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


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.


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


‘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 pape