Published on Digital Development

Categorizing the collaboration and community promotion spaces that make urban innovation ecosystems tick

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A variety of collaboration spaces are spreading across urban innovation ecosystems. This makes sense intuitively, because collaboration spaces create and — in some cases — manage and sustain the communities that make the ecosystem exist and grow. 
Collaboration space in Barcelona, Spain.
​Photo: Victor Mulas

I believe that collaboration spaces are, in fact, one of the key elements to create and grow urban innovation ecosystems in cities. Our current research in mapping urban innovation is starting to provide results that seem to validate this hypothesis. We are seeing that collaboration spaces that create and manage communities are critical nodes of city urban innovation ecosystems. 

We will share more results about this analysis in future blogs but given the relevance of these spaces, I summarized what I believe are the most relevant categories of collaboration spaces. This list, which I prepared for a paper I am working on, is not prescriptive and it is not closed by any means. To the contrary, it just presents a starting point and I welcome comments to expand and refine these categories.

Co-working spaces
Co-working spaces are open spaces that usually provide broadband connectivity and a few other amenities (for example, a cafeteria and a workspace). Typically, co-working spaces tend to be an open floor with shared desks for members, though some offer closed-door offices. The three main characteristics of co-working spaces are that they offer interaction with other people, flexible working hours and an environment for serendipitous discoveries. Co-working spaces have multiple models: some are owned by companies and no external members are allowed (usually aligned with a corporation’s open innovation strategy); some are independently operated and open to the public (some of which create communities of interest); and others are publicly owned (for example, by city governments). Many co-working spaces have evolved into tech-innovation community management centers that also provide links with, or include in the same space, networks of mentors, skills training courses, accelerators and incubators.

Examples: WeWork, New York (; Impact Hub, London and other locations (;  Alt City, Beirut (

Accelerator programs, or accelerators, can be virtual, but most of them are attached to a physical space, where a cohort of start-ups work together to develop their projects for a limited period of time. An accelerator can be part of a broader co-working space or incubator, or a space on its own. Accelerators support entrepreneurs and start-ups in early stages of development, and they are often comprised of the following features: (i) a highly competitive and open application process for entrepreneurs; (ii) provision of small amounts of seed investment; (iii) focus on small teams rather than individual founders; (iv) intensive support for a limited period of time (usually 3–6 months), with active mentorship and networking; and (v) collaborative work among start-ups through a cohort or classes of start-ups.

Examples: Tech Stars, Boulder, New York, and other locations (; Seedcamp, London and other locations (
Maker spaces
Maker spaces are community centers or coworking spaces, typically independently owned, that provide access to a series of tools and light equipment for fabrication—most significantly, 3D printers and open-source hardware board toolkits and technology (for example, Arduino boards). Maker spaces can be more sophisticated, offering more advanced tools and materials for textiles or for metal- and woodworking. Some of these spaces also provide mentors and a community of interest around the “makers movement” or DIY (do-it-yourself) fabrication and prototyping.

Examples: Santiago Maker Space, Santiago de Chile (; Maker Space, Madrid (; GearBox, Nairobi (

Fabrication labs (Fablabs)
Fablabs are similar to maker spaces, though they have standard requirements, including a minimum set of tools for fabrication and an accreditation program for Fablab managers. Fablabs are small-scale workshops that were originally designed as prototyping platforms for local entrepreneurship but have expanded to universities and higher education facilities to provide complimentary hands-on training. Fablabs are part of the fablab program from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Fablabs have to subscribe to the fablab charter and have to offer public access to their facilities. The fablab program has a fablab academy to train and accredit its managers and a network of collaboration (global fablab network).

Examples: Fab Lab Barcelona (; Fab Lab Lisboa (; Fab Lab South Africa (

Techshop® is an example of a sustainable business model of the concept of fablab and maker space, where access to the fabrication equipment and mentorship is offered for a fee. Techshop® has developed partnerships with universities, such as Arizona State University, or companies, such as Ford Motor Company, to develop ad hoc facilities for internal research and development.

Example: Techshop®, multiple locations (

Living labs
Living labs are environments where the user-centric design methodology is applied to test prototypes developed by entrepreneurs, companies, universities or the public in general. The basic principle of the living lab is to form collaborative environments among different actors and to help developing products through interactive user-centric design. Living labs have flexible approaches and have been employed for academic purposes in universities and/or city governments to form local communities of innovation, companies to develop products, etc. Although there are no specific requirements, the common minimum elements of a living lab are (i) a methodology for product development through user-centric design, (ii) space, (iii) a community of users, and (iv) a vacillator/management structure. There is an international network of living labs, which originated in the European Union and is managed by the ENoLL council.
Some of these living labs have evolved, similar to coworking spaces, into tech-innovation community management centers, becoming innovation hubs (see below) and coordinating the local ecosystem and providing links among actors (for example, Citilab, and also providing links with or including in the same space, networks of mentors, skills training courses, accelerators and incubators.

Examples: Waag Society, Amsterdam (; Citilab, Barcelona (; Living Lab Maputo (

Urban labs
Urban labs is a concept that has been implemented by some cities ( for example, Barcelona) to provide companies with a platform to test products and services in the real environment within the city. The city can provide a specific area for testing or allow companies to request real-life testing environments. The selection of companies to test their products and services usually follows an open call, and product testing lasts for a limited period of time.

Examples: Urban Lab, Barcelona (,en); New Urban Mechanics, Boston (

Industry innovation labs
There is not a common definition or concept of industry innovation labs. I will use this term for labs created for traditional industries, which provide a platform connecting these industries with other stakeholders in the ecosystem, particularly entrepreneurs and universities, t o create open innovation and commons environments for existing industries and business. Innovation labs include living lab concepts of rapid prototyping and iteration, and are similar to innovation hubs in providing a platform coordinating a community of diverse stakeholders.

Example: U+I Labs, Chicago (

Innovation hub
Although there is no common definition of an innovation hub, this concept can be applied to define the evolution of collaboration spaces into community managers that coordinate or integrate many of the other functions of collaboration spaces defined above, including coworking, maker spaces, fablabs, accelerators, living labs, and urban labs. Innovation hubs’ main function is to coordinate all actors of the ecosystem and help manage the community of tech-innovators and entrepreneurs to grow sustainably. Many of these innovation hubs enjoy the participation of the most relevant actors of the technology innovation ecosystem, including entrepreneurs, universities, private sector, collaboration spaces, accelerators, incubators, other providers of seed capital, community managers, and government — particularly city government. Some of these innovation hubs have collaboration spaces in their facilities, such as co-working and maker spaces, while others coordinate their functions with those spaces. Typically, these hubs will phase out their other functions when there are enough offerings for the community provided by third parties.
For a detailed description of how this concept of innovation hub can be applied to develop and strengthen a technology-led innovation ecosystem, see description of the Lebanon Mobile Innovation Ecosystem Project at

Examples: NUMA, Paris (; Forum Virium, Helsinki (; Ruta N, Medellin (; iHub, Nairobi (


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