Visionary learning cities and their discontents

In 2017, Bristol was awarded the UNESCO Learning City title. Within this initiative, Bristol has set up key challenge groups focused on learning for and in work, learning in education and learning for everyone, concerned with lifelong and community-based learning, as well as tackling marginalization and social isolation. The partnerships comprise educational leaders, cultural activists, businesses and representatives of local authorities, cultural organizations and social work. The idea of Bristol Learning City is to utilize these partnerships to promote and create learning opportunities for everyone across life and in the whole city. The Bristol Learning City campaign tagline is Love Learning and the program is currently promoted in educational events around the city and online.

In order to understand the current ideas of the learning city dominant in municipal initiatives as well as in much of the educational literature, we need to revisit the pedagogical tradition developed in the 1970s. One of the key proponents of the critical pedagogy of the time, Paolo Freire (1970) argued for the development of problem-posing education. In this perspective, learning involves an active relationship with the environment and the development of capacities for action. In 1971, Illich presented a vision for a deschooled society where the physical environment, objects, spaces, such as cities, could be made accessible for self-directed learning. For Illich, education needed to be reconnected with the resources available in other parts of life such as objects and spaces in the city. In 1973, Shaw discussed a need for new connections between learning and living. Shaw saw education as dismissive of what was happening in favor for preparing for something that was going to happen (Shaw 1973: 517).  In the context of the emerging ecological and social challenges, he argued, we needed to rethink education to find new ways of adapting to change. Therefore, all institutions using information, also ones that make up our cities, needed to develop capacities to learn.

The above ideas have resonated widely in international thinking about learning in the city. They inspired the influential UNESCO’s Faure Report of 1972. The report embraced the spirit and the cosmopolitan vision of the early 1970s, connecting the educational endeavor to other areas of social development (Elfert 2015). The subsequent Delors report (1996) presented a vision of a learning society (itself a translation of the ‘cité éducative’ concept used in the Faure report) that promoted learning throughout life. In a similar spirit to Shaw (1973), the Delors report saw education and learning as ways to address contemporary challenges through learning to know; learning to do; learning to live together; and learning to be. It redefined the role of education in the new millennium, driven by a Faure-like vision for a society ‘guided by the Utopian aim of steering the world towards greater sense of responsibility and greater solidarity’ (1996: 51).

In the 1990s, the groundwork of the two reports led to the development of the learning city idea that has gained prominence in the field of lifelong learning and international policy discourses (Elfert 2015, Hamilton and Jordan 2011, Han and Makino 2013, Kearns 2012, Longworth 1999, 2006, Osbourne 2013, 2014a, 2014b, Scott 2015, Watson and Wu 2015). The key concepts around the learning city, developed in the 1990s, focused on the ways in which cities  mobilize resources “to develop and enrich all its human potential for the fostering of personal growth, the maintenance of social cohesion, and the creation of prosperity” (Longworth 1999: 109). According to the official UNESCO definition,

Learning City is a city which effectively mobilizes its resources in every sector to promote inclusive learning from basic to higher education; revitalize learning in families and communities; facilitate learning for and in the workplace; extend the use of modern learning technologies; enhance quality and excellence in learning; and foster a culture of learning throughout life. In so doing it will create and reinforce individual empowerment and social cohesion, economic and cultural prosperity, and sustainable development.

The learning city discourse developed through educational and international development scholarship as well as grey literature (produced by policy makers and international organizations such as UNESCO, EU and OECD), emphasizes investment in lifelong learning, inclusive education across all levels, creating effective environments for individual, organizational, community-based and administrative learning as well as innovation (Juceviciene 2010: 69).

The notion of lifelong learning, upon which the learning city is built, has recently been problematized in terms of their connections to economistic paradigms and the underlining relations with power and knowledge (Fejes and Nicoll 2008). Biesta (2013) argued that the rise of lifelong learning obscures other domains of learning, such as socialization and subjectification. It is a “language which exerts a powerful influence on what we can be and how we can be – one that tends to domesticate rather than to emancipate” (Biesta 2013b: 9). Lifelong learning needs to be probed critically as a non-neutral field and mode of educational practice as it is increasingly naturalized, obliterating its own governmentality.

Critics of the learning city pointed out that the rhetoric of its vision is an uncritical rendering of the ideological froth (Harvey, 2003) of neoliberal transformations of the knowledge economy (Plumb et al 2007). In addition, if we use the analytical lens provided by the literature on lifelong learning to understand the relationship between learning and the urban, what we only see is an official learning city, one that has been set up as an intentional intervention into the urban fabric. It does not provide us an insight into how are these resources patterned, materialized, brought together, channeled and embedded in the life of the city. Scott (2015) argued that the focus on lifelong learning has blurred the lines between education and learning and has overlooked “the practical aspects that relate to everyday practices and actions that people have done in alignment” (2015: 89) with the learning city. In their evocative essay, Carr and Lynch (1968) demonstrated that learning is instrumental to the entirety of urban life – it happens in everyday context, throughout our lives, at different points of our daily activities in the city, often when we are hanging around or have nothing to do. It is a by-product of living and experiencing the city and a key part of human development. Similarly, Ward conceptualized the city

in itself an environmental education, and can be used to provide one, whether we are thinking of learning through the city, learning about the city, learning to use the city, to control the city or to change the city (Colin Ward 1990:152).

Ward’s perspective offers us a notion of a learning ecosystem, dynamic, living organism in motion with people immersed in a range of experiences. It allows us to pay attention to places and things that sit beyond the intentionally designed learning city.

The discussion below will offer some of the possible directions through which the actually existing learning city could be investigated. Plumb et al 2007 argued that in order

 to advance our understanding of the learning city we must abandon individualistic, essentialized, and typologized notions of adult learning that lie at the crux of the learning city’s most common formulations. A more contextual, dynamic, and social view of adult learning puts us in a position to draw upon a vast wealth of rapidly developing theory in geography, sociology, and anthropology to formulate a far more critically attuned notion of the learning city (2007: 37).

Following Plumb’s et al. call, how do we overcome the limitation of the accounts on the learning city presented by the lifelong learning literature? How do we broaden the frame in the light of the current scholarship in social sciences? This ongoing project attempts to take up Plumb’s et al. challenge through in-depth ethnography and the possible epistemological avenues afforded by this approach.

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