Leeds Living Labs: the Living Ponds project

Living Lab where knowledge grows. Combining operations, learning, research and innovation


The University of Leeds Living Lab facilitates collaboration and partnership between academics and operational colleagues, and between students and staff across all Schools, Faculties and Services. It seeks to utilise the University as a testbed for interdisciplinary research and innovation, tackling global sustainability issues at the local scale.  

The University campus, infrastructure and activities provide a rich source of teaching opportunities for all subjects from STEM to the arts. Leeds Living Lab provides the tools and resources required to co-create space for interdisciplinary research-led teaching. It facilitates and curates to allow key stakeholders, such as module leaders and Estates Services, to work together to provide innovative teaching resources for students. 

Here the example of the ‘Living Ponds’ project is used as a case study. 

Photograph of the pond in front of the Roger Stevens building

Living Ponds project: the pond before the upgrade work was started.

Goals / Purpose

The purpose of the Leeds Living Lab is to provide the resources and methodology for collaborative sustainability projects that engage staff and students, develop innovative approaches to research and teaching and drive the University’s Sustainability Strategy. 

From a student education perspective the goal of the Leeds Living Lab is to co-create research-led teaching opportunities that ensure all students: 

  • Are aware of and understand what sustainability is 
  • Have the opportunity to study and be involved in sustainability 
  • Understand how their experiences translate into skills 

The Living Ponds project was created to bring academic and operational colleagues together in the development of the Roger Stevens pond on campus. The goal was to ensure that development plans supported interdisciplinary research-led teaching opportunities. 

Implementation / Activity

Leeds Living Lab has been developed and is managed by the Sustainability Service. It accepts applications for seedcorn funding and match funding for interdisciplinary sustainability research and teaching projects that meet its purpose and principles. Based in the Facilities Directorate, it is ideally located to identify opportunities for projects with impact and can bring together necessary stakeholders from across the University, academic or operational, staff or student. 

The Living Ponds project began with an Estates Services decision to develop the Roger Stevens pond to enhance amenity and biodiversity value and to manage maintenance costs. The opportunity to develop the pond in a way that also enhanced its ability to support research and teaching was quickly recognised.  

Leeds Living Lab sought interest in the project through various Leeds Living Lab internal networks and specifically through water@leeds. Interested stakeholders were identified in the Schools of Civil Engineering, Biological Sciences and Geography with key academics coming forward to join a project team along with the Sustainability Service and Estates Services.  

Early stages of the project focussed on identifying the opportunities, understanding the campus limitations, linking with existing modules and considering undergraduate and postgraduate research topics. This led to mapping opportunities and identifying a preferred approach.  

The site itself poses significant challenges as the surrounding architecture is Grade II* listed. This means that there can be no alterations to the physical structure of the pond, nothing can be attached to the sides of the pond and nothing can be added to it e.g. pontoon, bridge, stepping stones etc. The planned solution from an Estates Services perspective is therefore to add basket planters into the pond. This means flora can be managed and maintained simply by moving the baskets around, or lifting them out as needed. There will also be a need for some pumping to maintain circulation of the water. The water itself is mains-fed (run-off drains elsewhere, and the protected status of surrounding buildings prevents e.g. rainwater harvesting solutions). 

The project team has therefore initially taken a consultative approach in terms of the types of planters and the species of plants. This will help to ensure that the site is suitable for e.g. plant science students interested in specific species in this ecosystem, or geography students interested in urban blue-green infrastructure. 

A key research-led teaching opportunity is the monitoring of environmental parameters in and around the pond. This would produce open data for students to analyse in projects and dissertations. As such, the project team is coming together to match fund the purchase of monitoring equipment for the pond. This will be jointly owned and feed to a (semi)live web-based data dashboard to support interdisciplinary research projects and teaching. 

Finally, a fundamental element of the Leeds Living Lab approach, is closing the learning loop. It will therefore be important that student projects using the pond as a test-bed are able to feed their findings back to Estates Services. This data and information can then be used to drive sustainable improvement to management and maintenance of the pond and its flora to ensure it can better meet its objectives of enhanced amenity and biodiversity value, and reduced maintenance costs. 

Reflections and lessons learnt

Whilst the Leeds Living Lab has a number of large research projects underway, this is the first teaching focussed project on campus. There has already been significant learning along the way and we would expect there to be more to come. 

A key challenge is managing expectations across diverse stakeholders. Academic and operational needs and requirements can vary significantly. For example the operational delivery of the project is constrained by budgets, operational needs and its place within a wider programme of work. The academic need is often driven by the academic calendar e.g. changes to modules need to take place well in advance of the relevant semester (note that this can apply pressure if imminent change is planned, or indeed distract and delay if the change is planned for the following year). 

The nature of the Living Lab is that it continually expands and brings in wider interdisciplinary interest and new stakeholders. This means the project can rapidly grow and become hard to manage. As an example, the Living Ponds project has already expanded to include another pond at the Brownlee Centre, with further interests and need for more spend on monitoring equipment if it is to be successful. We have also had a broadening of interest from different Schools. This is welcome and encouraged but can also lead to conflicting interest between stakeholders. 

Lastly there is a challenge of shared resources and who takes responsibility and accountability for certain aspects of the project moving forwards. We have used a similar model to that developed for the Sustainable Garden whereby teams in the Facilities Directorate take overall responsibility for the site, but with service level agreements in place for the use of certain elements, and for the shared ownership of the equipment. It is important that this is agreed at a School or even Faculty level as projects can easily be stranded when individuals leave the University.

Learn more

Casebook author

Thomas CooperThomas Cooper, Sustainability Programme Officer, Sustainability Service (Facilities Directorate)

Interests: how we can better utilise the University, its places, people and things, to achieve this through co-created, research-led teaching.