Skip to main content

About this Program

Cornell University's living laboratory for sustainability is an ethos and practice about the way our campus priorities, research, and teaching align, and has been adopted across all colleges and units.

This website serves as a home for capturing projects from across the campus. The program website is maintained by the Campus Sustainability Office, however, living laboratory projects can be created and implemented by any faculty, students, staff, or teams. There is no central coordinating team - rather, this website provides guidance and examples to allow any community member to advance a living laboratory project.

What is a "living laboratory" for sustainability?

At Cornell we see our campus as a test-bed for innovation, and the acceleration of research and solutions where teaching, exploration, and application can accelerate sustainability and climate progress. A living laboratory project is any course, project, or research which uses our campus as a testing ground for learning about or implementing sustainability practices.

Multidisciplinary collaboration occurs by matching teaching and research capacity to campus sustainability goals, the Climate Action Plan, or opportunities for new ways to address challenges in the built, living, and social environment. The living laboratory ethos opens our campus resources and data to our community, to harnesses campus systems as operations for sustainable improvement, utilizes our community for behavior change research to spread sustainable culture, to accelerate a sustainable future.

Website Development: A living laboratory project

In 2019, the Sustainable Cornell Council identified “strengthening and developing our living laboratory research and education program for sustainability” as one of the key priorities for campus sustainability development.

This website and project database was created through a living laboratory project! Chun Xu (Cornell MRP’22) worked as part of the Women Leaders in Sustainability Fellowship Program in the Campus Sustainablity Office to assess living laboratory projects and create a framework for advancing additional work.

The goal of the Council, and development of this website was to:

  • Raise visibility of the “living laboratory for sustainability” project framework and possibilities, to enable more students and faculties to have access to these hands-on projects & learning.

  • Ensure university resources are used efficiently and wisely when supporting living lab projects.

  • Raise the visibility of what Cornell is doing in sustainability to external audiences.

  • Better identify key projects that should be funded /accelerated through coordination across our departments, institutional goals, and operations

Understanding the Value of the Living Laboratory

Cornell has embraced a sustainability framework that incorporates four intersecting areas of potential impact that define our approach to creating a more just, climate-resilient, and sustainable campus and community. Through the living laboratory we can advance solutions for our own campus, and share knowlege the world, that addresses climate change and larger sustainability challenges through four big questions:


Does the project contribute to a sustainable planet?

How can impacts be made to the built and living environment? How could we utilize our campus to explore environmental and ecosystem impacts, and reduce unsustainable practices that lead to air, water, and land challenges? Priority areas include carbon neutrality, energy transition, etc.


Does the project meet the needs of people on campus, in the community and in the world?

How can impacts be made to the social environment? Does projects address the needs of public health, human wellbeing, equality and justice? Any practices toward food system, or media and communication?


Will the project enhance overall "prosperity" for the campus and our region?

How can impacts be made to the economic environment? How to consider the community prosperity in a broader and systematic way? What detailed actions could be done to enhance overall prosperity for the campus and our region?


Does the solution help Cornell fulfill its academic mission and carbon neutrality "purpose"?

A living laboratory is an exploratory program to approach sustainability purpose. How could single project propose solution to help Cornell fulfill its academic mission and carbon neutrality purpose?

Project Types

A diagram visualizing the Living Lab's project types and impacts.
Cornell University Living Laboratory Program Diagram, 2022 | Campus Sustainability Office

Living laboratory projects are categorized into three main types. You can explore the Project Database to see examples of each:

  • Courses: Academic courses which utlize the campus as a living laboratory for a sustainability capstone, project, or assignment.

  • Research: Independent research performed by a student, faculty, or team which uses the campus as a testing ground or focus of research.

  • Practice: Applied projects where teams, committees, or groups of staff work to implement their findings, research, or solutions in campus operations and cultural systems.

Project Outcomes

Each living laboratory project can have a variety of positive outcomes that support Cornell University's sustainability goals, research output, and the experiential learning which defines our student experience. The three main types of outcomes that living laboratory work can lead to include:

  • Inspiration: Utilizing the campus where we live, work, and study allows our community to have access to a "test bed" right within reach. By allowing for exploration, study, and play within our campus walls, we can shorten the time between idea and impact - or proof of concept - by using our buildings, landscaping, energy & water, and human behavioral systems as a laboratory for implementation and study.

  • Collaboration: Our living laboratory approach blurs the lines between staff and researchers by allowing for collaboration between academic inquiry and work priorities. Living laboratory projects also lend themselves to multi-disciplinary teams and thinking.

  • Acceleration: Living laboratory projects help to accelerate Cornell's climate and sustainability leadership by harnessing the full extent of our academic community to apply best practices, emerging research, and multi-disciplinary thinking to our campus operations and cultural systems.

Project Support & Collaboration

Our living laboratory website serves as a platform for collaboration between internal and external content managers and contributors and managers, including Cornell University students and faculties, staffs from the Campus Sustainability Office, and supporters from the outside. This platform is intended to benefit the larger Cornell community through collaboration. To make a living laboratory research project successful each project should be designed with three collaboration principles in mind. Ask yourself the following questions:

How can my project build on existing work, or address a campus sustainability priority?

Before you begin with a living lab idea, consider how to build on previous research and solutions campus staff have identified as aligned with our campus climate neutrality and sustainability goals.

  • First browse the Project Database for previous research on topics of interest to you or your students. Don't reinvent the wheel!

  • Next, in the database select "Potential" under "Project Status" to browse the priority ideas submitted by campus staff or previous project partners. These ideas for living lab projects inform where campus staff needs intersect with research potential.

  • Finally, be sure to review the Climate Action Plan and Sustainability Priorities to see where Cornell is focused on advancing specific goals and initiatives and how to connect with key faculty and staff supporting these projects.

What campus staff will I need support from?

Most living laboratory projects rely on support from campus staff, particularly supporting partners from Facilities & Campus Services, to ensure the project will be useful to advancing campus. Be sure to set up a meeting with any teams or individuals who support your area of interest at least 3 months in advance, and be aware that staff largely volunteer their time to support projects. Be sure to clearly outline expectations and look for ways to make operational goals and work benefit from your living laboratory approach. Or, consider building in a stipend or gift for staff who support your initiative.

How will I share the product of my living laboratory class, research project, or study?

It is never too early to start thinking about how to make your living laboratory work shareable to the audiences who can benefit from it. How will you share your findings with staff on campus, or with partners outside of the University?

While a formal academic paper may work for a course grade, it may not be the most effective way to share ideas or brainstorm solutions with staff. Consider building time in your project or course for presentations, meetings, and partnership development to share your work.


The Living Laboratory for Sustainability is a campus-wide initiative. The Campus Sustainability Office supports this website but does not control or act as an intermediary for project support. See the tips above for finding partners to support your work.

Chun Xu, '22 MRP, designed the living laboratory priority areas and website framework as part of her own living laboratory project work through a campus sustainability fellowship in 2022.