cities as learning platforms

In 2008, CEO’s for Cities recommended a more inclusive way of supporting learning in the community. Basically, the city becomes the learning platform, not just for schooling but for other community support activities, such as policing and heath care.

“The current offer is that education is schooling — a special activity that takes place in special places at special times, in a system where most of the goals and curriculum are set for the student, not by the student. Attainment against those standards leads to a system of grading that has a huge bearing on life chances.

The new learning platform [the city?] would offer learning all over, all the time, in a wide variety of settings, from a wide range of people. Pupils would have more say and more choice over what they could learn, how, where and when, from teachers, other adults and their peers. Learning would be collaborative and experiential, encouraging self-evaluation and self-motivation as the norms.

The principles and ideas developed for the redesign of education and learning city-wide could also apply to policing, crime and safety, health and well being, care for the elderly, carbon usage reduction and sustainability, and culture and creativity.” —Remixing Cities (PDF)

For the past century we have compartmentalized the life of the citizen. At work, the citizen is an ‘employee’. Outside the office he may be a ‘consumer’. Sometimes she is referred to as a ‘taxpayer’. All of these are constraining labels, ignoring the full spectrum of citizenship. As the network era connects people and things, society needs to reconnect with the multifaceted citizen. This is the connecting role the city can play.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book ‘Democracy in America’ based on his travels in 1831, identified ‘associations’ of citizens to be a driving force in the new democracy. These associations could also be described as communities of practice – self-forming groups of engaged citizens. John McKnight, in The Careless Society, described these groups as having three key capabilities: “the power to decide there was a problem, the power to decide how to solve the problem – that is, the expert’s power – and then the power to solve the problem”. The association of engaged and connected citizens that enabled a functioning democracy in early America is now necessary in the early network era. As de Tocqueville saw how a society could function without an aristocracy, we now must see how companies can function without a managerial elite, and cities can operate without bureaucratic overlords.

Today, the connected citizen must concurrently be the connected worker, as well as the connected taxpayer, and the connected consumer, among many other roles. Cities can play an important part in this transition. They are the logical place for citizens to act out their roles on a daily basis. For example, co-working spaces are one way to enable the necessary cross-pollination of ideas and action. Public transportation infrastructure can enable more serendipitous encounters between citizens. Public spaces and walkable communities can encourage citizens to connect. Cities should be designed to enable more connections between citizens.

The network era citizen is connected: to communities of practice, extended social networks, the community, and society. Helping citizens engage intelligently is another role that smart cities can play. In addition to creating space, opportunities to develop skills and abilities should be supported. Cities should be encouraging citizens to seek new connections and knowledge, make sense of these in a disciplined manner, and share their knowledge. Smart cities need smart citizens.

Throughout history, some cities have had the luck to become incubators of innovation. This geography of genius seems to depend on disorder, diversity, and discernment.

Disorder, as we’ve seen is necessary to shake up the status quo, to create a break in the air. Diversity, of both people and viewpoints, is needed to produce not only more dots, but different kinds of dots. Discernment is perhaps the most important, and overlooked, ingredient. Linus Pauling, the renowned chemist and two-time Nobel prize winner, was once asked by a student how to come up with good ideas. It’s easy, replied Pauling, “You have lots of ideas and throw away the bad ones.” —Eric Weiner

cities as learning networks


Cities should engage in network weaving:

  • Reach out to be more inclusive
  • Help people find resources
  • Connect people with common interests

Cities can be facilitators of knowledge-sharing:

  • Facilitate meetings
  • Help set up the structure of the network/community
  • Help people find others interested in the same things

On a daily basis, cities should be coordinators, putting networks and communities together:

  • Coordinate working groups
  • Help people work together on projects
  • Help people keep organized
  • Help set up good communication systems & resources
  • Set up training & support for weavers & facilitators
  • Make sure time is set aside for reflection

Cities can support learning at all levels: city staff, communities, social networks, commercial organizations, non-profits, and all citizens. The city becomes more than a learning organization. It becomes the learning platform that enables knowledge-sharing and curates the knowledge of its citizens.

Continued: network learning cities

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