Published: 3-01-2012, 11:34

Learning Cities and Regions


Engaged university – A university which plans and connects its teaching and research work with the needs and communities of the locality – city or region – in which it is located.

Learning city/learning region – An administrative region that has developed the capacity to collect, analyze, and use data and experience to enhance the quality of its understanding, leading to improved practice.

Place management – Application of the recognition of the importance of the concept and reality of place for effective, integrated, and acceptable governance.

Social construct – The understanding, concept, and definition developed by a community or network of policymakers, scholars, and practitioners about a concept and/or activity which draws them together.

The Learning City and the City-Region as a Social Construct

The learning city is an ideal, rather than a description of any actual place or places. It is an aspiration for the way the city might be better managed and manage itself in a complex world characterized by terms such as global and knowledge economy. The terms learning region and cityregion are used also as a way of thinking about the management of a city area or region with an evident identity, boundaries, and some form of government. It reflects a sense that city and regional governance could and should be different, and better than they presently are. Local administrations in many parts of the world have in recent years expressed the intention to be learning cities; a number of them have announced that this is what they are, will be, or are becoming. In the sense that the learning city is a social and political aspiration rather than a welldefined and understood condition with agreed characteristic measures, it is best understood as a social construct.

The learning city is a new and evolving notion. Although urban and regional studies have existed for decades, the term learning city, or city-region, emerged only in the later years of the twentieth century. There is no established definition of what it means. In terms of literature, it falls between several recognized areas of scholarship to each of which it is peripheral and ambiguous. It is best understood as heuristic, a metaphor which expresses a set of values and purposes, not an established concept in academic social science. The term is used mainly in policy arenas and among communities of practitioners who are concerned with how things can be done better.

This article explains the different ways the term is used. It then explains how it is related to issues of government rather than education. Various learning-city initiatives are referred to before considering research in the area and issues related to implementation. After a brief consideration of the important link with higher education, the article concludes by assessing the utility and the possible future of the concept.

Two Different Meanings

Although not hotly contested, the term carries different meanings and is used in different senses. Despite the word learning which locates it in the mindset of education, the richer and more fundamental sense has more to do with governance and politics than with education. Where a government authority is charged with the subject it may be a ministry of education, where it is seen as mainly related to schooling, education, and training.

In principle, there are two distinct levels of meanings to the concept of learning city or city-region. The easierto- understand term implies an urban or regional authority that makes good provision for many people to learn. It sees learning, essentially in the forms supported by highquality and widely accessible education and training, as crucial to economic productivity, competitiveness, and so to civic success. A UK report commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment in the late 1990s had the concept of the Educating or Learning City originating in an international conference convened by the Barcelona City Council in 1990, then focused in a report to the OECD 2 years later (Hirsch, 1992).

The policy agenda originating from this approach concerns increasing the volume and raising the quality of education, training, and learning opportunities for individuals. This may extend beyond the formal education sector, together with the less-formalized or nonformal adult and lifelong learning arena, to foster a culture of lifelong learning. Occasionally it includes museums, libraries, and other arts and cultural facilities and venues seen as part of a wider civic learning environment. It is unlikely to go beyond this although learning in and through work (work-based and workplace learning) is recognized within the education profession and policy community as a significant dimension of education and training relevant to living and working.

The second, deeper and richer, as well as more historically accurate meaning concerns the capacity of a city or region itself to learn almost as an individual person or other organism can learn, understand, and adapt its behavior. There may be a difficulty in a Western democratic and individualistic tradition about accepting the notion of learning outside the individual. The recognition has been the strongest and longer established with respect to the learning organization as an informing principle for the study of organization behavior, for consulting to management, and in management education. Subsequently, learning has been affixed to many other institutions and phenomena, from schools and universities themselves to other kinds of organizations such as hospitals and banks to events such as festivals. In a geographical and political sense, it has been applied at levels from the nation to a small locality such as a village.

A widely used term with more conceptual underpinning than many of these is the learning community, used mainly with a sense of geographical locality and also sometimes of virtual communities. Linked to this are the terms and notions of communities of interest and communities of practice (Wenger, 1998). However, these concepts lack the component of place integral to the learning city-region: the recognition that an area with its inhabitants or citizens constitutes an entity or reality, cultural, social, and historical as well as economic, political, and geographical. The term place management has acquired currency in recent years to emphasize the importance of shared location, environment, and experience as important elements in how we organize, manage, and govern ourselves.

The terms learning city, region, and city-region have stronger validity and utility in this second and larger sense. The reduction in scope and meaning in relation to education and training may appeal to local and regional authorities wishing to be part of a new wave of thinking about governance; and it may enable or assist them to reinvigorate their education sectors by using a large and ambitious term.

The larger concept has more to do with the nature of governance and the capacity of political systems atwhatever level to learn from their own and others’ experience and to adopt new behaviors, possibly using concepts such as double-loop learning and triple helix to focus recognition of what this means. Insofar as the concept demands introspection and reflexivity, it may be radical and unsettling, connected as it is to ideas about participation, devolution of authority, and empowerment. Perceived in this way, the learning city is about politics and government rather than about education.

Cities and Regions, Politics and Governance

In terms of fields of study, the learning city region belongs more to politics and government, geography, and urban and regional studies than to education. It is unavoidably political, having to do with the holding, sharing, and use of power rather than purely technical and organizational. Some of the terms with which it is associated have a heuristic, reformist, radical, or an ideological flavor and intent. In this sense, the idea of a learning city represents a challenge to current methods of governing and exercising authority and power. Looking at the administrative region as a place inhabited and used by different groups and communities of interest, and wishing to improve the quality of government so as to enhance the level of and capacity for learning, raises questions about participation as well as consultation in the process of government, and about the devolution of different kinds of decisions and control. The city-region may be seen as a contested space where interest groups vie for benefit and control. The style and nature of government, as well as the amount and nature of devolved authority, are called into question.

The concept of a learning region or territory can apply at all levels of government, although the main focus tends to be on the city. The term city-region is commonly used to refer not just to the metropolis, metropolitan area, or town but also to its physically, economically, and/or culturally natural territory or catchment area. A problem arises when these natural regions do not correspond with the local and regional authority boundaries, and also when the local and regional government are unstable and subject to central government intervention, with frequently changing boundaries, powers, and dispensations.

Here the idea of a learning city-region becomes entangled with another agenda: regionalization as a means of decentralizing and devolving power from the larger central state. Devolution is common in many countries; but the consequential required transfer of powers and resources does not always occur. Then a city or region may be unable to manage its resources and affairs so as to act on what it learns.

Problems occur for schools, colleges, and education systems when control and responsibility are divided among different levels of jurisdiction. They are more acute for a whole city or region. A major problem for effective learning applied to better governance is the separation and compartmentalization that is common among various functional departments, sometimes known as silos, at whatever level. This is exacerbated when there is division, and the silo walls are strong between the parts of the administration, both vertically and horizontally.

Learning City Initiatives

There have been many recent initiatives to promote and disseminate the idea and practice of a learning community and region, for example, through projects funded by the European Union (EU). Some have gone beyond discussion of the ideas and processes to practical workshops and manuals on how to go about it, and how to equip local authority staff to enable local-level community learning as a part of the process of better – more participatory, more responsive and learningful – government (Longworth, 2006; Longworth and Allwinkle, 2005). A recent example is the 2005–07 project funded by the EU through its Grundtvig program and Pascal, on Learning in Local and Regional Authorities, in which partners in six European countries identify the training that the local authority staffs need to implement the learning city concept and design a training program and workshops to meet this need.

Many countries have seen learning city and learning community initiatives over the past decade. In Australia, the State of Victoria has sponsored an initiative for several years in which eight nominated towns were enabled and supported to use this title; they undertook and publicized the initiatives mainly related to education, training, or community learning. Several of these featured in conference reports and specialized in mainly local literature. A little later the State of Victoria created theDepartment for Victorian Communities, renamed as the Planning and Community Development in 2007. The central purpose was to enable local communities to develop confidence and expertise as place-based learning communities and to play an active role in managing their affairs, with better integration of services between and across government portfolios.

In the United Kingdom, the Labour Administration elected in 1997 initiated devolution to Scotland and Wales and strengthened the English regions with nine regional development authorities championed by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM). As part of this initiative, several learning towns and learning community projects led to over 20 towns and cities defining themselves as learning cities and undertaking various initiatives; a loose community of interest and practice grew up around and anchored in these. The activity peaked early in the current decade; there is a sense that interest and energy many have slackened, perhaps from lack of clarity on what the concept and label really mean and how to go about the complex process of implementing it.

A similar sense of uncertainty affects some initiatives in Canada. In Victoria, for example, pronouncement of being a learning city was followed by hesitancy as to how to go forward, and a learning fair which proved unsuccessful, bringing the initiative to a hiatus. In Vancouver, the city resolved and pronounced similarly, setting up a working group to find ways to give expression to the concept. A steering group was led by the Superintendent of Schools and the City Librarian, reflecting a common focus in or near to the education system.

The ease of communication enabled by new information technologies globally, a tendency to compare and compete internationally, and being watchful for new initiatives mean that many countries now have locallevel authorities claiming to be learning cities and regions, albeit with different emphases and meanings in different countries depending on the local traditions, culture, and conditions.

Research and Implementation

There is a lack of academic research and little strictly academic literature in the social science fields directly related to learning cities. The subject is touched upon tangentially in a number of discipline areas especially related to government, urban and area studies, and special interests within education, innovation, and organizational behavior. The main scholarly interest comes from a policy development perspective. Much of the intellectual endeavor concerns trying to improve governance and enhance practice.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as an economically oriented intergovernmental organization, has been prominent in developing and disseminating an understanding of the issues and dynamics. A key monograph on learning regions in the new economy was derived from five studies of city regions in Europe. It was published in 2001 (OECD, 2001) and followed by another round of case studies and an international conference in Melbourne in 2002, from which grew an international observatory on learning regions, place management, and social capital called Pascal. Pascal mirrors the learning city-region approach in being a means of dialog and exchange between policymakers, practitioners, and scholars interested as a policy community and community of practice in putting knowledge into practice, making knowledge work in this applied arena (Duke et al., 2005, 2006).

The Pascal virtual community reflects the character of the learning city as a construct, in that it includes practitioners as well as academic scholars. The latter come from many different disciplinary backgrounds. It is emphatically applied in its orientation, with the explicit purpose of fostering a dialog across professional and disciplinary boundaries. In its commitment to breaking down silos, it echoes a central issue for the learning city region about specialization and compartmentalization as an often ineffectual way of managing complexity.

Another intergovernmental organization that also has a direct governmental remit, the EU, also promotes consideration of the learning region, as well as of lifelong learning, as a means to manage and succeed economically in a competitive global environment. There is an emphasis on capacity for innovation conceived in terms of broader social issues as well as immediate economic indicators of growth. The EU has supported various activities related to learning cities and regions, some mainly of a research nature with a dissemination component, others more concerned with the development and exchange of good practice by means of networks of places and people. In thus seeking to give effect to the concept in terms of governmental and related practices, the EU mirrors some of the ideas of the learning city, trying deliberately and systematically to collect, analyze, learn from, and put into practice what is being done.

One project supported by the EU illustrates the kind of research needed to understand how cities function, and what might be implied to enhance their capacity to operate more effectively in terms of an ideal type. A 3-year research project which studied four European cities and one Australian city took the title CRITICAL as an acronym for city regions as intelligent territories, innovation, competition, and learning. Research groups in each place examined the same eight domains in each city to see how these functioned and how they compared. Domains included, for example, small and medium enterprises, cultural activities, neighborhood renewal, and city administration.

Based on these studies of different areas of city life and cities’ communities, the research suggested a number of core principles on the basis of which a city functions in terms of understanding, learning, and developing in the chosen ways and directions. Crucial to the success of such a learning process appeared to be the way that governance as expressed through the city or city region administration is connected, giving and taking knowledge, and sharing reflection and planning with the different communities and arenas that comprised its complexity. The concept of communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) proved useful, as did work on the creative classes and what made cities attractive and successful places to be, attracting lively and innovative people as well as capital (Florida, 2002). Sustainability, now a significant concept for governance and management as well as in terms of the environment, was seen as an important element of learning and its wider applications.

A chronic problem at the heart of the notion of the learning city region is related to geographical scope and jurisdiction in terms of what powers are exercised at local and regional level. Thus Vancouver, a leading city within a federal system, accounts to both the national federal and the provincial government for different purposes, and is in turn divided between several city administrations. The reach of Vancouver as a learning city is restricted to just one of these administrations, although as a learning region it makes sense to think of two other levels, the greater Vancouver metropolitan area and a larger economic region, which takes in the catchment of the river valley system on which Vancouver sits. Dublin, the fast-growing capital city of the vigorous Irish Celtic Tiger economy, confronts transport and social challenges which call for a city region response for which there is no local–regional government authority. The same is true for Melbourne and other Australian cities, where the metropolitan area is divided between many small city authorities. Greater Melbourne planning falls by default to the state administration, which has competing responsibilities, and regional development bodies tend to be weak, short-lived, and are subject to the vagaries of distant federal politics.

Higher Education and the City

Given the emphasis on knowledge, including research, evaluation, and innovation that is central to the learning city, it is natural that universities in particular, and education systems more broadly, should be a subject of relevant interest. The OECD in particular has sponsored studies related to the role of higher education in regional development and therefore as a part of the learning city-region concept. (OECD, 1999, 2007). A project by the OECD launched in 2004 and completed in 2007 studied the Supporting the Contribution of Higher Education to Regional Development by means of 14 case studies in 12 countries across five continents, with a weighting in favor of Northern Europe. The project was managed jointly by two distinct parts of the OECD, the Territorial Government and the Education Divisions, thus attempting to bring together two different approaches and remits.

From the perspective of a region, higher education is important as a reservoir of expert advice and research capacity; eminent universities, like international airports, are recognized as a significant element among the characteristics of successful competitive world cities and regions. For a university, the resources, interest, and support of the city and region where it is located may be important to its prosperity as well as in terms of comfortable and productive local relations. The idea of university engagement carries with it the idea of co-production of knowledge and shared benefit. However, the idea of local– regional responsibility and accountability also discomfits some universities, which fear the loss of academic freedom and too local or parochial an identity, at the expense of their standing in the unbounded worlds of disciplinary scholarship. In this sense, the idea of the learning city region, and its active promotion by governments at different levels, has become significant to a dialog about the nature of the university in an era of mass higher education.

An Assessment of the Utility and the Likely Future of the Concept

The learning city is one of a number of terms and concepts that has been developed in an attempt to explain, understand, and in some cases to influence and shape the situation in which we live and work, in an era called global and characterized by rapid change and complexity. As a concept, it has acquired meaning, identity, and a life of its own, expressed through the pronouncements and practices of local, city, and region-level governments in many parts of the world. It exists by means of the exchange of words and ideas, and the development of language and practices, that attempt to improve the understanding and practice of administration at these different local levels more effectively and better fitted for what is seen as contemporary need and purpose.

At least in the reduced form of a place and administrative authoritywhich provides opportunities for education, training, and different kinds of nonformal and contextualized learning, the learning city and region seems likely to retain its currency and to exercise significant influence for a considerable time. Its connection with lifelong learning, another widely used though also an ambiguous concept, now firmly established among intergovernmental and national authorities as essential at least for innovation and economic success in a competitive global economy, strengthens that probability. Even in this narrower sense, the relevance to policy and practice of the learning city may be considerable for tertiary and higher education and training, since lifelong learning is associated with the economic and social effects of changing demography, especially longevity, and the need for people to go on learning and changing.

The more fully the larger concept of learning city region is adopted, the greater may be its impact on higher education policy through the idea and practice of the engaged university, and more broadly on technical and other tertiary education. Institutions can be thought of as suppliers of highly qualified skills, and knowledge to the labor force of a regional innovation system. They may also be seen as developing and applying knowledge vital to the economic and socialwell-being of a region.This perception affects the content and processes of the regular curriculum; students’ connection with working and community life; and the character and outcomes of the university’s research activity. In these and other ways it may be seen as an integral part of a city or a region as well as of a regional innovation system. A further point along a spectrum of engagement takes the university close to the heart of planning for the region, so that its and the region’s or city’s long-term development are woven together in a web of interdependency.

As an idea and an agenda for regional management and development, the social construct of the learning city region connects with a complex policy agenda for mass higher education and for whole education systems. It is central to questions about the best configuration of government, devolution to subnational levels, and relations between different levels of administration in the multilevel systems. These may be federal, with significant powers belonging to the state or province, as in Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United States, or centralized but with increasing devolution, such as Spain has seen and the United Kingdom is developing.

The learning city, in the more complete sense, encourages recognition of different communities and zones of activity that cohabit the city or region. It emphasizes a need to connect and involve these, terms such as participation and empowerment as well as consultation, in order to involve and draw on their knowledge and experience in nurturing a prosperous, optimistic, competitive, and perhaps also harmonious, attractive, and sustainable social and physical environment. The concept thus calls to attention the nature of government, and the costs of dissociation, apathy, and alienation. In this stronger sense, it is about abiding issues of governance that have acquired new significance in current times.

See also: Lifelong Learning; Overview of Lifelong Learning Policies and Systems.

C Duke, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK; University of Stirling, Scotland, UK; RMIT University, Melbourne, VIC, Australia

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