who are more or less loosely involved, but possibly can broaden or scale-up the lessons learned. The Experiential Learning Theory (ELT), as an add-on to learning approaches from Transition Studies, appeared valuable to approaching learning as the main goal and having learning exercises as a means for reaching that goal.

However, the strategy for learning was effective for this aim only after several iterations, when it was better understood how the learning principles should be applied to the IMS context. This enabled strategy for learning to fully unfold, and led to a refined strategy for learning. It gave a clearer idea of what worked (e.g., the use of a learning exercise or guiding questions, stimulating self-learning, strong moderation, enough time, and a diverse group of participants) and what did not work (passive input of individual experts) when organizing a learning event related to experimentation. It thus helped to underline the importance of active “self-learning” (stimulating diverse participants to experience, think, conceptualize, and do themselves) at the expense of keynote presentations.

You can read both of these articles via the link below, or on our publications page.

Beukers, E., Bertolini, L. (2021). Learning for transition: an experiential learning strategy for urban experiments. Environ. Innov. Soc. Transit. 40, 395–407.

Beukers, E., Bertolini, L. (2022). Fostering learning beyond urban experiment boundaries, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 46, 100684.

Additional references

Kolb, D.A., 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Nevens, F., Frantzeskaki, N., Gorissen, L., Loorbach, D., 2013. Urban transition labs: co-creating transformative action for sustainable cities. J. Cleaner Prod. 50, 111–122. Wolfram, M., 2016. Conceptualizing urban transformative capacity: a framework for research and policy. Cities 51, 121–130.


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