Reconsidering the learning city

There are many slogans that now declare the aspirations of cities: 'the good city', 'the knowledge city', 'the intelligent city'. For me, the notion of the learning city has most meaning. A creative, learning city is more than a city of education. A learning city is a clever city that reflects upon itself, learns from failure and is strategic; the city is a learning field. The dumb city, on the other hand, repeats past mistakes.

Learning resources are everywhere, from the obvious, like schools, to the less obvious, like the urban streetscape, or the surprising, like prisons or malls. As the educating cities network notes:

The city is, therefore, educative per se: there is no question that urban planning, culture, schools, sport, environmental and health, economic and budget issues, and matters related to transport and traffic, safety and services, and the media include and generate forms of citizen education. The city is educative when it imprints this intention on the way it presents itself to its citizens, aware that its proposals have attitude-related consequences and generate new values, knowledge and skills.41

Most large cities produce a surplus of graduates as they suck in talent from surrounding regions. So by definition they are 'education cities'. This is fine as far it goes. However, a more worthwhile and exciting prospect is to be a learning city - a city that encourages people to be educated. What does this mean? We know learning and education need to move centre-stage to secure our future well-being. Only if learning is placed at the centre of our daily experience can individuals continue to develop their skills and capacities; can organizations and institutions harness the potential of their workforce; can people or cities be self-reflective and so respond flexibly and imaginatively to opportunities, difficulties and emerging needs; can the diversity and differences between communities become a source of enrichment, understanding and potential.

The challenge for policy-makers is to promote the conditions in which a learning city or community can unfold. This goes well beyond learning in the classroom. It is a place where the idea of learning infuses every tissue of its being and is projected imaginatively; a place where individuals and organizations are encouraged to learn about the dynamics of where they live and how it is changing; a place which on that basis changes the way it learns, whether through schools or any other institution that can help foster understanding and knowledge; a place in which all its members are encouraged to learn; and, finally, and perhaps most importantly, a place that can learn to change the conditions of its learning democratically.

A true learning city develops by learning from its experiences and those of others. It is a place that understands itself and reflects upon that understanding - it is a reflexive city. Thus the key characteristic of the learning city is its ability to develop successfully in a rapidly changing socio-economic environment. Where the dumb city flounders by trying to repeat past success, the learning city is creative in its understanding of its own situation and wider relationships, developing new solutions to new problems. The essential point here is that any city can be a learning city. It is not a factor of size, geography, resources, economic infrastructure or even educational investment. The learning city merely requires strategy, creativity, imagination and intelligence. It looks at its potential resources in a far more comprehensive way. It sees competitive edge in the seemingly insignificant. It turns weakness into strength. It makes something out of nothing.

How is this promoted? Leaving aside the wealth of educational opportunities one would expect from a learning city, there is a need to find ways of using the city itself as a learning field. Urban learning resources are everywhere, from the obvious to the less obvious to the surprising. Pre-school groups, schools, colleges, universities, adult learning centres, libraries, television and the internet are obvious. Businesses, community centres, arts centres, museums and attractions, health centres, post offices, citizens' advice bureaux, the urban streetscape, nature reserves, the outdoors and bookshops are less obvious. Old peoples' homes, homeless shelters, refuges, prisons, shopping malls, hospitals, churches, trains, stations, football stadia, service stations, restaurants, hotels, caf├ęs, nightclubs and local parks are surprising.

The challenge is to create more self-conscious communication devices that allow the city fabric to become a learning experience. Learning messages must confront the clutter of advertising. This might mean that, on occasion, the football stadium uses its screens to explain how the screen itself works, the train station becomes a kind of classroom on transport or communications, or public signs explain the origins of street names: Why is Brixton's Electric Avenue so called? Who lived in Bloomsbury? Anywhere, anyhow, can become a site of learning.

Indicators to measure an educated or learning city are different. The former includes government school inspection records, school student attainment, proportion of students enrolled in higher education, impact of research produced by the university sector and the proportion of the workforce receiving training. Evaluating the learning city notion requires a different order of indicators: the number and reach of formal cross-sectoral partnerships, the proportion of major businesses and institutions which use non-hierarchical management processes or the number of mentoring schemes supported by business, the vitality of local democracy as expressed in voting patterns or responses to consultation processes or the numbers of people involved in local campaigns, and voluntary groups dedicated to bringing about change and improvement.42

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