Learning cities: experiences, reflections and opportunities

By : Jenneth Parker, Research Director, the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems


Our vision of a “world-society” of knowledge: Life is a long process of learning. What we learn corresponds to the numerous aspects and moments of our life, and education and training are some of its illustrations.CMA mobilizes all the competences worldwide in order to make Lifelong Learning a reality for all. Its object is to enable everyone to learn throughout their life, in accordance with justice, rights and fundamental liberties. World Committee for Lifelong Learning (CMA), 2017


The planning of new cities, as well as the retrofit of existing cities, needs to undergo a profound paradigm shift……To be compatible with natural systems, cities need to move away from linear systems of resource use and learn to operate as closed-loop, circular systems. To ensure their long-term future, they need to develop an environmentally enhancing, restorative relationship between themselves and the natural systems on which they still depend. Girardet, 2015


Abstract


This paper approaches the World Congress theme of Lifelong Learning (LL) and Sustainable Development (SD) through the lens of the Learning Cities project. The Congress title is also taken as a ‘meta-question’ for reflection: ‘what is, or could be, ‘an integrated approach’ to LL and SD? The paper proposes some particular answers to serve as a starting point for examination and discussion. The Bristol case is described, with progress so far and some generic issues are identified. Firstly, the over-arching question of interdisciplinarity in learning is raised, as, in sustainability, we have to consider the full range of systems including the biophysical system in which our embodied selves and communities have their being. Looking at the implications of fully including attention to biophysical systems, this paper goes on to propose a human developmental as at the heart of any project of LL and SD that should be open to both secular and faith-based sources of value and meaning. The argument is made that SD provides an invigorating context in which to re-think and revitalise LL, as it makes us question so many mainstream assumptions and values. Thereafter a range of systems thinking tools are demonstrated in application to a variety of city learning issues. The question of the ‘Economics of Learning’ is then opened up, as a crucial aspect of integration. SD challenges continuing forms of economic orthodoxy and fundamentalism, stating that the economy should work for people and planet – rather than the other way around. How might we provide accountability for learning ‘Beyond GDP’ and more in line with the breadth of sustainability concerns? It will be demonstrated that this topic is vital for considering Learning Cities. The paper concludes with reflections on concepts of ‘integrated approach’, lifelong learning and sustainable development at the city scale.


Contents:

1. Introduction

1.1 Systems approaches: ‘not all who wander are lost’

1.2 Meta-questions about Learning

2. Learning Cities

2.1 Identifying some systemic problems

2.2 Systems questions about Learning Cities

2.3 The Bristol experience

3. Generic issues from the interfaces of Learning Cities, SD and LL:

3.1 Sustainable Development contributes a more inclusive account of knowledge

3.1.1 Knowledge and Lifelong Learning

3.1.2 Sustainability and interdisciplinarity: the importance of biophysical systems

3.2 Systems modelling: interactivity of different elements and scales in cities

3.3 Diverse histories and Futures thinking

3.4 Scenarios for decision-support

3.5 Systemic visions: e.g. the Regenerative City

3.6 Nested scales: the City Scale and Earth System Governance

4. New Economics of Learning

4.1 Systems Critique of GDP: our real goal is Prosperity

4.2 Paradigm Shift or ‘Post-normal science’?

4.3 The Economics of Learning

4.4 Learning for Prosperous Cities

5. Conclusions: Lifelong Learning and Sustainable Development at the city scale

Introduction


‘Improving our knowledge and understanding….is most like repairing a ship whilst on the high seas….As particular planks weaken from weather and heavy use, we replace them, standing on the strongest remaining planks while replacing the weaker ones.’ (Norton, 107: 2005, using a simile from philosopher Otto Neurath, 1983).


The first step in this inquiry is to pay attention to some of the key terms of the overall event theme and title. What is the ‘world’ in the context and how does it relate to the local and to cities? What do we now mean by ‘lifelong learning’ and how does this relate to ‘social’ (Wals, 2007) or ‘societal learning’ Waddell, 2005) where we learn by doing things together, we learn about each other and exchange both practical and discursive tools for life? How do we now see ‘sustainable development’, especially perhaps in the context of our post (?) financial crisis world and new information about planetary limits and resource depletion (Svedrup et al, 2012)? In the context of the discussion of active co-creation and learning, what does the call for ‘integration’ mean? How might we at all plausibly ‘integrate’ (in the sense of coming up with a package of settled relationships and strategies?) all of these many elements into any kind of process that we can share? How would we know if we were making progress in this effort?

The context, or ‘lens’ for this inquiry is the Learning Cities initiative which, as we shall see, raises some key questions which illuminate some the issues above by providing specific contexts and histories as a basis for inquiry.

Systems approaches: ‘Not all those who wander are lost’


The western model of conference, review and policy development looks to start from a basis of a map of elements known to be relevant and that ‘solidify’ certain past agreements that can be ‘built on’. One expression of this iconography and method is the Acropolis-type diagram that often forms a part of UNESCO documentation and position papers. This is undoubtedly a symbol of the fact that the western approach in science and learning has many strengths. However, as our topic is ‘Sustainable Development’, perhaps we should indeed reflect that at the present moment the world is waking up to some of the limitations of strong linear, building block thinking. The system sciences are revealing to us that we ignore the major and minor interconnections in the world at our peril – we are just acquiring this knowledge at the same time as the first major effects of climate change are (reluctantly) being acknowledged. Equally, in the financial crisis, we have had recent experiences that show that an edifice of knowledge can be constructed on the basis of supposed rational actors – but this will not prevent these actors from blowing apart the whole system for short-term gain – even if this threatens their own long-term viability.


Writing is a linear process, so although this text is informed by systems approaches, we need to explore topics before they can be brought into relationship. However, a systems and relational approach teaches us that when we bring these topics back together we can expect to find more emergent themes. This view broadly informs the structure of this paper (and any interdisciplinary research project). We organise work packages on different sub-topics, we have some packages that are more integrative, and – if we are wise – we allow time for the emergence of cross-cutting themes from the research. It is these latter synthetic products that are the truly innovative and new findings from any research (Cornell & Parker, 2014). Hopefully, we may generate some of these new insights, both in the process of this paper and during the workshop process that this paper supports.


Meta-questions about Learning


Learning is special – it has a specific and embodied function – but it also has meta-functions that are to do with reflection on the development and change of the system as a whole, particularly with long term gradual changes. This will also include reflection on the make-up of the ‘learning system’ and changes in the ways that we are learning, such as the advent of new media, plus new knowledge gained from areas such as neuroscience and what it can tell us about human cognitive patterning, for example.


In the diagram above we can see that there are theories and assumptions about the role of the learning system itself to be found in the wider social system. This paper mostly considers the dominant view that the main role of learning is to contribute to economic growth.


A key aspect of lifelong learning has always been the recognition of this wider and deeper meta-aspect of learning. This is why lifelong learning, adult and community learning have always been both more (overtly) political and more open, with more fuzzy boundaries – and that is why it is entirely appropriate that Lifelong Learning engages with the big questions. As Lifelong Learning has to be about wider concepts of learning, and questions are not limited to one particular sector in the lifelong process, this fact should encourage us to be bolder and ask more foundational questions. This is particularly the case when we approach the role of Learning in responding to the key challenge of our times – Sustainable Development on our small planet.


Learning Cities


The UNESCO Learning Cities initiative was started in recognition of the growing importance of the world’s cities, both in national terms, but also in terms of their contribution to global developments. Cities increasingly develop and exercise agency over economic and governance affairs, prompting comparisons to the city-state formations with which Europe is familiar (Longworth, 1: 2016). The continuing global trend towards urbanisation has also highlighted the extent to which our global future could stand or fall, depending on the actions and ethos of our cities. In this context, it is very timely to develop a network of cities based on learning as a key focus.


UNESCO (2015) Guiding Documents, state


Learning cities enable their citizens to learn throughout life. In doing so, they enhance individual empowerment, social cohesion, and economic and cultural prosperity, thereby laying the foundation for sustainable development.


Learning cities at all stages of development can benefit greatly from sharing ideas with other cities, as solutions for issues that arise as one learning city develops may already exist in another. Arne Carlsen, 2015.


To date this initiative has been strengthened and developed through a series of international events at the regional level which have demonstrated the strength in diversity of the network. These events are also evidence of the way in which a Learning Cities focus has helped to provide a new channel to advocate for the importance of learning, and new ways to embed learning concerns into our global cities. For example, events in Hamburg have shown that the Learning Cities network is a powerful way to take forward Education for Sustainable Development after the Decade of ESD (2005- 2014).


Over 50 experts and city representatives from Europe and North America gathered in Hamburg, Germany, from 12-14 December 2016. The aim of the regional workshop was to further advance the role of cities in accelerating sustainable solutions at local level through education.
The key outcomes of the Workshop included a better awareness on integrating ESD at local level, supporting the implementation of the SDGs through ESD, and building ESD capacities in cities and municipalities. Priority areas for ESD activities were identified, in particular linking ESD with the different SDGs and their implementation at city level. Educational scenario exercises for participatory sustainability planning at local level were introduced. The workshop permitted to present ESD practices and policies in urban contexts that could be shared and replicated. Finally, ESD Policy & Action Pact were promoted.
Partnerships will be explored between the cities having similar profile and challenges, for example between the cities of Hamburg and Venice (including the potential of their universities), encouraging expansion of multi-stakeholder ESD platforms, and reinforcing exchange of good practices through UNESCO. UNESCO, 2016

Similar events in Mexico and Latin America have helped to show the richness of potential exchange of different regional concepts and histories of learning.


With special regard to the topic of Lifelong Learning in Cities the following emphases are found:

When the outcomes of all learning are valued, rewarded and celebrated by a city, this strengthens the position of learners in society and motivates them to learn further. This motivation should be supported by the provision of comprehensive information and advice to help people make informed learning choices.
In developing learning cities, we will foster a vibrant culture of learning throughout life by:
• Recognizing the role of communications media, libraries, museums, religious settings, sports and cultural centres, community centres, parks and similar places as learning spaces;
• Organizing and supporting public events that encourage and celebrate learning;
• Providing adequate information, guidance and support to all citizens, and stimulating them to
• Learn through diverse pathways; and
• Acknowledging (1) the importance of learning in informal and non-formal settings and developing systems that recognize and reward all forms of learning. UNESCO, 7: 2105

The thought put into this initiative and the progress so far are both very encouraging – and at this Global Forum we are charged to take forward this initiative more strongly through questioning, reflection and the generation of new ideas. One of the great discoveries of adult and community learning is that we can often think things together that we cannot do alone. This paper therefore hopes to act as a stimulus to an open and exciting discussion, which may continue beyond the Global Forum and into our networks and actions in the future.


Identifying some systemic problems


Perhaps for understandable reasons, there is a kind of relentless blanket positivity to official initiative documents. However, if recognising difficulties is the first step to solving them, we should consider problems and obstacles. In common with many others here, I know these problems, because I have lived them. I realise that my experience is to a certain extent limited to northern European (British) perspective, but I propose the following as a starting point for discussion:

  1. The dismantling of adult and community learning in many developed countries in pursuit of an instrumental learning agenda adjusted to an almost totalitarian commitment to ‘growth’.

  2. A continuing failure internationally to appreciate and work with local and indigenous knowledge(s), particularly acute in countries with rapid economic development and change. Linked to a wider global failure to respect, honor and learn from all those who DO know how to gain a livelihood without destroying soils, water courses and biodiversity.

  3. The legacy of current and past austerity and structural adjustment policies, resulting in inadequate funding for learning at all stages.

  4. The continuing emphasis on evaluating and advocating for learning based on how it contributes to economy, as narrowly conceived in financial terms and assessed by growth in GDP

As my Institute tries to look at deeper and wider systemic causes, in this paper I restrict myself mostly to points 2 and 4, commenting in more depth on questions of our concepts of worthy knowledge, the worth of learning and how we should be evaluating learning, particularly in cities.


Systems questions about Learning Cities and Sustainable Development


Some initial questions and thoughts:

  • Can a network of cities, organised as learning organisations help to fulfil local, national and global goals of peace, equality and prosperity?

  • How might we strengthen our understanding of the challenges of Sustainable Development using a city focus?

  • What are they contributing – but also how do they survive and form cultural nodes in the field of international communication, culture and identity in a networked world?

  • What are or might be the duties and responsibilities of cities in our changing world?

  • In what sense could the city be an organisation –of any kind?

  • If we think of the city as a living entity, we could say that the different ‘organs’ of the city that do different things – (infrastructure, management etc). Are the ‘learning functions’ separate? Should the learning systems also include meta-reflection on the learning aspects of the other systems?

  • How might the ‘learning specialist organs’ help – but also in turn learn from the kinds of experiences gained in other vital areas of the city functioning and being?

  • In the city we also learn to live together, to share space. For this we need to find out who is already here and their histories. Do we even have a ‘collective history’ – or does that also need to be negotiated? How do we learn about our futures?

  • How can we plan for the future(s) of learning in our cities?

In developing this paper I am led to tentatively propose some possible stages that express some of the concerns that have arisen for me, and in thinking about the Bristol Learning Cities example.


Stages of the Learning City concept:


  1. The city as hosting learning systems – and how to make them work together and improve them

  2. The city as an object of study – learning about cities – urban studies e.g. street work, starting from streets and infrastructure; populations and their histories

  3. Learning about the city as a relational entity – in regional, national and global contexts – how the city is influenced and impacted upon – and how the city impacts on people and planet at these different scales


All these elements have a relationship to action learning, learning that is linked to potential change in a positive learning loop (e.g. see Action Learning, Research and Practice). Each of these will modify the understanding of the others e. g. no city learning systems are exclusively local any more. Universities aspire to be international institutions – sharing knowledge and leading in various topics of local, national, regional and global significance. Might we be able to collaborate similarly across the world in terms of our Lifelong Learning commitments and experiences, utilising a city focus? This paper attempts to show how some of the questions in the list above can be approached using systems thinking. I am sure that there are other perspectives that we will need on this learning journey, but I will propose that this set of skills and perspectives will form an essential part (Meadows, 2009; Sterling, 2003). In terms of international research, systems approaches are increasingly used for interdisciplinary work. It is interesting to consider if systems are something recognisable that can also help to broker cross-cultural and international understanding more broadly. To what extent might ‘systems’ become one of the ‘languages’ that we might use to share our experiences and to help us develop solutions?


The Bristol experience


I begin with the Bristol experience as this is a case where I am familiar with the context. Attention to the particular and specific always raises some questions of wider generic significance – and vice-versa. This case illustrates many key positive points that could be seen as shared across the Learning Cities network and some special elements of excellence that Bristol has to contribute (Bristol Learning City, 2016). Most importantly for the topic of this conference, the Bristol case also illustrates the nature of the challenge to the Learning Cities globally of engaging fully with Learning for Sustainable Development. This latter point will be the main focus for further thoughts and exploration of the issues later in this paper.


Bristol Learning City has been successful in setting up a framework that helps educational institutions in the city unite around a common theme and exchange information amongst themselves. In its early days, this initiative has concentrated on working towards fulfilling a number of key pledges from the Mayor of Bristol. It is undoubtedly the case that the links to an active Mayor who understands the power and potential of education is a great asset. This also helps to determine the emphases in the programme and link this to the democratic process – as the Mayor was elected on the basis of a programme offered to Bristol citizens. One such programme commitment was working to ensure that all young people in Bristol should have a positive experience of employment as part of their learning journey. This has linked to national changes supporting apprenticeships and this has enabled progress in building this initiative. This example shows us the links between city and national governance frameworks and programmes in helping to provide the support for effective action.


One key feature of Bristol as a UK city is that it is a comparatively wealthy and successful city which contributes to the overall GDP of the UK, but which contains deep social divisions and inequalities. Bristol has a history as a centre for the slave trade which has perhaps yet to be fully acknowledged in its effects as a forerunner to the current social and economic make-up of the city. The current Mayor, Marvin Rees was elected very much on an ‘equalities’ ticket and this provides a helpful background to the mission of the Bristol Learning City to ensure that all citizens are regarded as equally important and equally entitled to a good learning experience. The ‘Tale of Two Cities’ is in fact a tale of many cities, as a port and international city, Bristol has a very diverse ethnic profile and this is a powerful driving factor in the vigour and health of its cultural industries and life. Bristol has a flourishing NGO, not-for-profit and Third Sector organisations, many of whom are actively committed to Learning for Sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals.


Another key aim for Bristol Learning City has been to map out the landscape in which learning takes place in the city. This has meant gaining a clearer understanding of all the component parts of the formal system and getting them talking to one another (Bristol, 2016). Further information about the city context itself is another stage – to be entered into partly linked to the consideration of Learning for Sustainable Development. The governance structure of Bristol Learning City has been successful in linking many important elements and aspires to be even more inclusive – particularly in terms of community learning and the many smaller scale organisations in the civil society or Third Sector, which offer professional development and learning opportunities in a hugely diverse set of ways.


In common with many other Learning Cities, Bristol is interested in making this initiative work for the city ‘brand’. This inevitably means some degree of competition, both nationally and globally. For example, Bristol has many high quality training schemes, but it is difficult to retain graduates owing to high living and housing costs in the city. How might a ‘Bristol Offer’ that includes a greater focus on the city as an innovative centre of learning help to retain some of these newly qualified and excellent new teachers? Further to this theme, and in terms of the Learning for Sustainable Development, the city wants to capitalise on the experience and gains from being the European Green Capital in 2015. This award and years’ programme, made some developments in learning for Sustainable Development which could be extended. However, the Green Capital programme was also seen as a way to promote the city brand as at the cutting edge of technology development, including as a home of the aerospace industry. These tensions between economic competition and perhaps more traditional, or unconsidered, aspects of economic development and more fundamental and challenging aspects of sustainability are likely to continue, but could be seen as a positive source of dialogue. It is not surprising that currently it is mostly (but of course not exclusively) the Third Sector organisations that are raising the more difficult and profound challenges to the economic development model.


In summary, the Bristol Learning City initiative has made a great start on a number of really important goals and the added value of the approach has been made clear in terms of bringing together the existing formal sector institutions in an atmosphere of cooperation. In addition this has helped to raise the profile of learning in the city and to make the case for the importance of learning as a policy goal, but also as a part of other strategies and goals for the city. Now the Bristol Learning City faces the double challenge of continuing to make progress in a difficult situation nationally for educational and other funding, and in extending its field of interest and activity to encompass Learning for Sustainable Development more fully. A wider engagement with the Third Sector already working in this area is a key starting point, but so will be developing further dialogue between the sectors on Sustainable Development at the city, regional and global levels.


In common with many large cities worldwide, the city of Bristol has taken up the responsibilities and opportunities of becoming a global actor. Bristol Mayor, Marvin Rees, is fully engaged in many global city networks, including the covenant of Mayors and many others. These city governance initiatives and global networks are a trend that is developing rapidly in the global governance field. In one positive example, we have seen that the response of American cities to the withdrawal from the Paris agreement by the Trump administration has been to strengthen their commitment to helping fulfil this agreement, and indeed to supporting human rights of citizens. The strengthening of the global identity and capacity for agency at the political level of the city is in many ways a hopeful new way that the voices of global citizens can be heard at the international level. Bristol looks set to continue to play its part in these developments with strong commitment to equality and to sustainable development as part of an agenda for learning. Much remains to be done and the following sections and discussion raise points that have relevance for Bristol, particularly in seeking to engage further with Learning for Sustainable Development.


Generic issues for Learning Cities


Sustainable Development contributes a more inclusive account of knowledge

‘Younger brother thinks
‘Yes! Here I am! I know this much about the universe!
But this knowing is learning to destroy the world,
To destroy everything,
All humanity.’
(Message from the Kogi people, in Ereira, 1990, in Dickens, 1996)

Knowledge and Lifelong Learning


In this Global Forum we recognise and celebrate the enormous value of many of the knowledge institutions that we already have. However, no organisation can ever be a completely impartial creator of knowledge and interventions. If each of us reflects on the experiences of being involved in the creation of any initiative we will realise that these are political processes. This is especially the case perhaps when the concerns and perspectives of a wide range of international actors have to be meditated. Indeed it is plausible to claim, as have post-modernists, post and de-colonialists, feminists, indigenous peoples and others, that knowledge and power are intermixed. Indeed, what is privileged to be labelled ‘knowledge’ is often a political battle ground. So let us not take for granted what passes as ‘knowledge’ or the power of discourse and concepts to frame our world. Much of what passes for ‘knowledge’ at one moment may be dysfunctional and/or destructive (Diamond, 2013). Some priceless and relevant knowledge may have been lost, side-lined, or repressed.


Against the backdrop of world sustainability challenges some of our core thinking and tools for responding to crisis are in need of renewal. We might decide that we can usefully ‘wander’ and consider the possibilities presented by working with some other approaches. This is also entirely in keeping with a wider view of a truly international (or perhaps it should be ‘inter-community’) approach to human cultural rights and the decolonisation of the discursive space of the ‘world’. What does this mean? Taking seriously and working more creatively with the incredibly rich ‘rainbow’ of different cultural and knowledge creation traditions that our evolution on this planet has been blessed with (Bokova, 2013). This must include the recognition of world religions as sources of human value and meaning. In this I do not mean to side-line the contribution of enlightenment rationalism, but to say that it is time that we consciously mediated these different traditions so that we can learn from each other to contribute to local-to-global solutions. This means also, that faith traditions recognise that secular analysis, understanding and political forms, can be part of the work of love in the world.


I use the term ‘blessed’ intentionally, as, without some kind of faith and inspiration, whether from religions of the book, indigenous spirituality, meditation practices, or humanist faith and commitment, we are unlikely to be able to solve our problems. Such complex changes need faith and spirit to inspire us to work together (Cadman & Gill, 2016). This vision of LL has to include recognition of the enduring human importance of the search for meaning, and the need for opportunities for moral and spiritual development. If LL can partly be seen as an analogy to the healthy human body - the beating heart of this project has to be about human flourishing and development. Sustainable Development also includes seeing our flourishing as including reflection on our relations with the rest of the living world (Biermann et al, 2009).


This approach links strongly to the other commitment of learning that we must honour – learning as a route to, and expression of, an attitude and practice of peacefulness (Spirit of Humanity Forum, 2017). I would like to suggest, that peace, as a process also is not really reducible to ‘integration’. When do dynamic, enjoyable, but sometimes tense processes of engagement and dialogue end? When is the ‘peace process’ over? Never. It is an infinite game. Processes can get us to the point where we can agree on workable structures but change will always throw up new and emergent issues. We can open a door to diverse communities to learn more about each other and themselves as we culturally adapt to our changing world. Or if immediate conflict is avoided then we can work on some deeper issues. It is hard to stress the extent to which the world is suffering under the weight of past traumas and injustices – we have to find ways to move forward whilst acknowledging the pain of the past. Of course, this is linked to contentious questions of redress for the past and the ending of current injustices in practices or structures. We now have many positive experiences of conflict and justice mediation processes on which we can draw to help develop learning contexts.


Sustainability and Interdisciplinarity: the importance of biophysical systems


SD offers some great opportunities to revive, reimagine and spread some of the core enduring human developmental values of LLL. This can be seen for example, with reference to the key elements of the CMA (2017) Charter ‘the World Society of Knowledge’ below.

The original goal that led to the creation of the World Committee, stemmed from the observation that the lifelong learning concept had evolved in the 1990s from a recommendation to a necessity, owing to the advent of the Knowledge Society, in which the sharing of knowledge and skills are a key factor…….
This choice is based on three principles:
- placing economy at the service of man and not the reverse
- taking into account the diversity of cultures and ideas
- acting at collective level by connecting more closely educative, cultural, economic and political systems.

We are now considering the challenges of Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Sharing of knowledge globally is crucially important to help us respond effectively and to support our working together to share this planet more peaceably and equitably. When we bring in our relationship to wider biophysical systems all kinds of things happen in our thinking. When we add in the wider system context to human life this reflexively influences our appreciation of the kinds of knowledge of different human groups in our interconnected world.


Firstly, in terms of the first principle above, we discover that ‘placing the economy at the service of man’ must include questions of the ecological ‘efficiency’ of economy and development (TEEB, 2010). Growth that destroys the living basis of all our economy can only create a temporary bubble of hyper consumerism for some – this bubble will burst when the ecological effects begin to undermine livelihoods and threaten survival, and when easy-to-reach resources begin to run out (Bardi, 2017). This is considered more fully in the section on New Economics of Learning below.


Secondly, in terms of diversity. When we consider our relationships with biophysical systems more fully we can see that some aspects of the ‘Knowledge Society’ are not new at all. Long-standing human knowledge of how to live in regenerative relationships with living systems has been a precondition for humanity’s relatively short history (in planetary terms) (Parker & Wade, 2008). Recognition of these ‘knowledge societies’ is necessary to bring our sisters and brothers in the First Nations and Indigenous Peoples into this discursive space (Parker, 2000; 2001). Equally, though, we might cite respecting the knowledge of peasants in many parts of the world who still produce most of the world’s food (de Schuter, 2015).


Indigenous People Want to Co-Lead Cities: In the largely indigenous town of Otavalo, Ecuador, stakeholders gathered on 12 October to discuss the relevancy and importance of indigenous people, particularly youth and women, in urbanization processes. Just a few days before the opening of Habitat III, the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, this special meeting was organized with the help of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and brought together hundreds of indigenous people from around the world. With over 370 million indigenous peoples spreading over 70 countries and speaking 5000 different languages, indigenous peoples still remain marginalized in all segments of life, from governance to economic participation. Approximately half of indigenous people now live in urban areas, putting cities at the center of attention for creative implementation of progressive policies and programmes.

If we add ‘bio-physical systems’ to point 3 of the CMA list above, then it becomes much clearer that in some respects ‘modern’ learning systems have over-looked a great deal of necessary knowledge – with potentially catastrophic consequences. If we neglect biophysical nature we also often forget the fact that learning beings have bodies. It is ‘disembodied thinking’ to just concentrate on the written and digital sources of knowledge without comprehending the embedded knowledge in communities and practices of groups of people (Plumwood, 1993). Disembodied thinking has gender implications as it also overlooks or ignores much of the (often unpaid) work largely still done by women in keeping bodies and minds together in practices of care and nurturing (Cuomo, 1998). The graphic below from the Earth system sciences, serves as an ecological reminder that we live and have our being in a biophysical world, in which cities are a particularly intensive node.

Fig 2. Cities in the Earth system (Educypedia, 2017)


This is also a picture of the Anthropocene – what we humans have so far made of our Earth. Perhaps it would be more correct to say ‘a certain proportion of we humans’, as, in fact it is largely the most highly educated and ‘developed’ actors who have driven this experiment in development (Orr, 2004). The Sustainable Development Goals are a call to all of us to move to another, and more considered phase of this global experiment in human development, one that not only takes our relations with living systems into account, but also our relations to those vast numbers of humans whose knowledge, concerns and agency have been side-lined or undermined by this model. In terms of the final principle in the CMA list, we can extend the interdisciplinarity in the systems which the Learning Society takes into account and works with.


The Anthropocene
What we have done, and continue to do, to our planet is transforming, disrupting, and in many cases destroying our systems. The biggest threat from these massive disruptions is climate change. Our activities are on such a large scale in such a tiny amount of time that we are likely to knock the whole planetary ecosystem into a different phase, a period of significant global warming (if we haven’t already done so). That will create serious stresses and cause huge shifts in… all our systems – ecologic, economic, governance and society.
Ian Roderick, 2017

a. Systems modelling: interactivity of different elements and scales in cities


One question about Learning Cities is whether the city can become more of a learning organisation about how the elements of the city can work together and become more resilient in the face of change (Resilient Cities link). Viable System Modelling is an approach which helps us to make sense of organisations, or groups of organisations of any degree of complexity and tells us something about how they operate, why they function the way they do and what we might be able to do to change them. The Viable System Model has a different view on how organisations work from conventional approaches and provides radically different answers to many common and intractable management problems. VSM shows us that we need to be thinking about up and coming challenges and changes in advance (see section e) below). More importantly, VSM helps us to think about how and why our organisations work as they do:

……human beings are very easily conditioned to accept the social framework around them as though it was a part of the natural world, and therefore no more under their control than the weather. Hilder, 6: 1995).
The above quote reminds us of some of the differences between biophysical and social systems. This is very important when we consider our perceived limits to our agency, or the ways that ideas can act as ‘enclosures’ (Ford & Kuetting, 2017), that keep us boxed in and disempowered. Some features of our social world which we have been taught to accept as ‘natural’, are in fact human constructs, albeit constructs that embed a certain reproducing and constraining power, which make them hard to escape. One of the things that living systems and social systems can do is to maintain themselves in the face of shocks and change. However with regard to social systems, this is not all good. We will all have noticed how organisations that are set up to achieve a certain goal, can end up with their main goal as being their self-maintenance – irrespective of whether the organisation is still really fulfilling its initial designated role. One tool that can help us to gain a perspective on our organisations and whether they are effective is systems modelling. This also leads us to consider whether new challenges have come along, for which no-one is responsible, or the responsible parties may be totally ill equipped to respond in a timely and effective way. For example, if we want to know about whether our systems can help ensure food security, systems modelling of our food system can be a place to start. This kind of modelling is often best done as a participatory exercise with expert support and facilitation (Koca, D. & Svedrup, H. 2013).

Fig. 3. Group modelling of food systems in the CONVERGE project.


This diagram shows the process of modelling over several workshops. These results were incorporated into guidance about how to run such a process.


b. Diverse histories and futures thinking


When we think about engaging citizens in thinking about our futures in cities, there are many useful tools that can help. One such is the Three Horizons model (Sharpe, 2013) as this also includes ways in which innovations can work – both to try to prop up the way things are, (by keep things going and preventing the transition to another kind of system) or to help us move to a new system that is difficult to achieve in one step.

Fig. 4 Three Horizons for thinking Futures and strategy


The 1st Horizon is business-as-usual, which many vested interests wish to maintain. Innovation, particularly incremental efficiency measures (expressed in the blue arrow in the diagram) may help us keep this 1st horizon as the dominant one. The 3rd Horizon, currently does not look that plausible under current conditions, but is in some ways pre-figured in social, ecological and economic pilot schemes and in new thinking that has yet to be taken up, or to reach ‘critical mass’ (see the Tipping Point by Gladwell, 2000 in this regard). Radical innovation can help us to reach our 3rd Horizon, but there is always a danger of this being held up by those who are either wedded to 1st Horizon (whether because of perceived interests or deep conceptual and personal investment), or can only really bring themselves to contemplate 2nd Horizon ideas and projects.

In many contexts, it is this 2nd Horizon that represents our best attempts at transitioning to a new future, based on our current knowledge. It paves the way and enables 3rd horizon systems to emerge. One simple example of this model is the dominant internal combustion engine for powering vehicles, this is the 1st horizon. The 3rd horizon is fully electric vehicles and associated infrastructure for transport – technology that has been available for over a century. The 2nd horizon contains innovations like hybrid vehicles, public sector funded charging points, subsidised schemes for electric vehicles and so on. All of which are temporary, transitional innovations.This kind of systems approach to futures can also help us to think more fruitfully about what conditions we might need to help develop, not only in order to bring people with us, but to work more effectively with those parts of society that are either more ready for change, or are actually leading pilot projects for change.

However, one aspect that has often not been fully considered is the extent to which rapid change driven by our current development model, its innovations and its crises, has hollowed out the capacity of people to personally adapt to new circumstances (Bourdieu, 1999). In this case, to require these same people to positively engage with yet more change is a really big ask. Often it is the poorest in society that suffer from imposed structural changes, they are the ones who have to make the energy available for adaptation to new neighbours and new circumstances. It is also necessary for us to attempt to understand how it feels to be told that your knowledge and life experience is now useless as the development trajectory has moved on and passed you by. This is another aspect of Learning Cities that we should consider, and is why schools are moving to ‘resilience training’ rather than the promotion of self-esteem. The personal psychological and conceptual skills and orientations needed to cope with change have to be one focus (Cherry, 2017). It is also the case though, that complaints about change are not all to be dismissed. Some change is or has been, for the worse for some and for the better for others (O’Brien & Leichenko, 2003). Unless we can learn to listen to each others’ experiences and meaning attached to change, we may be unlikely to engage in developing successful common futures. This is why it is not backward-looking to give people the chance to look back.

In the CONVERGE project research there was a focus on community engagement as a learning process, proposing that we will need a range of public learning processes to support the systemic changes that sustainability requires (Callaghan, 2013):

Fig. 5. Citizen engagement strategies for systemic change


Again, another thing which has come to fore in recent years, was the way in which different groups in the ‘same’ geographic location or ‘community’ may have very contrasting histories and associations with incidents from the past, and how this will at times de-rail attempts to get people to work together on futures. We cannot erase the past from our discussions of the future. Again, it is necessary to have a strong perspective on learning for peaceful transitions in order to help work positively with such issues. In this regard I would say that we could learn from some of the examples and practices from multi-faith engagement for ways to enable people to work from and enhance their understanding of their own traditions by and through engagement with others’ traditions (King, 2008). Incorporating, learning and engagement for understanding and peace must surely be a key part of our incredibly diverse, and sometimes tense and fragmented cities (Spirit of Humanity Forum, 2017).

c. Scenarios for decision support in learning organisations


Many organisations are currently engaged in using scenarios as a way to help understand possible futures. Often scenarios are developed by ‘expert’ groups and then stakeholders are consulted, in other cases focus groups of stakeholders can be involved in the whole process (CSCP Wuppertaal, 2012). In all cases scenarios are collective learning processes and in some form will be vital to cities as learning organisations. Scenarios use systems approaches to discuss possible futures and they combine information from many fields to come up with alternative composite pictures of possible futures, supported by data. They can be used with citizens to improve democratic understanding of future possibilities, and they can be used to test the resilience of all kinds of things – including cities. How resilient are cities in the context of different possible futures? How might current demographic, economic, technological and environmental trends influence our future cities? These are questions that Learning Cities will need to think about in order to engage with Sustainable Development.

In order to best explain scenarios I call on a Schumacher discussion paper from my colleague Michael Clinton who has worked on military scenarios in a former life, and has done this kind of work with rural councils adjacent to Bristol.

Basic Characteristics of a Scenario
When considering how society might evolve from its present unsustainable practices to a truly sustainable future there are three fundamental questions that we need to answer:
Where are we now?What choices do we have?Which of these choices are desirable?
Simple questions may be, but they are highly contentious to many stakeholders, which means that any scenario developed in response to these questions need to be firmly grounded with supporting evidence or strong arguments. Generating such an evidence and argumentation base requires robust processes, if the resulting scenario is to be robust to critical scrutiny. In effect this requirement extends the characteristics of a scenario beyond its descriptive and data content to include the supporting methods, models and processes as well. This represents a significant body of background material …….
Given that we are considering how our society might evolve towards a sustainable future, it would be fair to say that our scenarios will be set in the future. At this point it is worth re-iterating that scenarios are not predictions or forecasts of the future; rather they are descriptions of what is possible under certain conditions. The challenge, therefore, is to generate an acceptable level of familiarisation within the scenario to support the plausibility requirement whilst still enabling a wide range of possible futures to be explored, debated and tested. ………..
In summary the basic characteristics of a scenario are that:
It is plausible, built at least in part on elements that are familiar and understood by stakeholders;It clearly describes the situation of interest;Supporting evidence and argumentation are recorded;The development process is appropriate, authoritative and accurately recorded;They are evolutionary in nature i.e. given a suitable process they can respond to new inputs or circumstances. (As such they can be powerful planning tools.)
Clinton, 2014.

In a European Union funded project Nilsson, Kjell et al (2014) have used scenarios in the context of urban- rural relations. They were interested in this relationship from the point of view of land-use and the huge growth in ‘urban sprawl’ which often takes up prime agricultural land – a topic of great concern regarding food security. Overall, these scenarios also raise questions of deep concern to citizens about the kinds of futures that we, and our descendants, might experience. The international team used this work to identify issues that need policy attention:

the following strategies were identified as important steps towards more sustainable urban-rural futures: (i) better coordination of transport, land use and open space planning; (ii) urban containment and densification –development of a green compact city; (iii) preservation of blue and green infrastructure; and (iv) preservation of agricultural land and the promotion of local production. The need also remains to strengthen governance at the regional level while at the pan-European level there is clearly a need for more policy attention to be given to urban-rural linkages.
Nilsson, Kjell et al, 2: 2014

An informal way to provide learning across sectors is to set up something like the Prepare for Change project, run by the Schumacher Institute in Bristol. This provides up to 6 seminar/workshops each year on current trends and future challenges across a wide range of issues and is regularly attended by a mix of business, government and civil society participants (Roderick, 2015).


e. Systemic visions: the regenerative city

In addition to the complex alternative scenario approach outlined above, another possible approach is to develop an inspiring vision, supported by data about a selected group of current trends and possibilities, supporting a positive outcome. The vision for ‘Regenerative Cities’ (Girardet, 2013) is a good example, which shows what could be achieved if certain decisions are made and a path of change pursued.

Fig. 6. The Regenerative city vision


This regenerative city focuses mostly on the biophysical features of closed loop use of resources and emphasises the relationship of the city in terms of flows – both in and out of the city to the hinterland. Of course the larger ‘hinterland’ of all our cities is the global Earth system (Cornell et al, 2012) and it is to this topic that we turn for the final example of the use of systems approaches in Learning Cities.


f. Nested scales and Earth System Governance


One of the exciting things about the Learning Cities programme is that it is partly developed in recognition of the bigger part that cities are playing in governance. Not just governance and innovation in their own localities, but also in terms of recognising and developing their potential roles as global regional and global actors. This raises questions of our responsibilities as local and global ‘good citizens’. How might cities become ‘good global neighbours’ or Global Citizens (Okereke, 2008)? Below, is an analysis drawn from the EU funded CONVERGE project, looking at the question of responsibility in the context of nested scales. What does it mean if we begin to see ourselves, our identities and our communities as existing as part of a local-to-global system? How might this affect our concepts of our responsibilities to others (McIntyre-Mills, 2014)?

Earth System Governance: Convergence Approach to responsibilities in systems
What is Convergence?
Convergence is a process whereby human well-being, prosperity and consumption across different groups merges to equitable levels – within planetary limits. This means that richer countries and groups need to reduce their use of planetary resources while still supporting developing nations to increase theirs. The aim is to ‘Converge’ at a sustainable level, reducing inequality across and within nations whilst conserving, restoring and caring for the Earth and its resources.
Convergence sees a balance of duties across different levels of governance
Macro level duties: to ensure the resilience of the local; to address structural features of macro systems that unbalance the local and produce global damage and depletion of Earth systems;
Mid- level duties: to participate in ensuring the resilience of the local by responding to both macro and local levels; to work on all areas where economies of scale are really important e.g. research and development expertise; to contribute to peaceful and constructive relations at the macro level; to explain about the roles of governance and its aims; to engage with citizens in these topics.
Local duties: to develop the resilience of the local in ways that contribute to the resilience of the whole; to establish and participate in globally and mid-level brokered arrangements

Learning Cities responding to the SDGs could use some of these ideas in order to open up discussions and learning about our roles in the world, and our responsibilities to share global resources responsibly (UNEP, 2017). This understanding might, indeed help those of us in richer countries to understand that we need to reduce our consumption and move towards less consumerist ideas of prosperity.

This section has demonstrated that working with systems approaches provides many opportunities for new models of reflexive learning and new collaborative pedagogies in the context of citizen-informed action for sustainable change. In addition this section has given pointers to addressing some of the questions and issues with regards to cities’ relations with the world that supports them. I now turn to the vexed question of how we might economically conceive of learning in cities and the linked question of measurement of Lifelong Learning outcomes for a more sustainable world.


New Economics of Learning

It is inspiring to see the commitment of the CMA to work for an economy that is at the service of humanity, rather than humanity being seen as a tool of the economy. This chimes with the inspiration for my institute. In the 1970s E. F. Schumacher asked us to consider ‘Economics as if People Mattered’ (2011). Raising the topic of the economics of learning is an essential prelude to looking at the role and function of learning in cities in the context of sustainable development. During the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development there was an unacknowledged elephant in the room. This elephant was the whole edifice of the current state of economics of education and the way in which market ideology has been placed increasingly in the driving seat in decision making about learning. This includes economics as ‘performative’ (MacKenzie et al, 2008), in other words, as creating the conditions about which they also theorise. Market ideology has created markets in education and claimed that privatised education is the most ‘efficient’ way to spread learning. This of course, may be contextually ‘true’ when the same ideology has ensured that public expenditure has been forcibly shrunk due to structural adjustment and austerity actions. Now that orthodox and neo-liberal economics is being challenged from a number of key directions (and now sometimes from the very global institutions that aggressively pursued neo-liberal agendas themselves), the time is right to open up this debate.


In the course of the developing agenda and debate around linking Education for All and Education for Sustainable Development (Parker & Wade, 2008) the following tensions were identified:


Some tensions between ESD and EFA undoubtedly arise because ESD has a broader agenda than EFA. ESD is concerned with moving towards a more sustainable society by changing attitudes, values and actions. ESD promotes and necessitates critical reflection by all teaching and learning institutions and individuals themselves upon their own behavior, actions and commitments and the way these affect sustainability. This activity of self-reflection is a key part of what it means to be a ‘learning organization for sustainability’ (Pedlar et al, 1991).
Although it is also true that many EFA practitioners are clearly engaged in critical reflection on curriculum and pedagogy, EFA could be seen as involving more unquestioned and traditional, less self-reflective organizations and pedagogies.
EFA is often still conceptualised in the ‘development’ model, as an adjunct, or as a road to development. By way of contrast, ESD questions development and the assumption that current dominant forms of development are necessarily inevitable and desirable. From this point of view, ESD is more contentious than EFA.
However, it should be remembered that mainstream institutions charged with economic development (the World Bank, for example), are also engaged in rethinking development in the light of both environmental sustainability and a more complex accountof poverty (addressed more fully below). With regard to poverty issues, ESD is arguably aimed not just at poverty reduction but also at poverty prevention, as proponents seek to bring about changes that can reverse present harmful trends towards social and environmental degradation. In this respect, ESD must challenge education that supports these tendencies.

Whilst the debate has moved on in some respects, the key underlying orthodoxies and practices have not radically changed, as we have not really got a New Economics of Learning.


Neo-liberal market ideology and prescriptions have colonised a wide range of professional fields and their dominance is now so entrenched it will take some effort to remove their effects – even from our own minds. I open up this debate in the hope that we will together pursue it further, as here I can only lay out some of the ground and point to the necessity for us to work on this as a determining systems condition that can thwart our attempts towards Lifelong Learning for Sustainable Development, in cities and elsewhere. Alternatively, as many others propose, if we can look beyond GDP, we can begin to frame discourses and practices of accountability and development that support efforts for people and planet. As we look to cities for innovation for human development and Lifelong Learning for Sustainable Development, the possibility of some cities joining together to lay the foundations for a New Economics of Learning is inspiring. In the founding statement of the Learning Cities initiative there is a commitment to ‘develop systems that recognise and reward all forms of learning’. This section looks at what is required to work towards this commitment. In the past, those looking for change in this and other areas, have bypassed the task of constructing a New Economics of Learning – as there was still no consensus on how such a general Economics for Sustainable Development could be formulated. Let us also acknowledge that those who make it their business to support ‘free’ market ideology have been quite successful in blocking such developments in international arenas, agreements and initiatives. In this situation, what has been attempted is the development of more varied ways to measure success and social prosperity under the heading of ‘Beyond GDP’.

Systems Critique of GDP: our real goal is Prosperity


When the value of the learning sector is measured in terms of GDP, what is being measured is the ‘value added’ in monetary terms. Because the figure for GDP gets used as a shorthand for ‘how well we are doing as a society’, this approach has been criticised by numerous commentators as being reductionist and illogical:


‘What is wrong with GDP is quite simple. It only performs, repeatedly, one simple arithmetic calculation. It adds. Yet in reality much of what it adds in fact serves to reduce the quality of life……The central question we need to ask is ‘growth of what’? No doctor assumes that the growth of cancer is a good thing. Yet the costs of crime, ill health, stress, environmental damage and social breakdown can all add to economic growth as measured by GDP.’ (Mayo, 2006, p 120)

The question is, what vital information does GDP leave out? What decline in natural resource base and changes/declines in social cohesion might be accompanying GDP success stories? A developing country can look as if it is doing very well in terms of GDP, but that can be built on the totally unsustainable sale of irreplaceable natural assets, such as rainforest timber for example. Equally, economic development might be built on keeping down wages and using up the ‘social capital’ of functioning communities and families. If economic extraction from the social and caring systems causes these to fail, the economy is socially unsustainable.


Whilst GDP is still used as a measure by the World Bank and the OECD, it is now qualified by the use of various other indicators that have a closer relationship to sustainability debates. For example the ‘valuation of natural capital’ approach is being promoting by the World Bank based on an ‘ecosystem services’ approach (World Bank, 2012). These measures, could be seen as a step forward, though they are in themselves controversial. For example, it is argued that it does not make sense to provide a monetary value for the life-support systems which support the economy (Sullivan, 2013).

Equally, economic activity might be built upon keeping down wages and using up the ‘social capital’ of functioning communities, localities and families. If economic ‘extraction’ from social and caring systems causes these to fail, then the economy is socially unsustainable (Pickett & Wilkinson, 2010)


Fig. 7. The nested scales of the economy in systems perspective showing relations of dependence.


Equally, as one of the key features of ‘capital’ in our current financial system is its tradability (or ‘fungibility’) the concept of ‘natural capital’ can only be analogous to this. When ecosystems are in fact parts of a planetary interconnected whole, we cannot really trade them off against each other. (Would you rather lose your heart or your lungs?)

There will be no growth on a dead planet….no jobs…..and no equality either… T shirt slogan, Bristol

In terms of social justice and human development, economic growth was supposed to enhance human prosperity. If it now fails to do so, then it is time to re-think the focus on growth.


Kuhnian Paradigm Shift or ‘Post-Normal Science’?

Added to these challenges, above, we have had a financial crisis of huge proportions, which has thrown much of the orthodoxy into disarray. We are still threatened by the systemic instability of global financial architecture, debt and financialisation which have not been curbed. We still have the spectacle of the greatest deficit nation on Earth, the USA, essentially demanding to be supported, wielding the threat of the collapse of the whole system, in exactly the same way as the banks extorted state support by ‘being too big to fail’. This analysis is not presented with any intent to single out for blame any one country, agency or group of individuals. Systemic ethics distributes responsibility, but does not dismiss it (McIntyre-Mills, 2014). To a certain extent we have all become trapped in a dysfunctional economic machine – but some of us are still pretending that we know how to control and manage it. A systems approach discourages a single point blame game, and the consequent demonization that goes with it. We can all take responsibility to help along the necessary transition from this failing system to something better.


Debates are still raging about the possibilities of ‘green growth’ (OECD, 2016) and now ‘inclusive growth’. There are moves afoot to try to develop ‘Green Keynesianism’ to combine anti-austerity economics with green economics (Scott Cato, 2011). We have also more recently seen debates focused on attacking the concept of ‘growth’ as an essential goal and necessity of economic governance. For example, Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth (2011), begins to discuss how we might move towards a prosperous world that is not tied to the ‘growth machine’. Younger scholars, impatient with stalling in face of obvious and urgent social and ecological problems are exploring a range of alternatives under the ‘De-Growth’ (The Great Transition Initiative, 2017) or ‘Post-Growth’ (Post-Growth Institute, 2017) umbrellas. The crisis, so far, has still succeeded in generating more space and interest in heterodox economics. A student movement demanded to be taught a wider range of theories …and so on. Although the culture and policies of key international agencies are still structured in terms of neo-liberal orthodoxy, there is a wealth of interesting new shoots from which we can draw to re-think economics. In one example, the Adapt Econ II Marie Curie EU project has 12 Phd students using systems modelling to explore new directions for different aspects of the economy at different scales (Svedrup & Ragnarsdottir, 2017). All these initiatives are premised on the fact that the current mono-dimensional account of progress given by monetary accounting is fatally flawed.

The general understanding of ‘paradigm change’ informed by a Kuhnian analysis is that however bad the anomalies and failures of the old model – no-one will give it up until there is a viable alternative available. This is the situation that Kuhn observed from the point of view of an interdisciplinary account that combined the sociology of specialised knowledge production communities in disciplinary contexts with philosophy of science (Kuhn, 1962). Arguably, the concept of ‘paradigm’ only works within these disciplinary contexts – they guide and structure the discipline and help to establish the boundaries of the discipline (Bird, 2000). Furthermore, sociological regularities are highly context-dependent, and are not subject to the same constraints as biophysical regularities, as we humans can change the social systems we ourselves create and maintain. In all these ways, the question of the change to New Economics for Sustainability, is not in the ‘normal science’ frame. What is in question is not so much economics as it is currently constructed changing to a new paradigm, but the whole question of moving to a much more interdisciplinary account of livelihood and prosperity, that takes essential information from a whole variety of new sciences, which are themselves highly interdisciplinary (Parker, 2013). The implication of this is that it is folly to wait for a new paradigm to come along and to leave this up to the ‘experts’. It is not that kind of change, and we have to take some responsibility for change in our own area of work.

The economics of learning


The current state of evaluation of the worth of learning to society is that the main role of learning is to contribute to the economy. Economic studies on the contribution of education to society, frequently focus on correlations between growth (as measured by GDP) and education. These kinds of studies have been vital in providing an evidence base for support for educational goals such as the Education for All initiative and in contributing to human development. However, it is worth noting that, tactically, in making any case for support we tend to draw on the accepted discourses that are available. Whilst the world’s major funders are locked into neo-liberal models of economics and development, the case for learning will be made that way. As these same funders are beginning to change their thinking maybe it is time for a re-think and re-boot of the case for learning?


Why are we so fascinated by the story of the Titanic? We are all in a massive financial vessel, not constructed by ourselves, it still looks big and shiny and contains huge rewards for some, but most are locked in steerage. We have a wide range of systemic warnings that tell us we are headed for a field of icebergs (and some already say the ship is holed below the waterline). There are some out on the sea trying to develop lifeboats, but these are still looking a bit ramshackle. They are beginning to cooperate more to form a flotilla with the idea of rescue and taking a different course. When do we take responsibility to jump ship and try to help them?

Governments widely think they have to justify public expenditure on learning by how much it contributes to GDP. However, in this they may not be so much concerned about accountability for public money as the desire to increase government revenues, and think to ensure re-election by presiding over a growing economy. This is so much the case that in the UK, leaders in education would talk about their own universities as ‘University PLC’ (public limited company – the form for private business in the UK) and even the sector as ‘UKHE PLC’ as a contributor to the GDP of the UK. Of course some of them feel that there are tensions between this role and other academic roles and values and this is true for many educators. A more rounded concept of ‘economy’ that could incorporate many of these values might be welcomed as a way to diminish these tensions (Blewitt & Cunningham, 2014). Indeed, many of those in learning would welcome the idea that ways could be found to evaluate and measure some of these, currently more intangible, outcomes of learning.

In tandem with the increasing conception of learning as a private good, leading to higher income, the learning offered to students now stresses ‘employability’ – but research shows that students actually want self-development and to learn skills that can help them find paid work (Batchelor, 2006).

Our offer to learners: inspiring or instrumental?
One university in the UK had an inspiring offer to students
‘Become What you want to be….’
Inspiring and open in its feeling of an open door to learning and personal development.
However a new VC who prided himself on his ‘hard-headed approach’ turned this into,
‘Become what you want to be ….employed!’
One of the staff said, ‘It’s like the slamming of the prison door…..!’

Another thing that this approach also fails to do is to help develop the new generation of sustainability entrepreneurs who make social innovation and who are the basis for the upsurge in the social economy worldwide (Hinton & McLurcan, forthcoming, 2018).

If GDP is to be reconceived as including social and ecological health then any contribution from learning must be in those terms also. The ‘efficiency’ of learning would thus need to be re-evaluated overall in relation to these wider elements of well-being. The kind of ‘efficiency’ that sustainability requires from all organisations is one which can deliver on the broad goals of human and ecosystem well-being as appropriate to different contexts (Matthis, 2011). It may well be the case that many educational economists would welcome equipping themselves with some new tools – or better still, collaborating with the wider learning community to develop customised new tools. Can we move forward to models of accountability that can make sense to our stakeholder communities, learners and specialists alike? Could thinking more fully about sustainable development at the city level lead to a more enlightened approach by cities, that might have a view of learning as a multi-dimensional ‘public good’ including promotion of health and welfare – but also providing cultural resources for pursuit of meaning and moral development throughout life (UNESCO, 2007)? We may be pushing at an opening door…..


Learning for Prosperous Cities


The initial guidance documents for Learning Cities contain detailed work on the benefits of building a Learning City which range across many areas from marketable skills to citizen engagement. This complex list of features of learning in the city context could be used and adapted in order to help provide evaluation of Lifelong Learning that was suited to the broad goals of the Learning City project. This in turn, would help to encourage an ethos and appreciation of the multi-dimensional nature of learning as a civic good, not to be reduced to a single monetary measure. The Prosperous City Index is a set of dimensions that have been developed by UN HABITAT (2017) as a way to complement and support the SDGs but with a city focus. They will form a base for comparison and learning exchange for global cities. The key dimensions are:

Productivity; Infrastructure; Quality of Life; Equity and Social Inclusion; Environmental Sustainability; Governance and Inclusion

This initiative includes a strong statement that all these dimensions are necessary parts of prosperous cities and seeks to support data generation, collection and evaluation of cities progress on this basis. In this case, there is every opportunity for Learning Cities to begin to develop evaluation of Lifelong Learning in terms of its contribution to all 6 of these dimensions. This would indeed be a real step towards a New Economics of Learning in the city context.

Conclusions: Lifelong Learning and Sustainable Development at the city scale


By way of conclusion I want to summarise the implications of the paper for the 3 phases of the Learning City proposed earlier.


I have also argued that to prioritise evaluating learning in cities according to an expanded set of criteria would be a real step forward for sustainability and a re-assertion of ‘learning as if people matter’. In addition it can work in a complementary way with those who are exploring new ways to think economics as an interdisciplinary effort for sustainable livelihood and human flourishing.


This paper has provided some introductory sections that show the potential contribution of systems tools and approaches in the city context. Many of these are appropriate fields for collaboration across the city learning systems. Universities and specialist institutes all have pieces of the puzzle for scenario generation and discussion of city futures. Museums and galleries have spaces and information to offer along with churches, mosques, local halls and arts centres. There are many learning practitioners in the community, ‘under the radar’ who could benefit from the support and focus that Learning Cities for Sustainable Development could provide. Many city SD-focussed organisations are keen to share their knowledge with others. This suggests a networked approach around a range of linked initiatives.


On reflection, and with a process approach in mind, what does an ‘integrated approach’ mean? Does it mean tightening up meanings so that we all use the same language? Does it mean the opportunity for people and organisations in different contexts to each engage with key ideas as they feel to be most urgent and appropriate? Integration – like peace – is not a state to be achieved or legislated even by the most well-meaning experts – it has to be a process – a continual and dynamic process of engagement and inquiry. In fact it has itself to be a learning process - in which we continue to learn about each other and our histories and co-create ways forward. We must indeed attempt to develop frameworks, languages and agreements around which we can cooperate, but there will always be a need to change, progress and adjust our agreements and frameworks.


In this case, the meta skills and orientations of learning to learn, acknowledging others perspectives, and tolerance, will always be a priority. In this case perhaps more stress on the human values of Learning Cities would be a good and useful development, that could involve all those groups in the city that have strong values perspectives, including faith groups, ethical associations and thinkers, and humanists who work for the good for others and for their communities. In recent international and national events, down to localised violence and hatred we have experienced in our cities, we have seen that the most powerful response that communities have reached for is that of unity and openness, love and diversity. Let us, as part of the learning community, add, ‘open dialogue and knowledge exchange’. In conclusion I propose the role of a systemic approach in helping us to understand the world, but also take responsibility for our contribution to caring for each other and our world.

‘If enough people have the ability to appreciate the complexity and the systemic nature of the world then we might prevent further damage and at the same time we can restore and regenerate ecologies and societies. We all need to understand systems and to communicate in systems terms if we are to discover ways to regenerate and to restore the damage. ‘(Roderick, 2016)

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