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Learning Cities and Learning Regions – Making the World a Better Place

Norman Longworth

The TELS Project – Early Soundings

TELS (Towards a European Learning Society) was one of the first European Commission Socrates programme’s supported projects in the field of learning cities and regions. Between 1999 and 2001 it studied, not in a very scientific or systematic way, the understanding of leaders in 80 European municipalities and regions about the concept of the Learning City and their preparedness for its implementation within their authority. Not surprisingly, it discovered that most of the authorities studied were unaware of the existence of the term, but could nevertheless demonstrate some movement towards developing activities that would today typify a learning city approach. More interestingly, many of them were eager to know more, simply as a result of their participation in a project that seemed to offer a glimpse of a vision they were seeking to articulate. The recorded results of TELS are gathering dust on a Brussels basement shelf, but these are some of the recommendations it made to the Commission:

1. Create a cross-sectoral Strand in the Socrates Programme to support the development of Learning Cities and Regions. Name it after a famous civic leader or the Goddess of Communities

2. Establish a programme for Cities of Learning similar to that for Cities of Culture. If necessary run a competition to decide which city it will be in each country.

4. Develop indicators which measure and monitor aspects of the growth of Learning Cities and the Learning Society, and Initiate Surveys and Studies of these in and across member states

5. Raise the awareness of Learning Community concepts in municipalities throughout Europe through high-visibility events such as the European Learning Cities week

6. Develop a 'Charter for European Learning Cities’ outlining the City’s responsibilities vis-à-vis its citizens as learners, and its relationship to a wider European Learning Community, which cities sign up to.

7. Create a European network of one or more university departments in each country able to specialise in Learning City Research and Development

9. Promote Europe-wide interactions and partnerships between Local Government, Industry and others for Wealth/Employment Creation and International Employability 

10. Establish Links with global organisations and countries to share good practice and foster joint cultural, economic and educational development in the area of Learning Communities.

It is interesting to note how many of these comprise an outward-looking mission for cities and regions and how many have actually been implemented. Number 1 for example resulted in the R3L programme which joined more than 100 European regions in 17 lifelong learning projects to promote collaboration between them. An example of number 4 is the INDICATORS project led by Stirling University, which developed and made available ‘stakeholder audits,’ tools by which schools, universities, small businesses, adult education institutions and the local authorities themselves could measure their commitment to building a learning region. These are now also available through PASCAL and the resultant network of expertise centres comprises the beginning of the implementation of number 7.


Towards Wider Horizons

But the focus of this chapter is on numbers 9 and 10. It explores the rationale for some of the initiatives that link learning cities and regions globally, whether or not the European Commission has become involved. It argues that thinking globally and acting locally can bring real benefits, notwithstanding the protestations of minimalist pressure groups to restrict responsibilities to local issues. Playing a much larger part on the national and global stage can often produce medium and long term advantage. The unprecedented emotional and financial response to the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami crisis by people of all ages, incomes and political persuasions is but one demonstration of the extent to which people have advanced in their perception of this planet as a global, more holistic, village.

There is no shortage of exhortations to take this horizon-widening step. Lifelong Learning delivered the following warning back in 1996, identifying the so-called global demographic time bomb as an imperative for the development of lifelong learning attitudes

If birth rates in the developed world are too low for comfort, those in the developing world are uncomfortably high. In the poorer parts of the world a massive population growth, helping to raise the present number of human beings on this very finite planet from 5 billion to 11 billion by the mid-twenty-first century, presents almost insoluble problems. These are environmental, nutritional, educational. moral and, in terms of stability, they are dangerous not just for the countries themselves but, through the overspill of instability, for the rest of the world. Many of these new inhabitants of our planet are perhaps destined to live at subsistence level and below unless massive ameliorative projects are initiated. To even begin to touch the problem, emphasis will need to be put on fundamental Lifelong Learning principles and the use of the new development and delivery technologies.
(Davies and Longworth, 1996)

Sir Christopher Ball takes up the theme in the Action Agenda for Lifelong Learning

Equity requires management. So there is a duty, alike for national and local governments, organisations and individuals, to practise affirmative action to help developing countries, deprived communities and disadvantaged people, by ensuring that they receive a disproportionate share of available resources so that the gaps do not widen into gulfs. Those who most need it should receive most help.
(Ball 1996)

Jim Botkin, in his search for a ‘wisdom’ society’, sees a potential saviour in the effective use of modern information and communications technology

The human gap - the gap between global problems of our own making and our own ability or inability to find solutions to those problems - has widened since the time ‘No Limits to Learning’ was published. Nevertheless, the possibilities for corrective action are greater today than they ever have been. We have an internet and e-learning suddenly at our fingertips. In 1979, we didn't know what computers were, much less worldwide networks like the world-wide web. (Botkin, 2002)

But he offers also a caution:

We need to be cautious that technologically-mediated global learning doesn't become a new force for domination. If we can imagine a kind of global learning that respects human diversity without asserting a cultural dominance over others, then e-learning opens a flood of possibilities that we have only begun to explore. The philosophical question is: industrial technology helped create the human gap, can information technology help bridge it?  (ibid)

Schools to the fore
And of course there is also plenty of activity to address these issues in local authority schools around the world. The iEARN network for example:

Imagine a world in which teachers and students all across the planet are able to work collaboratively on projects that make a difference in the world,.’ says its publicity, ‘Among the tens of thousands of schools worldwide that participate in iEARN, there is no shortage of success stories to demonstrate the power of iEARN's vision, not only to make a difference in the world, but to deepen the learning that takes place in these connected classrooms. (iEARN, 2005)
All projects in iEARN are initiated and designed by teachers and students. This provides powerful examples of how new and emerging technologies can make a difference in teaching and learning. Their projects involve a final ‘product’ or exhibition of the learning that has taken place as part of the collaboration. These have included magazines, creative writing anthologies, websites, letter-writing campaigns, reports to government officials, arts exhibits, workshops, performances, charity fundraising, and many more examples of youth taking action as part of what they are learning in the classroom. More than 150 interactive projects, including ‘the Atlas of Diversity’, ‘Global teenager’ and the ‘One world project’ enable children to develop research and critical thinking skills, experience with new technologies, cultural awareness and the habit of getting involved in community issues.
The Global SchoolNet, a similar international schools network funded mainly by large American corporations, has a more overt, but no less interesting, rationale. In its own words it ‘ partners with schools, communities and businesses to provide collaborative educational, scientific and cultural learning activities that prepare students for the workforce and help them to become literate and responsible global citizens.’ Like iEARN it provides learning tools and materials, and training courses for teachers.  It concentrates on obtaining concrete outcomes, but the model is oriented towards giving schoolchildren the skills, confidence and insights that allow them to become future leaders in industry and public service. Both originated in the USA in the 1980s and both have extended their operations to more than 40 other countries. With Schoolnet Canada, they are the largest of the many service learning networks linking schools with each other around the world.
There can be little doubt in this digital age that the internet is compressing the planet and changing radically the way that people see the wider world. Many cities are already multiracial, multiethnic, multilingual and multifaceted. The tide of history is propelling them, sometimes reluctantly, towards greater understanding of, and cooperation with, other regions and other races, religions, creeds and customs. Austria’s national goals for schools includes these words,
Young people have to be able to develop independent judgement and understanding of and responsibility for social relations, sensitivity to the political and philosophical views of others, and the ability to contribute to the economic and cultural life of the country, Europe and the world. Humanity, tolerance, solidarity, peace, justice and ecological awareness are values that stimulate action in our society and interact with economic issues. (Euridyce, 2002)
These fine words are echoed in other charters throughout the world. The vision that makes them a reality has yet to manifest itself on a sufficient scale. But a start has been made. Almost every South Australian school has links with schools in other countries in South East Asia, North America and Europe. It is a key part of the educational experience for their young people.

LILARA - Widening awareness
The links among the city’s stakeholders extend far beyond schools. ‘Seniornets’, linking pensioners in New Zealand, Canada, USA and the UK, have been operating for many years. Universities have been international organisations for many years, feeding into, and from, the world-wide academic and research networks that provide their sustenance. Those that work with their local authorities to help build learning cities and regions make the fruits of that research available to its leaders and professionals. The PASCAL network of universities, cities and regions, described later, is an excellent example. Many of its members contribute directly to pushing back the frontiers of learning region knowledge and action.
The LILARA (Learning in Local and Regional Authorities) project for example is a European university–local authority project developing consultation tools to identify the learning needs of managers and professionals vis a vis the growth of learning cities and regions. It takes as its mantra the notion that learning regions, much like quality management, will not happen without the consent of their administrators and, eventually, the citizens themselves. It is vital therefore to research, design and deliver the learning that each one needs. Moreover, such activities encourage the delivery of the joined-up, holistic local government needed to cope with 21st century challenges. Six European nodes in Italy, Hungary, Norway, Ireland, France and the UK are collaborating in the project, and the State of Victoria in Australia has expressed strong interest in developing its own version of LILARA under the PASCAL umbrella. The results of the project will open up the world of local and regional authority education to the new influences to which modern cities and regions must respond.

The PALLACE project – linking stakeholders
This is just one example of the advantages of bringing universities on board as stakeholder contributors to the development of local and regional authorities. There are of course many more. In many ways they are evidence of a shrinking world whose stakeholders must communicate in order to survive. The PALLACE project for example, a low-budget initiative from the European Commission, created an organisational infrastructure by which each of the seven partners would supervise a stakeholder sub-project to explore what it could do to help create a learning city. It called it a city-ring. The Finnish partner for example concentrated on cultural services and created a portable display giving information and inviting feedback about Espoo as a learning city that could be erected in libraries, museums and galleries. This raised a great deal of interest among those who saw it, not least because they were invited to offer their own opinion on the subject. The French partner created and trialled materials on learning cities for elected representatives and shared these with the city of Marion in South Australia. In the Auckland region, the Papakura Lifelong Learning Trust addressed the opportunity to link adult education institutions and, with France, tested materials to discover their role vis a vis the construction of the learning city. South Australia linked its schools with those in Finland to involve children, teachers and parents internationally in focussed debate about the learning community and what schools can do to help create it.
There is an important add-on value to this concept in that it not only creates heightened awareness of what a learning city can be but also potentially mobilizes hundreds of people to contribute to it, not least those future citizens who will eventually inherit its administration. Stan Salagaras, the Australian project leader, defined the following as positive outcomes

  1. It has reinforced that schools are in fact, as a result of the nature of their role, involved on an ongoing basis in the development of links with their surrounding communities to enhance learning outcomes for all – it is a fundamental component of their educative role and function.
  2. It has emphasised the important role of schools in the development of learning communities and enabled individual schools to benchmark themselves with learning communities elsewhere.  The very nature of a learning community means that it should be open to review and analysis.
  3. It has involved a children, teachers and parents as well as tertiary education providers, business and community organisations in a debate about what schools can do to help create a learning community.  There is significant add-on value to this in that it not only creates heightened awareness of what a learning community can be, but also potentially mobilises hundreds of people to contribute to it.
  4. It has stimulated the documentation in the form of case studies of a diversity of learning community initiatives. Two schools, Mawson Lakes School and St Columba College, have compiled comprehensive reports on their role in the development of a learning community through the PALLACE project.
  5. When combined, these case studies identify innovative and practical outcomes which can help other schools to develop curriculum and methodological practices for collaborative work in schools, another intended outcome of the PALLACE project.
  6. It has created international links between schools in South Australia and Finland, which will continue to grow and develop in the future.

Such outcomes could be realised on a local basis, but Salagaras is also convinced that the international dimension, and the fact of working with other countries, provided strong motivation and increased the quality of the final results. Certainly the Chinese city of Beijing, which is developing a lifelong learning facility for 800,000 people in its Xichen district, gained much from its participation in PALLACE, as well as contributing some key ideas.

Kent – increasing fruitful links

So why should a city or region, beset as it is by local problems and answerable to local residents and ratepayers organisations, become involved in international activities of this sort? Where is the benefit for its citizens? How far should it go to play its part on the larger global stage? How relevant is it to the city’s mission? There are no easy answers to these questions, but where they do exist they lie in the scope of cities’ vision, the extent to which they are planning for their future in a multilateral world, the depth of understanding of their leaders, and the quality of their humanity. Many cities are already multiracial, multiethnic, multilingual and multifaceted. The tide of history is propelling them, sometimes reluctantly, towards greater understanding of, and cooperation with, other regions and other races, religions, creeds and customs. There are also, as we shall see, measurable advantages.

The County of Kent in the UK has long-standing links with the French region of Nord-Pas de Calais in France. ‘Transmanche’, as it is called, recognises that national boundaries no longer apply to commercial activity, and that there are considerable economic benefits to be obtained from such cross-border cooperation. Other parts of Europe such as Oresund, linking South Sweden with the Copenhagen area of Denmark, and the Franco-German region around Strasbourg are additional examples. But Kent goes further than this. In 2004 it began to discuss mutual advantages in links with the Hungarian region of Bacs-Kiskun. More recently it has been working with New Kent and the State of Virginia in the USA (Kent CC, 2005a).

Not unreasonably in a country where euro-scepticism is high, Kent’s European strategy takes a hard-headed approach to European cooperation. Its pivotal location within North West Europe and its role within the UK as a gateway to the Continent offer obvious advantages, but the prime rationale is ‘obtaining funding, influencing policy and co-operating on common interests with other regions’ in order to ‘help KCC (Kent County Council) achieve its core priorities and meet Kent’s needs’ (Kent CC, 2005b).

Economic benefit is therefore the main rationale, but Kent believes that much can be realised economically through an increasing number of links with both traditional and new overseas partners, and not just by attracting European regional funding. The sectors identified for joint working with the French Nord-Pas de Calais region for example reflect the responsibilities of the two regions: ie transport infrastructure, economic development, training, scientific and technological research, tourism and the environment. The process starts at the political level by ‘strengthening bilateral co-operation between the two Regional and General Councils, initiating regular contacts and meetings between the different political and administrative areas and establishing Joint Working Groups to maintain regular mutual exchange on key issues’ (ibid)

The enlargement of the European Union in 2005 was seen by Kent as an opportunity. ‘The County Council has recognised that the addition of more than 100 million people to the EU's market of 370 million people will result in increased business, project and other opportunities from which the people of Kent could benefit’ Among the objectives of the Bacs-Kiskun link are:

  • developing projects which provide clear trade and business development opportunities for Kent firms, such as joint ventures and the provision of goods and services, including technical advice and know-how;
  • participating in opportunities for institution-building and know-how transfer initiatives;
  • identifying opportunities for projects on best practice exchange between KCC and the Central and East European Countries in a range of different fields related to core business priorities, for example, Social Services or Environmental Management. 

The county intends to follow this up by exploring other opportunities in the Baltic Countries, the Czech Republic and Poland. Kent’s links with the state of Virginia are similarly influenced by economic advantage, but here there is a much more wide-ranging interpretation of what that constitutes. The following activities demonstrate this

  • School-to-school links
  • Professional development of teachers on a study visit to Virginia
  • Virginia Indians hold a Virginia Indian Festival at Gravesend, Kent
  • Kent Tourism Alliance (KTA) launched it’s US Campaign, targeting the eastern seaboard of the US
  • Joint production of Jesus Christ Superstar between New Kent High School in Virginia and Astor College for the Arts, Dover
  • Kent features at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington in 2007.
  • Centre for Innovation & Technology (CIT) in Virginia becomes a founding organisation in the Strategic Innovation Gateway Network (SIGN) covering Kent, Virginia and Hungary.

City-states and Region-states
Clearly the longer term advantages of inter-region cooperation are being addressed, much in the same way that PALLACE engaged the stakeholders of the future in debate about the city’s, and their own, future. The link between the social, the environmental and the economic has always been there in local authorities. In cooperation projects such as this the solutions are becoming more internationalised. Of course Kent is not the only region to establish fruitful links with other parts of the world. The city of Southampton’s cooperation project with Xideng in China is yet another example of the proliferation of global interaction between cities and regions. For all parts of local government there are opportunities and benefits.
It is perhaps a reflection of the increasing autonomy and influence of regional government. John Eger, former adviser to two US Presidents, has gone so far as to suggest that there is a return to the concept of the powerful city and region-state that existed for example in the palatinates of Northern Germany before unification, and in Athens, Sparta and Venice in the more distant past. He bases this opinion on the increased power and influence now trickling down to local and regional government in many countries of the world allied to the enormous potential power of the new information and communications technologies for intercity, inter-institutional and interpersonal multilogue. And to a certain degree he is right. The opportunities do exist, and are being exploited by creative and innovative cities and regions. And yet the world of the early 21st century is hardly a safer or happier place in which to live. Perhaps a newer dimension is needed.
The PALLACE report anticipates this.

There is whole new dimension to the debate when we discuss the global role of cities and regions for the future. Whatever model is adopted – city-ring, city mentoring, city-twinning, city networking – an even greater challenge occurs when we can include into these networks cities and regions from the less-favoured countries of this planet, (Longworth and Allwinkle, 2005) 

it suggests, and who can gainsay that this is a challenge.

EFMD - Business and Global Responsibility
The European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD) adopts a similar focus in its  Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative, a report produced by a group of senior representatives from companies, business schools and centres for leadership learning from five continents.
The challenges facing humankind are large, undeniable and global. Economic, social, environmental inequalities abound and are increasing,’ it says, ‘Businesses are among the most influential institutions worldwide and have a tremendous opportunity to shape a better world for existing and future generations. The obligation of the globally responsible business is to create economic and societal progress in a globally responsible and sustainable way. (EMFD, 2005)
It continues:
The new global business context requires a definition of business that encompasses corporate aspirations, responsibilities and activities in realistic and contemporary terms that go beyond purely financially focused explanations. The purpose of the globally responsible business is to create economic and societal progress in a globally responsible and sustainable way. (ibid)
In its advocacy of ‘the global exercise of ethical, values-based leadership in the pursuit of economic and societal progress and sustajnable development’, the report makes a powerful indictment of organisations that exist purely to satisfy their own narrow objectives. It suggests that, in a world beset by extremes of wealth and poverty, conflict and aggressive fundamentalism, all organisations have a new responsibility to expand their remit towards the alleviation of this situation. If they do not, then the undesirable outcomes of inaction will eventually overwhelm them.

Learning Cities and Regions – global opportunities
EFMD is of course echoing concerns that are well documented in papers, reports and recommendations from organisations of all types and all persuasions. So what is the responsibility of the city and region in this respect? And what can it contribute?
PALLACE suggests one approach.
If we now imagine a city-ring comprising six or seven cities from the developed world, for argument’ s, and alliteration’s, sake let us say Sydney, Seattle, Southampton, Sapporo, Stuttgart and Shanghai. And we now add one or two from South America or Africa or the poverty-stricken areas of Asia, each of them linking their schools, universities, adult colleges, companies, city administrations, museums, children, parents, seniors, teachers, researchers, under the guidance of an energetic, sympathetic, persuasive and knowledgeable set of leaders. (Longworth and Allwinkle, 2005)
This is one way to start the process of alleviating global conflict, poverty and ignorance. If properly organised, it brings it much closer to the hearts, minds and capabilities of real people in real cities and regions, eventually by-passing the need for mass migrations of unfortunate refugees.
There are, perhaps surprisingly, real advantages. These are taken from Learning Cities, Learning Regions, Learning Communities’, a book which is also accompanied by learning materials adapted to each chapter (Longworth, 2006).

1. It is a preventative measure: the giant leap in mutual understanding and transformation of mind-set that takes place when people and organisations in cities and regions world-wide communicate with each other and learn together. Through such understanding social behaviour improves, racism and ethnic hatred diminishes and cities and regions no longer bear the costs of picking up the pieces.

2. It makes economic sense: the profitable economic, trade and technical development that can result through increased contact between small and large companies in different countries, leading to increased employment and greater prosperity. Here is an attractive economic justification for greater learning city/region cooperation.

3. It is incremental: the transformation of mind-sets, attitudes and behaviours that occurs when thousands more people and organisations are contributing to the solution of social, cultural, environmental, political and economic problems throughout the world right across the age groups. Cities and regions, as learning organisms, can learn much from each other, and jointly help each other to cope with seemingly intractable problems.

4. It is fulfilling for thousands of people. This amounts to a huge increase in available resource through mobilising the goodwill, talents, skills, experience and creativity between cities and regions. It is a new resource, tapping into the knowledge of individuals, and turning human ingenuity and action into social and intellectual capital to the benefit of cities and regions
5. It solves previously intractable problems. All of this would potentially mean that there would be fewer refugees. Many of the developing problems can be anticipated and addressed through cooperation between cities at the moment of crisis.

6. It is sustainable because it is so much more dispersed. Governments and NGOs are no longer the only initiators of aid to the underdeveloped. Action is now shared with the cities and, through them, the people, who gain in understanding of the realities and problems of the modern world, and the extent to which they ameliorate the latter. Stakeholder organisations and institutions in the city/region have a real world-class focus and raison d’être, and a contribution to make to the construction of the learning city at home and abroad.
All of this suggests a new mission for cities and regions. No longer are they inward-looking entities with a responsibility only to provide services for their own citizens. They have a greater mission and a greater global responsibility, entirely consonant with the ideals behind the learning region concept: to open the eyes of their institutions and their citizens to the world outside, and to the contribution that they can make to improving it.
This is not hopeless, impractical, blue skies idealism. In so doing they are helping to re-create themselves into entities richer in every way, more prosperous, more resourceful, more knowledgeable, more sensitive, more participative and more creative, innovative and capable. With the application of such creativity, using the resources that are available in the community and from other organisms, this need not impinge heavily on local taxes. At the same time, it raises the city’s and the region’s profile in a world that needs, more than ever, the application of tolerance and respect for others.


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Botkin, J. (2002) ‘Towards a Wisdom Society’ [online] http://www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/ls2_botkin.pdf

Commission of the European Union, (2001) ‘Memorandum on Lifelong Learning for Active Citizenship in a Europe of Knowledge’, DG Education and Culture, Brussels

Commission of the European Union, (2001) ‘The local and Regional Dimension of Lifelong Learning: creating learning cities, towns and regions’, A European Policy Paper from the TELS project (ed Longworth N), DG Education and Culture, Brussels

Eger, J.M. (1996) ‘Building Smart Communities: a new framework for an American information initiative’, address to the International Telecommunication Union, Rio de Janeiro, June 1996 [online] http://www.smartcommunities.org/library_newframe.htm

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iEARN International Education and Resource Network, (2005) found on http://www.iearn.org/projects/index.html

Kent County Council (2005a) The Kent Virginia Project, Summary available from Principal Regeneration & Projects Officer, Strategic Planning, Kent County Council

Kent County Council (2005b) KCC European Strategy summary, available from Principal Regeneration & Projects Officer, Strategic Planning, Kent County Council

LILARA project (2006), details from University of Stirling Centre for Research into Lifelong Learning, Airthrey Castle, Stirling

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Longworth, N. and Davies, W. K. (1996) Lifelong Learning: New Visions, New Implications, New Roles for Industry, Government, Education and the Community for the 21st Century, Kogan Page, London

Salagaras, S. (2004) ‘The South Australia PALLACE Report on Schools and Learning Communities’, in PALLACE report to the European Commission (Longworth and Allwinkle eds), Napier University, Edinburgh

Shi Long, (2004) Beijing Learning City, address to PALLACE Canadian conference, Edmonton 2004, in PALLACE Report to the European Commission (Longworth and Allwinkle eds), Napier University, Edinburgh