Paper at CASCA/IUAES 2017 Conference in Ottawa

We are pleased to announce that the “Reinventing Learning Cities” project will be presented during the CASCA/IUAES 2017 Conference in Canada. The International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES) and Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) Conference will be hosted at the University of Ottawa, on the unceded, traditional territory of the Algonquins of the Ottawa River Watershed. 

This year’s focal point is “Movement” of diverse knowledges, practices and problematizations. The notion of movement resonates in studies of political, ecological, religious and economic life as an analytical space exploring the processes of life forms, things and ideas through relationships in space and time. Our paper will be presented within the “Everyday Neoliberalism” panel exploring how neoliberalism’s economic and cultural dimensions intersect in various domains of everyday life. The paper, Unlearning the city: critical ethnography of the learning strategies and tactics in Bristol, UK, will present an ethnographic study of Bristol through mundane learning practices, focusing on learning as a site of intersection with economic practices as well as potential contestations.

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.

Community Researcher project – second workshop

The Community Researcher project continued with a second workshop, this time focusing on research methods and interviews.

The group was asked about what we wanted to learn in the session, which had a feeling of togetherness, and non-judgement. All participants were able to contribute freely, and the session had clear explanation and leadership throughout

We learned more about interviews – their forms, purpose and what information they can gather, and also about triangulation – confirming findings and using different types of research methods to find out other things.

We were then given an activity based around asking the right questions to elicit information. We found that conciseness, asking specific questions to get information, and using politeness to work around the topic were useful strategies to understand things like experience and personal qualities.

We learnt important lessons around interviewing, but also around using different methods to find out important information. Spaces, people, and objects can all be research prompts, and that uses and association of everyday things can lead into areas not otherwise usually accessible. The materiality of social life is a fascinating area, and things can prompt storytelling – photos, household items, anything. Objects are our teachers – and we rounded out the session with a fascinating discussion around objects we had with us, in me and my partner’s case things as simple as a photo and a rucksack.

Gideon Thomas, Community Researcher

Research presentation at the 2017 UALL Conference in York

We are pleased to announce that the Reinventing Learning Cities project will be presented during the forthcoming UALL 2017 Annual Conference in York.  The theme of the Conference: Lifelong learning: Local, regional and international? has strands addressing the context of lifelong learning which enhances local, regional and global development as well as sustainable partnerships for economic and social development.

Keri Facer and Magda Buchczyk will present a paper on the “Learning City in a multiscale perspective:  researching the practice of lifelong learning in Bristol”

In the recent decades, one of the key mechanisms by which ideas of lifelong learning have been disseminated internationally, is that of the learning city. Learning Cities pool together resources to meet the learning needs of the residents and establish collaborations between educational, public, private, non-governmental and voluntary sectors to meet the social goals of inclusiveness and sustainable development. The UNESCO Learning Cities’ network constitutes an intersection between global and city-based practices aiming to unlock local capacity and embed global agendas within the urban fabric.

This paper presents a research-based perspective on the multiscale nature of the “actually existing” learning city. Based on primary research in Bristol, it demonstrates how lifelong learning activities are operating in the urban space within and outside the official framework of the Bristol Learning City and the UNESCO initiatives. By paying theoretical and methodological attention to the strategic city-wide initiatives and the localised aspects of lifelong learning, we uncover the local, regional and international imaginaries of lifelong learning. The research demonstrates that lifelong learning has to be understood in its actuality, in relation to everyday life and experiences of adaptation, emergence and change. Moreover, this research also highlights that lifelong learning needs to be probed critically as a non-neutral field (Biesta 2013) and a situated mode of educational practice. In addition, the paper demonstrates that engaged multi-sited research can develop partnerships with stakeholders in order to develop new dialogue between actors and highlight a practice-based perspective on the models of lifelong learning, often constructed from particular standpoints.

This will enable us to build a more robust insight into how lifelong learning happens on the street and city-wide levels, generate new research agendas in the field and present new opportunities for policy makers and lifelong learning practitioners both internationally and locally.

For details about the conference go to:


Notes from the Community Researcher workshop

On 9th November 2016 Reinventing Learning Cities held a community researcher workshop. The session, set up as a “research masterclass”, was held at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol.

The workshop was a chance for participants to introduce themselves to Keri and Magda, to describe their interest in the Reinventing Learning Cities project and capture their research ideas. In the first part of the session, Magda did a presentation on the importance of considering different types of data and research methods when developing an individual project, thinking about the project in terms of broader ideas of learning encompassing experiences, behaviour, spaces and material cultures. Drawing on her extensive work on learning and social futures, Keri introduced the project as part of the AHRC Connected Communities programme and discussed with the group ideas of the city as an environment that mediates learning through encounters, injunctions and invitations. The last part of the afternoon was devoted to developing research projects and to report back to the rest of the group towards the end of the day. At the end of a very intense session, the participants’ ideas for their engagement had begun to take real shape.

The co-researchers’ team comprises of around 15 people, from a range of backgrounds including journalism, engineering, education, charity work and the public sector. In the next months, all researchers will design and undertake their individual projects to explore the different aspects of the learning city. They will collect stories, objects and images across Bristol, working with a range of residents, newcomers and people visiting the city. The proposed projects will encompass a wide range of ideas including investigations of family learning, explorations of skills acquisition, urban learning inequalities, learning and heritage, to self-reflection on own learning processes and learning geographies.


The project will provide an exciting opportunity for the community researchers to develop their research skills and ‘translate’ their research into a collaborative exhibition that seeks to engage scholarly and community research with a wider and more diverse audience. Following the research phase, community researchers and the project team will think creatively about how to communicate their research to non-specialised audiences in the form of a public exhibition held in Bristol. We anticipate that the exhibition will take place in August 2017, on display in a community space (TBC)

The exhibition and the overall project are led and curated by Prof Keri Facer, University of Bristol (, and Dr Magda Buchczyk (

Forthcoming publication: (Re)-learning the city for intergenerational exchange


How do we understand better how the city might (re) learn to become intergenerational?  

A forthcoming research article by Helen Manchester and Keri Facer explores the complex intergenerational facets of urban learning.

According to Manchester and Facer, two major international agendas are currently working to realign social, material and representational elements of the city in ways that are helpful for both children and older adults. The Age Friendly City movement (AFC) (led by the World Health Organisation) and the Child Friendly Cities (CFC) movement (led by UNICEF) aim to ensure that planners, policy makers and developers design cities that take account of the interests of age groups who are too often marginalised in current policy and design processes. These movements are valuable and important in themselves, however they also have significant implications for the future of a learning city in which intergenerational exchange is valued.

Manchester and Facer explore different intergenerational assemblages, looking at what is being aligned, and connected in the AFC and CFC movements. They describe a performative, experimental project that sought to enable different alignments between these movements. A key element of this involved building new imaginative ideas about what might be possible in order to realign these generational assemblages for intergenerational, civic learning. Finally they explore what worked and didn’t work, what resisted enrolment, what was easily aligned and what routines were disrupted.

Manchester, H., & Facer, K. (2017). (Re)-Learning the City for Intergenerational Exchange. In Learning the City: Cultural approaches to civic learning in urban spaces (pp. 83-98). Springer International Publishing.


This research builds on previous work by Manchester and Facer in collaboration with Future Cities Catapult. The resulting “Manifesto for All-Age Friendly Cities”, published earlier this year, presented possible ideas for improving cities, from digital aids, to sentiment mapping and modular housing fostering intergenerational relationships.

Read the manifesto:

Learn more about other projects:

Dr Helen Manchester:

Prof Keri Facer:

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.


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.