network learning cities


“According to my review of history and theory, four forms of organization — and evidently only four — lie behind the governance and evolution of all societies across the ages:

  • The tribal form was the first to emerge and mature, beginning thousands of years ago. Its main dynamic is kinship, which gives people a distinct sense of identity and belonging — the basic elements of culture, as manifested still today in matters ranging from nationalism to fan clubs.
  • The institutional form was the second to emerge. Emphasizing hierarchy, it led to the development of the state and the military, as epitomized initially by the Roman Empire, not to mention the Catholic papacy and other corporate enterprises.
  • The market form, the third form of organization to take hold, enables people to excel at openly competitive, free, and fair economic exchanges. Although present in ancient times, it did not gain sway until the 19th century, at first mainly in England.
  • The network form, the fourth to mature, serves to connect dispersed groups and individuals so that they may coordinate and act conjointly. Enabled by the digital information-technology revolution, this form is only now coming into its own, so far strengthening civil society more than other realms.”
    Overview of social evolution (past, present, and future) in TIMN terms, David Ronfeldt

There are strong indicators that society is heading toward a quadriform structuring (T+I+M+N) with network culture dominating in many fields: open source insurgencies, Blockchain financial transactions,  political manipulation through networks, crowdfunding, etc. This is also bringing tensions between the old Tribal, Institutional, and Market forms against the emerging Network form.

“The more entrenched an older form, the more difficult it will be for a newer form to emerge on its own merits: This mostly occurs where tribal or hierarchical actors rule in rigid, grasping, domineering ways; but it may also apply where pro-market ideologues hold sway … Examples may include governments rife with a clannish tribalism, militaries wallowing in lucrative business enterprises, and ostensibly capitalist market systems fraught with collusive, protectionist cronyism. The stronger are tribal/clan tendencies in a society, the more likely are corrupt hybrid designs. A society of myriad monstrous hybrids is likely to be a distorted society, even a mean-spirited one.”
Explaining social evolution: standard cause-and-effect vs. TIMN’s system dynamics, David Ronfeldt

Cities for Learning

In cities as learning platforms, I suggested one role of the city in the network era would be to enable knowledge-sharing and curate the knowledge of its citizens. Cities should be designed to enable more and better connections between citizens. Learning and innovation are more about making connections than having unique ideas.

In The Geography of Genius, Eric Weiner researched how creative genius flourished in cities through history and identified three key factors — diversity, disorder, discernment — but no recipes, only some hints and suggestions. He concluded:

“Creativity doesn’t happen ‘in here’ or ‘out there’ but in the spaces in between. Creativity is a relationship, one that unfolds at the intersection of person and place.”

Cities can provide the intersections for learning. Here are some of Weiner’s observations of what made cities places for not just learning, but genius. As you can see, there is no unifying theory. Also note that these ‘golden ages’ only lasted for a few decades each.

  • Athens: simplicity, civic engagement, open competition not for personal glory.
  • Hangzhou: playfulness, poetry, humility.
  • Florence: wealth, freedom, uncertainty.
  • Edinburgh: literacy, empiricism, practicality.
  • Calcutta: chaos, individualism + gregariousness.
  • Vienna (1800): web of creators, audience for genius.
  • Vienna (1900): tension, pressure, intimacy.
  • Silicon Valley: fluidity, loose connections, experimentation.

Perhaps there are some lessons to be learned from these shining examples of learning cities. I would suggest that planners look at the three D’s and see how they play out in their cities. Encourage diversity at all levels and in many ways. Discerning what is appropriate for current circumstances and with respect to economic, political, and technological realities is where art and planning can meet. Cities should look to the edges for inspiration, particularly the gamers and artists, to see what can add diversity to the current city makeup. Don’t over-control but ensure that things remain somewhat in disorder. As Leonard Cohen wrote:

“Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

The Network Era

Given the TIMN framework, how can cities apply network principles to begin to develop network ways of operating? Patti Anklam has identified the core values of a knowledge network, citing three related factors: openness, transparency, and diversity. These three factors reflect several of the attributes of the cities mentioned above.

“Innovation and discovery across disciplines are not possible without the property of transparency. A fully transparent network is visible to all: Its artifacts are public, its decisions (including those on the topics of purpose and value) are taken in plain sight of and with the participation of the whole network, and the boundary between leadership and membership is permeable.” —Net Work, Patti Anklam

At the city level, openness can be promoted through subsidiarity. The principle of subsidiarity is: “that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level that is consistent with their resolution”Wikipedia. Subsidiarity can enable more transparent knowledge sharing. Cities can promote this by providing or encouraging learning spaces, public or private. The coffee houses of London and the salons of Paris are two historical examples of Shaping the Public Sphere (PDF).

“Coffeehouses brought people and ideas together; they inspired brilliant ideas and discoveries that would make Britain the envy of the world. The first stocks and shares were traded in Jonathan’s coffeehouse by the Royal Exchange (now a private members’ club); merchants, ship-captains, cartographers, and stockbrokers coalesced into Britain’s insurance industry at Lloyd’s on Lombard Street (now a Sainsbury’s); and the coffeehouses surrounding the Royal Society galvanized scientific breakthroughs. Isaac Newton once dissected a dolphin on the table of the Grecian Coffeehouse.” —The Telegraph 2017-03-06

Knowledge sharing can foster innovation, especially if diverse groups of people are engaged in active experimentation. Some examples of current network era knowledge sharing and experimental structures are co-work spaces, makerspaces and fab labs. As trust emerges over time, more openness and knowledge sharing can drive more innovation.

3 Responses to “network learning cities”

  1. William Ryan

    Several cities have worked towards Becoming a compassionate city ( ) and developing innovation centers to tech, medical, and other small startups. Your idea might be one to strengthen their efforts by acknowledging the drive but fostering a more active partnership, a working learner-centric model that maximizes the communication and educational opportunities cities provide. Now how do we get that conversation started? Got me thinking…..

    • Harold Jarche

      learning + compassion sounds like a very human-centric approach 🙂


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