Situating the learning city

This post presents some thoughts about the key assumptions driving the project and the principles of research design.

Assumptions about the city, learning and its infrastructures

The Reinventing Learning City project is informed by two inter-related issues: the first is the increasing recognition of learning as a part of socio-material processes, in other words, as processes that involve people, places, institutions, things and social and cultural contexts. The second is an assumption that the city serves as a gathering point for these processes, providing and restricting resources for its learners.

The city has been explored by many scholarly disciplines. Given the multiplicity of perspectives, the city constitutes a complex gathering and assemblage bringing together a range of socio-material processes. This way, cities shape people and people shape cities. Therefore, the learning the city and changing the city are interconnected processes. The city and the person are interconnected and interdependent.  – recognising that cities both enable and impede ways of being and forms of learning and access to resources for change.

As the city gathers people and resources, it becomes a provisioning machine that regulates and distributes resources, determining the different modes of urban life. There are many interconnected resources involved in these processes – material, technological, cultural and social –include historic social structures (such as local democracy), formal schooling, material resources (such as bus signs and city streets), to informal social structures such as community and action groups.

Infrastructure is usually considered in relation to engineering and technological resources. However, in relation to the capacity of cities and citizens to learn and change, critical infrastructure also includes the social layer of the city. In this light, the infrastructure to support learning is likely to be social, material, ecological, technological and cultural. It will include communities, formal structures of communication and education, data technologies, geographical formations, transport systems.

Research design: Embedding the learning city

The project will involve four overlapping phases. The first is an interdisciplinary literature review exploring a range of urban theories and methodologies. The second involves work with a select group of volunteer community researchers to explore the multiplicity of local perspectives on the learning city. In addition, we will conduct research around the city of Bristol. And finally, we will organise an exhibition experiment in collaboration with the community researchers and other research participants.

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Why Bristol?

Many people ask us why we focused on Bristol. The choice of Bristol as a research site in 2016 is particularly relevant in the context of the city’s recent explicit focus on learning. In 2016, Bristol became an official Learning City as part of the UNESCO Learning City initiative. Within this scheme, the city leaders, local authorities, educational sector and the public and private sectors have established a Learning Partnership aiming to promote learning opportunities. As part of the programme, the Partnership defined four ‘challenge groups’: Learning for life, education, work and everyone. These strands aim to reduce the social isolation of Bristol inhabitants, raise the attainment of students through formal learning in schools, colleges and universities, develop a flexible workforce able to adapt to the changing needs of business and increase the residents’ and communities’ well-being.

In addition to the Learning City agenda, the city has also developed a vision for Bristol Is Open, a vision for an open programmable city. This idea is based on a collaboration between the technology, telecommunications industry, media, universities, local communities, and local and national government. Within the programmable Bristol, city experimentation is set to become a new type of service for innovative data management, learning and knowledge sharing, urban prototyping as well as data-led policy. In the context of the above significant and explicit developments in data-led city and urban learning, Bristol is a highly suited case for exploration of the topic.

Where are we working?

We want to explore the front stage and the backstage of learning in the city. In order to do this, we work with many organisations and places across the city ranging from community spaces, learning organisations to streets and the local authority. Since this autumn, intensive research has been underway in the Eaton Community Centre and Barton Hill Settlement. The community centres’ users and staff members have been incredibly generous with their time and with providing us with access to data to a whole range of activities. The multi-sited research phase will take place until May 2017. Watch this blog for more research stories.

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