Learning cities: the new recipe in regional development

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Page 73 

The concept of a “learning” city or region is relatively new, but yet it is at the core of a growing number of regional development strategies. What exactly is a learning city? And does it work?

The city is dead. Long live the city! Those who have rushed to pronounce the city's demise in today's globalised communications world may have to eat their words. For cities -- and their regions -- can offer just the right mix of resources, institutional structures, modern technology and cosmopolitan values that allow them to serve as incubators and drivers for the knowledge-based societies of the 21st century.

There is no single definition of a learning city or region, though the concept draws on theories about innovation and systems that promote innovation. What learning cities and regions have in common is an explicit commitment to placing innovation and learning at the core of development. All seek to sustain economic activity through various combinations of lifelong learning, innovation and creative uses of information and communication technologies.

The term "learning" in "learning cities" covers both individual and institutional learning. Individual learning refers to the acquisition of knowledge, skills and understanding by individual people, whether formally or informally. It often refers to lifelong learning, not just initial schooling and training. By learning, individuals gain through improved wages and employment opportunities, while society benefits by having a more flexible and technologically up-to-date workforce.

Learning for competitiveness

However, lifelong learning is only part of what is needed to build a learning city or region. Being able to deal with a global and international economy is important too. That means other strategies are required to make regions competitive. The challenge is to link individual learning to a larger environment in which institutions also are aware of the need to innovate and learn, and are capable of doing so. Networking and partnerships are key ingredients, since collective learning and robustness depend on a continuous exchange and flow of information about products, processes and work organisation. The links happen usually between organisations, which have a long-standing relationship based on stability and trust, but also between towns, cities and regions themselves.

The changes occurring in the shift from an industrial economic base to one that is knowledge-based show a pattern and these are outlined in the box. Moreover, a study of those identifying themselves as learning cities or learning regions turns up several common elements.

Partnership is essential

The first is that they have a clear, sustained commitment on the part of all partners -- whether public authorities, private enterprises, education and research institutions, civic organisations or key individuals -- to placing learning and knowledge dissemination at the centre of development. In fact, their sense of common purpose, identity and trust between the various actors is a driving force in cultivating shared values and networks within the city. This can be described as social capital and it is vital to making learning cities work.

Learning by experience

Another common feature of learning cities is their determination to create globally competitive, knowledge-intensive industrial and service activities and to base their work on the local capacity for learning, innovation and change. Lifelong learning lies at the heart of their formal and informal training at all ages and levels, as do the objectives of social cohesiveness and sustainability, which are central parts of the development of any learning city or region. Despite certain common features, case studies show that each city or region has put together its own particular mix. Like any good recipe, both the quantities and ingredients have been adapted to suit what's available locally. Different socio-economic circumstances have been taken into account, reflecting the specificity of history, culture and circumstance. What are some of the different strategies and how is each city or region building its own model of development and change? Cutting edge information and communication technologies may be an important element, but the ability to internalise learning strategies that promote innovation, interaction and exchange across all sectors of society are even more so. But in each case, the goal is to be competitive in a global marketplace through learning and innovation and to tool up for the new century.

The German city of Jena offers the example of an economic and cultural transition. Before 1989 and German reunification, Jena's economy was dominated not only by its position as an East German city, but also by the Carl Zeiss optics and instrumentation complex. This technological basis was clearly useful as a catalyst for today's learning city. The Zeiss complex employed 23,000 local people out of a total of 68,000. Today the figure has dropped to 4,500. But now a new development strategy is promoting Jena as a high-tech region and some 200 companies have already set up shop there. The biotechnology sector employs 1,000 people and is growing. These sweeping economic and cultural changes have all occurred with remarkable speed. In just six years, Friedrich Schiller University has replaced 85% of its faculty, with most professors now coming from the former West Germany. Primary and secondary education has undergone upheaval. All teachers in Thuringia -- about 32,000 -- have been evaluated professionally and politically.

The French example of a learning region is around Poitiers. This predominantly rural area has set its sights on development through communication technology, multi-media and a highly skilled work force. A theme park called Futuroscope, combining research and development with education and leisure activities, is the focus of its strategy. Thus far, it has attracted 70 firms and created 1,500 jobs in the park and 12,000 jobs indirectly in the whole region. It is also a major tourist site, drawing visitors from around the world. Most of the development is funded by public money.

The Oresund region of Scandinavia straddles two countries and is poised to move from traditional to knowledge-based industries of the 21st century. This symbolic passage will become a reality in the year 2000 with completion of a 16-kilometre-long bridge and tunnel linking the city of Copenhagen in Denmark with Malmoe in Sweden. The cross-border region will offer the greatest concentration of research facilities, first-class educational institutions and technological know-how in Scandinavia: 175,000 firms employing 1.4 million people out of a regional population of 2.8 million. Regional innovation systems on each side of the Oresund differ somewhat and co-operation between the Swedish and Danish regions has not been as strong as it might be. The new bridge, by bringing the two regions together and effectively transforming them into one, probably makes a rapprochement inevitable, in research, education and indeed investment policy.

The Andalusia region of Spain offers another kind of development model. Facing Africa and benefiting from a mild climate, ancient seaports, extensive agriculture and a rich cultural heritage, this historical melting pot and tourist attraction is not one of Spain's wealthiest regions. It is now consciously working to diversify its activities. Recent investments in communications, technology and research, combined with the presence of well-established universities and cities like Seville, Malaga, Cadiz, Cordoba and Granada should provide a magnet for new companies and enterprises. Regional co-operation and networking among the cities are proving to be important tools in carving out this learning city region.

One of the largest redevelopment projects in Europe is located in the Kent Thames-side area east of London. Some £4 billion is being invested over thirty years to transform this former industrial site -- once home to a cement factory employing 15,000 people. Apart from laying the necessary infrastructure and commercial developments -- a rail centre will provide a high-speed link with continental Europe, while 30,000 new homes and various office complexes will put residents and 50,000 new employees within easy reach of London -- Kent County Council has laid considerable emphasis on its plan to create a veritable learning region. Some 20 primary schools and 10 secondary ones are to be built, for example, with the support of the private sector. The above examples clearly pour cold water on the popular notion of "place" being no longer important in globalisation, even if arguments in favour of a technology-driven decentralisation are strong. Geographical and territorial dimensions do seem to matter and should continue to. Place underpins the concept of learning cities and regions. Why? There are many advantages in sharing geographically defined labour markets, regional conventions, norms and values. Close interaction with suppliers, customers and even rivals also has benefits. Michael Storper, in his study on the region as a nexus (see bibliography), speaks of "untraded interdependencies" and describes the region as a key element in the "supply architecture" for learning and innovation. Given the social, and often tacit, nature of learning and innovation, it is not surprising that vitality is often best generated when partners are in sufficient proximity to allow frequent interaction and the easy, informal exchange of information.

As our examples above show, firms and knowledge institutions clustered in the same location have greater opportunities to share a culture and understanding that facilitate the process of social interaction and learning. This saves time and money. It can help promote trust between parties and discourage opportunistic behaviour by individual firms. The flow of propriety knowledge, which is fundamental for innovation, is also facilitated. Globalisation makes cities, regions and countries more vulnerable to external shocks and economic restructuring. Yet all cities and regions have resources which can be used to drive local economic development, provided they are part of a sustained regional development strategy that emphasises long-term goals over short-term gains. In a learning society, and in the microcosm of a learning city or region, no institution has a monopoly of knowledge. This has profound implications for education and training. It must itself be an agency for lifelong learning and provide the high levels of group orientation and teamwork required for knowledge-intensive economic organisation. It must actively seek new partnerships with other "regional knowledge institutions".

The learning city strategies only indirectly address the most immediate issues of high unemployment and social deprivation, but as liberating weapons they may help to overcome these problems too.


Lundvall: "National Systems of Innovation: Towards a Theory of Innovation and Interactive Learning", Pinter, London, 1992.

Nelson: "National Systems of Innovation: A Comparative Study", Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993.

Edquist: "Systems of Innovation: Technologies, Institutions and Organizations", Pinter/Castell, London, 1997.

Gertler Meric: "Globalisation, Regional Economic Transition and Learning: Restructuring, Renewal and the Role of Culture", OECD, Forthcoming, 1999.

Storper, Michael: "The Resurgence of Regional Economics, Ten Years Later: the Region as a Nexus of Untraded Interdependencies", European Urban and Regional Studies 2, 1995.

"Economic and Cultural Transition towards a Learning City - The case of Jena", OECD, Forthcoming 1999.

©OECD Observer No 217/218, Summer 1999 

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