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Last week over 200 leading education practitioners and policy makers from across the world gathered in Helsinki for global education nonprofit HundrED’s annual Innovation Summit, and the announcement of their 2019 Collection of top 100 global innovations in K-12 education.

We are delighted that the RSA & Digitalme’s Cities of Learning programme has been recognised in their 2019 Collection as one of the most promising ideas in education, alongside other leading projects such as Voice 21 in the UK and Big Picture Learning.

Cities of Learning

Cities of Learning is built on the belief that learners of all ages deserve access to experiences and opportunities to develop their knowledge, skills and capabilities, with the ability to progress into meaningful and valued learning and work opportunities which enable them to thrive.

Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education and Skills at the OECD, captures this sentiment in his recent book World Class: How to build a 21st Century School System:

“How a society develops and uses the knowledge and skills of its people is among the chief determinants of its prosperity. We must distribute the core asset of our times, human potential, far more equitably. In the past it was sufficient to sort students because our economies could rely on a few highly educated individuals. Today, we need all learners to participate and contribute to the world.”

But access to both formal and informal learning opportunities are not widely shared across the population. Participation is often related to prior life experiences of learning. Those most disadvantaged are least likely to benefit from important opportunities to build social, cultural and knowledge capital, as well as social and peer networks.

The UK is experiencing a crisis in social mobility, which is reflected in long-term:

As Baroness Helena Kennedy observed back in 1997 in her report ‘Learning Works’: “If at first you don’t succeed…you don’t succeed”. This is just unacceptable.

Learning and Place

Cities of Learning looks to address these seemingly intractable challenges through a renewed focus on socially inclusive lifelong learning. We aim to create new pathways into learning and employment by connecting and amplifying formal, informal, and in-work learning opportunities that already exist in different places thorough a system of digital ‘open badges’.

RSA research has shown that learning opportunites across different places are often fragmented. This means they are often invisible to people, and disconnected from opportunities to progress further, for example into apprenticeships or job opportunities. By connecting formal and informal learning opportunities, we are aiming to address this problem and give people clearer paths to progression and success. Key to this is that Cities of Learning is place focused and driven by local needs, solutions and energy.

Leadership, Networks, Platform

Over the last two years we have been working in several places to develop a model for Cities of Learning in the UK, building on the pioneering work of LRNG Cities in the USA and the UNESCO Learning Cities movement.

The RSA & Digitalme’s Cities of Learning model is orientated around three core design principles: leadership, networks, and platform.

In practice this means:

  • Establishing a new civic leadership model in local areas - engaging and bringing together civic, business, public and third sector organisations and education leaders.
  • Mobilising diverse networks of learning providers around a common vision for learning and skills.
  • Augmenting this with a digital platform and system of open badges which connects learners to networks of employers, formal and non-formal education providers.

Each City of Learning has its own 'skills spine', which creates a common language for learning and skills across a place and enables the creation of pathways and progression routes between different spheres of learning. Open badges, linked to the ‘skills spine’, recognise the knowledge, skills and capabilities gained and actively demonstrated by learners through different learning activities.

Cities of Learning is a place-based solution to a set of challenges that can’t be tackled through ‘one size fits all’ solutions mandated from central government - or indeed the public sector alone. We need a whole system response.

The Vision

In early 2019, we plan to start formally piloting the Cities of learning approach in two UK Cities - Brighton and Plymouth - and will be working with the Learning & Work Institute to test a range of outcomes and impacts that we hope to achieve through this approach: educational, civic, social, economic, skills progression, health and wellbeing, and sense of place and belonging. 

We believe Cities of Learning has huge potential, but it can only work by harnessing the power of place and bringing people together - giving policymakers, employers, civil society, and educators a common vision.

This is also a global ambition, collaborating with international partners such as HundrED, Ashoka, Mozilla, LRNG and others similarly working in this space. Plus the RSA's global Fellowship network of 29,000.

We hope that Saku Tuominen, CEO of HundrED, is right that “spreading innovations such as Cities of Learning across borders can be a gamechanger for education, worldwide.” And we hope you’ll join us in that effort.


Simon Wainwright, Plymouth City of Learning:

“The City of Plymouth, UK is embarking on a journey of discovery. Historically positioned as the place where the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for the New World, Plymouth is now developing as a place for learning, innovation and knowledge, for all future pioneers and adventurers. Working together with young people, employers, education, and community organisations towards a City of Learning that recognises and captures skills and competencies wherever they are. By promoting and co-ordinating a range of opportunities, or ‘playlists’ we can demonstrate the multiple routes that can be taken for an individuals learning journey.” 

Peter Chivers, Brighton City of Learning:

“Through the development of a City of Learning in Brighton & Hove we aim to enhance and increase progression pathways and routes to employment for all young people but especially for those least advantaged. We envisage a sustained shift in the recognition of informal learning and creativity as an essential literacy; and empowering more young people to develop their creativity through relevant experiences that would ultimately help them to gain skills for life and work. Cities of Learning will also support wider city outcomes, with notable benefits for children and young people’s wellbeing and social mobility.”

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