Cities of Learning: seeding lifelong learning infrastructure in UK places - RSA blog - RSA

Cities of Learning: seeding lifelong learning infrastructure in UK places


  • Community and place-based action
  • Education and learning
  • Social innovation

The Cities of Learning intervention and network have been through a phase of reimagining and redesigning at the RSA.

We’ve gone back to the principles the work was founded on and thought carefully about some of the challenges and opportunities we’ve seen over the leadership programme and pilots.

We’ve also aimed to incorporate wider thinking from the Design for Life mission and insights from research such as the Rebalancing adult learning report.

Cities of Learning

This work helps build the skills needed for people, employers and communities to thrive, and transform the potential of each participating region's learning ecosystem.

Cities of Learning was conceived because we know growing skills and capabilities throughout life is vital to economic growth, social cohesion, individual wellbeing and responsiveness to the climate crisis.

We believe places around the world are missing opportunities because vital capabilities learned outside formal settings go unrecognised, fragmented learning strategies add up to less than the sum of their parts, and existing learning infrastructure is too slow to respond to the rapid changes of climate, technology and industry. Our Cities of Learning model aims to support places to build and connect the technical, relational and institutional infrastructure needed to activate regenerative lifelong learning in place. We connect and strengthen fragmented learning ecosystems (encompassing people, ecology, industries, history and culture of place, opportunities to grow and thrive) to be adaptive, self-sustaining, and anchored in collective wellbeing. We want to rebalance learning systems to be centred on learners and help them celebrate the capabilities they need to thrive. We do this by recognising learning wherever it happens.

These are not short-term ambitions. Since early 2022, our Cities of Learning Leadership programme (match funded by Garfield Weston and UFI) has supported teams in BelfastBradford and the Tees Valley region to develop and refine new strategies to connect learning across their cities and regions towards better outcomes for learners, employers and the place itself.

Bradford, UK

Learning from new leaders in the network

One of the great joys of our work so far in 2023 has been watching new leaders in the Cities of Learning network grow their practice, shape their local learning eco-system and share their knowledge:

  • The Bradford Skillshouse team has badged and connected its careers and technical education programmes and amplified the impact of its inclusive employers' network.
  • The Belfast Employability and Skills team has done amazing work badging its employability programmes and training as well as non-traditional training such as the Women’s Tec courses in carpentry and car maintenance.
  • The Tees Valley Creative Place team has focused on developing routes into the creative industries, with partners in universities, theatres and art schools.

We have learned so much from working with these teams and seeing them build new relationships, and champion badging to recognise and connect learning. It has been a privilege to work with them, and in many ways, this part of the programme feels like it is ending too soon.

This is one of the lessons that we have taken into the design of the next phase of the Cities of Learning intervention:

Belfast, UK

We would like to see learning pathways that connect the gamut of lifelong learning from employability and skills training to cultural inclusion, social prescribing, health, adult and community education through to volunteering and formal and informal work experience.

This level of ambition needs to sit beyond one department in a local or regional authority and its implementation needs commitment beyond a single year of funding. In our redesigned intervention we are hoping to build deep partnerships at the highest level of place-based leadership, that put skills development and lifelong learning as a central tenet of place-based change.

We want to build working boards of skills leaders and anchor institutions that hold the vision for their place’s learning opportunities and outcomes. These should deepen relationships between individuals and institutions and agree on a language of skills recognition and progress that brings that vision to life.

Learners at the heart

We want learners (from young people to multidisciplinary professionals, to older residents shifting skills to contribute to their communities) and their unique needs to form the heart of this movement and for their voices to be loud and proud in this multistakeholder steering board for Cities of Learning.

This will be a big piece of work. A multi-year, three-phase transformation programme. Over the course of it we will:

  • Seed what's strong: validating the skills and capabilities that places already have
  • Nurture what's desired: embedding the skills and capabilities places want to see in the short term
  • Grow what's needed for the future: building next-generation skills and capabilities for regenerative places.

Our is not only to support local teams through the change process but also to convene and hold a national network of partners and champions committed to whole-place approaches to learning. One of the greatest lessons we have taken through the lifetime of our Cities of Learning work is the power of connecting the intervention leads in each city or region, so they can share their experiences and learning with people facing similar challenges and opportunities.

We hope to grow this network so that anyone interested in the Cities of Learning model can start to seed good practices and connections where they are

Join our virtual Cities of Learning network

Our dedicated Cities of Learning Circle community is full of place-based learning influencers. Interested? Get involved and help us develop the Cities of Learning movement with other Fellows online.

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