Learning Regions can help define the Big Society argues Norman Longworth FRSA.
Since the election, we have heard a little more about the government’s big idea: the Big Society. However, it remains unclear what the Big Society means and how it might really work. Some further definition will needed if it is not to get lost in the political recrimination game that all new governments play when taking up office, particularly one that is in the process of making major changes to taxation and spending. While the government needs to do its bit to convince the public that this is a real and progressive agenda for change, there is a major role for progressive organisations like the RSA to bring new and vibrant ideas to the table.
For the past fifteen years I have worked with colleagues in several European universities to develop ideas, tools and materials that will help create a ‘Learning Region’, a ‘Learning City’ and a ‘Learning Society’ where learning is a rewarding and all-pervading activity at the centre of economic, social and environmental progress.
These ideas are not new: some 3,500 years ago, Plato regarded the raison d’être of education as a means of allowing citizens to contribute to the development of the city. Nor are we alone: the presence of European Commission funding to research and develop the concept of the learning region into one that has a meaning and a purpose has stimulated other groups throughout the continent. There are competing terms - creative cities, transformation towns, smart cities, ideopolises, intelligent regions and both information and knowledge societies. But we rather thought that learning is the basis of knowledge, intelligence, creativity, ideas and transformation, so we have stuck to the Learning Region as a term that covers what we want to see happening universally.
Our definitions have changed over the years as a result of the insights we obtained from our research. At present it is based on the notion that cities, regions and societies, can only evolve in a way that is sustainable if they learn their way into the future. So, a Learning Region is a place where all it its leaders and administrators,its organisations and institutions, its people and communities learn together how to create economic buoyancy, social capital and ecological sustainability.
Our six pillars of a Learning Region are: knowledge; skills; values; attitudes; contribution and empowerment.
Of course, like most definitions, this is merely a set of aspirations and words. But to give them teeth we have developed tools to encourage stakeholders – schools, companies, universities, local authorities and providers of adult education – to make their contributions and get involved. We have created and applied ‘learning needs audits’ for administrators and leaders. We have written learning modules, charters, reports, papers, books, recommendations and marketing tools and established expert networks in Europe and globally.
In politician-speak, the Big Society can be many things to many people: whether it is a pretext for privatisation, cost-cutting and the promise of more consultation or something more positive and ubiquitous that widens the horizons of both local leaders and citizens and gives the latter a greater role in shaping their own communities and services? Is it – as understood in our thinking about Learning Regions – about mobilising active citizenship and volunteering in the community, activating entrepreneurship and fostering international interaction between all citizens? Is it about involving a wider group of people and institutions in thinking through the local and global ramifications of improving economic development, innovation and creativity and environmental sustainability? Ultimately, can the Big Society be about enhancing human, intellectual, cultural, educational and community capital and diversity?
And is there a Big Role here for the RSA? The excellent work already happening – for example the RSA’s involvement in Peterborough through its Citizen Power programme, and the area based curriculum piloted in Manchester and now being developed elsewhere – fits well into a big society development framework that would help influence politicians, administrators and citizens alike, as does its role in the Whole Education movement and the emphasis on community and user engagement through its work on prisons? More needs to be done and I would suggest that the RSA is one of the few UK organisations with the values, experience and capacity to take on this important task of transforming the big society idea into a more effective reality.
(For those want to know more about Learning Cities and Regions, it is a huge subject – the LongLearn website helps to expand knowledge)
Norman Longworth is an RSA Fellow and Honorary Professor of Lifelong Learning at Long Learn Limited.