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City blueprints

Cities of Learning (CofL) is a bold new approach for empowering places to put lifelong learning at the heart of their civic and cultural identities. CofL initially emerged in the US (through Collective Shift) as a response to the potential of open badges to driver greater participation in informal learning and to close opportunity gaps in cities.  The RSA and Digitalme are testing and developing a place-based model for UK cities. 

By combining three core elements - leadership, networks and open technology - CofL can be a galvanising force for bringing people together with a city’s social and economic aspirations (read the prospectus for more on the model). CofL can open up new sources of city leadership, learning potential and civic energy. It can help mobilise city-based movements for lifelong learning and develop a sense of place, identity, mission and ambition.

From April through to October 2017, the RSA and Digitalme - supported by FETL, City & Guilds and Ufi - have been actively co-designing, testing and prototyping the CofL model with three cities: Brighton, Plymouth and Greater Manchester city region. The aim is to begin pilots in the second half of 2018 in order to build on the initial prototyping work with robust testing and evaluation.

This blueprint page is a live practical resource that contains a range of assets and outputs from our city engagements. It will be regularly updated through 2017 and 2018.

Co-designing the blueprints

The city blueprints were developed through a place-based approach that combined co-design workshops, network building and prototyping. In each city, we formed partnerships with local anchor organisation(s), who provided local intelligence, helped to convene key stakeholders and coordinate local activity, and established a sense of local ownership. The aim was to develop city-specific blueprints that linked the CofL model to locally identified economic, social, civic and cultural needs, priorities and aspirations. 

Co-design partnerships

We followed two types of local partnership and engagement with participating cities:

  • Working in close partnership with anchor organisations. Anchors included Our Future City in Brighton, Plymouth City Council and the Real Ideas Organisation (RIO) in Plymouth, and the Museum of Science and Industry in Greater Manchester.
  • Developing collaboration and co-design networks. This included a committed “Core” group that shaped the blueprint process, as well as a wider group of stakeholders drawn from the city from education (formal and informal), business, culture and arts, policy and the community sector. 

The methods we deployed included:

  • A series of co-design workshops with local stakeholders drawn from a range of sectors and backgrounds, including: Employers, formal education institutions, non-formal and informal learning organisations, cultural, arts and heritage organisations, the third sector, and public services. We engaged with approximately 60 people through the workshops. The objectives of the workshops were to establish priorities, agree locally relevant sectors and skill domains, map systems of learning and opportunity across each city and develop an overarching theory of change.
  • A range of learner focus groups, platform user testing sessions, and a learning festival (in Brighton). Dozens of learners and advocate stakeholders participated, and their insights directly informed each city’s theory of change and platform prototype.

See the illustrations below for more information on the co-design process, including workshop designs.

Cities of Learning Prospectus

Before engaging with the blueprint content, read the CofL prospectus to understand the background to the programme; the key components and principles of our CofL model; and our approach to testing, prototyping and piloting CofL in the UK.

Learner insights

We engaged directly with learners through a mix of focus groups, consultations, a Brighton-based learning festival (delivered by Long Run Works) and peer-based community research conducted by volunteers. The aim of the engagement was to uncover learner insights and ensure that the perspectives of learners directly informed and shaped the development of city blueprints and platform prototypes. Through the research we sought to explore how participants engaged with learning; their connection to learning assets; whether a CofL approach could support their needs and aspirations; and how such a programme should be designed.

The learners we engaged with were primarily between the ages of 14-19. All cities recognised that once established, CofL must also engage and support adult learners. But a younger age demographic was identified as a practical target group in the early stages of a potential pilot programme. We engaged with a range of young learners, including:

  • Those currently in formal education, particularly college students
  • Those that are outside of formal education, or have struggled with traditional education (including, for example, those in the care system)

A full synthesis of the findings will be published shortly.  This is based on a number of key themes that emerged, which are outlined below:

  • A strong understanding of the importance of non-cognitive skills. Young people understood that shifts in the labour market and changing employer need is putting a premium on the “soft” skills that tend to be developed outside of traditional educational settings.
  • Young people want recognition for the skills they do have. Many suggested that some of the skills they possess are difficult to express or not recognised through formal qualifications. They regarded CofL as a potential solution to this, but also want retrospective credentialisation of past accomplishments. The themes of personal worth and value came out strongly.
  • Learning should be passion-driven and destination-driven. Young people valued a platform that could provide routes into work and education or training, but also wanted the flexibility to forge learning pathways that built on their personal passions and interests.
  • Many learners are “held back” from benefiting from informal learning. The RSA’s New Digital Learning report found a stark creative divide in the UK, with privileged learners able to exploit the creative potential of emerging technologies and new forms of learning, while others (the “held back”) lacked the social resources to access enrichment opportunities despite a clear desire to do so. Many of the young people we engaged with had a clear desire to take advantage of the opportunities available in their city, but felt poorly connected to them: either because they are unaware of where they are, or there are practical barriers (such as transport).
  • The importance of peer-based, connected learning. Participants underscored the importance of informal learning as a fundamentally social experience that should be driven by peer networks. Ideas emerged on the possibilities of “peer mentors” supporting other young people to engage with the initiative, and the CofL platform allowing start-ups and micro-enterprises to share skills and expertise.
  • Agency, respect and equal partnership. Participants that were most disengaged from formal education and had higher levels of ‘social need’ were especially keen to express the possible value of CofL in enhancing their self-efficacy and putting their views and aspirations on a more equal footing with professionals.

The input of young people directly shaped the priorities and programme designs for each city. Cities’ logic models (see below), for example, identified the centrality of youth participation and co-production; the need to invest in community outreach; the importance of offering job routes but also passion-driven opportunities; and the value of exploring retrospective credentialisation.

1UP Festival

The RSA and Our Future City worked with Long Run Works, who managed and delivered a learning festival aimed at young people in Brighton. The aim was to showcase the informal learning opportunities in the city, connect local youth to these opportunities and to better understand local gaps and how CofL might address these. The event had 60 attendees (young people and parents) as well as 39 demonstrator staff and young volunteers. Outputs can be accessed below:

Cities’ Logic Models / Theories of Change

A key outcome of the co-design workshop process is the development of city-specific theories of change. To achieve this we supported stakeholders through a process of working through a Logic Model, drawing learning from the Urban Institute’s work with LRNG Cities in the US.

Logic models provide an effective framework for bringing together a diverse range of stakeholders to collaboratively design, define and communicate a new and complex intervention, articulating the goals, outcomes, activities and actions that underpin programme success. It allows stakeholders to understand their respective responsibilities, and provides a clear template to support impact measurement and assessment, including through the development of performance indicators.

Before developing their Logic Models, city stakeholders agreed on a target group and initial sectors or domains of focus. All cities decided that while CofL should be an initiative that promotes lifelong learning across age groups, a practical starting point for pilots and initial phases of the programme could be the 14-25 age range, as it captures an important transition point in people’s lives. The sectors or domains of focus that each city chose is highlighted below:

Domains of focus

  • Brighton: (1) Health and Wellbeing; (2) Creativity / City of Ideas
  • Plymouth: (1) Health and Wellbeing; (2) STE(A)M; (3) Enterprise (commercial and social)
  • Greater Manchester: “Active Participation” was chosen as an overarching theme, across three sub areas: (1) Economy (STEM, digital, financial sectors); (2) Health and Wellbeing; (3) Community (entrepreneurship, citizenship, mentoring, environment).

Cities’ logic models can be found below. If cities go forward with pilots, there will be opportunities to refine the models and co-design more detailed indicators of success. The value of theory of change frameworks is that they can be iterated as the programme develops.


Cities’ Skill Spines

A key component of a CofL approach is a ‘skills spine’ - a locally-tailored but nationally (and globally) relevant framework that articulates the knowledge, skills character dispositions that are important for places - and learners - to meet their ambitions. Skill spines have four layers - a universal ‘core’ that builds on OECD’s 2030 framework; a CofL layer that characterises the key skills and competencies CofL cities should develop; a city-based layer that is locally defined; and a strategic layer that articulates the strategic context. The city-specific skills spines are provided below, and are currently emerging frameworks that will be developed further during the pilot phase.

Cities’ actor maps

The prototyping phase also involved some initial work on mapping the system of informal learning provision and the specific domains that cities chose to focus on. This helped to identify an initial set of stakeholders - including those that can make change happen - who should be engaged as part of a CofL ecosystem. These initial actor maps will be fleshed out further in future phases of the project, where a more in-depth system mapping and analysis process will take place.

Digital platform demonstrators

Following testing and prototyping with city stakeholders, Digitalme developed click-through demonstrations of what the platform - in an app form -  could look like for each city. The demonstrations, provided below, visualise the app but also the journey that learners can take in navigating learning pathways and acquiring digital credentials - including the opportunities they could unlock by participating in learning activities. The technical specifications for each city will be published later in 2017.

This page will continue to be updated with new content - including workshop designs, write-ups and blogs.