Learning Cities Overview

The term "Learning Cities" refers to towns, cities, and regions that are developing learning as a key tool in preparing citizens to:

  • know and understand changes
  • acquire and improve the skills to adapt successfully to changes
  • shape and influence changes so that they can be agents of the future not victims of it
Professor Norman Longworth, a leading proponent of Lifelong Learning in the UK says: 

“Learning Society is a city, town or region which goes beyond its statutory duty to provide education and training for those who require it and instead creates a vibrant, participative, culturally aware and economically buoyant human environment through the provision, justification and active promotion of learning opportunities to enhance the potential of all its citizens.”

One of the main tenets of the Learning City is the involvement of the entire community. This means businesses, employers, educators, community workers, health workers, schools, private training organisations, craft groups, cultural groups - the list is endless - it means everyone.

Every community has a raft of organisations and clubs that are involved in something - sport, music, craft, employment skill training, and so on. Not all of them are ‘official’ training organisations - but all of them teach something - such as management skills, organisational skills, reading and listening skills and so on.

For example, the person who plays a musical instrument by ear, can be taught how to cut a CD, record their own music, compose on a computer and set up their own business. But tell them to get a Bachelor of Music degree first and they will never do it.

Equally, machines in amusement arcades are proven to teach hand/eye co-ordination skills faster than ball games. These skills are invaluable but not recognised as ‘useful’ and certainly nowhere near a ‘qualification’. 

Examples of Learning Cities 

The success of the Lifelong Learning philosophy in the UK, (especially in Scotland and England), Europe and Australia stems from their political systems for the delivery of educational programmes. 

For example, England has a Minister for Lifelong Learning, there is a Learning City Network, and much of the responsibility for the delivery of the education system lies with the local authority. 

Australia has a State and Federal system for education, and it is the State system that has become involved with the lifelong learning philosophy and introduced the Learning City concept. It also has an active, linked and cohesive network for adult learning through the Australian Adult Learning Association that is promoting and developing the Learning City concept.

Why should Local Government be involved in Lifelong Learning?

Locla Government should be involved because:

  • only local government has a duty of care for its local community
  • only the local community fully understands the local community’s needs
  • only the local community can pull together for the betterment of the community
  • nationwide policies to date have not taken into account the needs of the individual

According to Mayor Graham Crapp of Wodonga - Australia’s First Learning City:

  • "Learning Cities are recognised internationally, and strive to make life long learning attractive and accessible to employers, employees and the entire community. “We want to create an environment conducive to economic and personal growth and development.
  • It builds on the existing strengths and achievements of education and training provision. It’s purpose is to develop the social, economic, civic and cultural effectiveness of all sections of the community.”

Mayor Crapp maintains that despite any criticism, skepticism and cost that a community should just ‘do it’ - establish the Learning City, get it started, fund its operational expenses, and ‘just get on with it’, because the rewards outweighed the doubts. And he has been proved right. 

  • Costs were less than expected 
  • Rewards exceeded expectations within the first year
  • There has been an increase in businesses setting up in Wodonga to access the learning community
  • There has been an increase in the number of learning institutions
  • There has been a rise in tertiary qualifications held by members of the community.

John Barnes, Mayor of Ballarat says:

"Using our brains to greatest advantage won't come about without developing ourselves. Firstly, we need to embrace the concept of the Learning City. This doesn't just mean we brand ourselves that way for marketing purposes. It requires a radical shift in our perceptions of ourselves as lifetime learners. It doesn't mean that we're all studying at university, polytechs or secondary school. What it means though, is that we recognise that we have the capacity to learn through everything we do."

Measuring the Success of a Learning City

To be successful a learning city must: 

  • Integrate the fragmented resources within its community - social, economic, educational, political and cultural
  • Make the best use of the existing skills & talents of its people and develop a seamless pathway linking compulsory education to a tertiary institution.
  • Regenerate disadvantaged neighbourhoods
  • Target those most in need
There are two aspects of a Learning Society and the delivery of Lifelong Learning.

One is ‘learning to work’, which has been the ideological and dominant world view of learning for many decades.

The other is the empowerment of people so they will learn for the sake of learning; to enrich their lives; to improve their understanding of the world, their culture, their environment, their family, whatever is important to them. 

While learning to work is still very important and the ultimate goal of all learning, what must come first is the desire to learn, the willingness to try new things, the confidence to begin.

Setting up for a Learning City.

What action can your community take to make Lifelong Learning a reality for all?

Professor Denis Ralph, Director South Australian Centre for Lifelong Learning and Development suggests:

  • Address barriers to Lifelong Learning
  • Put the focus on learners and instructions
  • Boost the learning-to-learn capacity of all citizens
  • Forge new connections, pathways and partnerships
  • Develop a “Learning City”

More specific actions include:

  • Establish premises for a ‘Learning Shop’, with staff and operational costs
  • Develop a data base of all learning opportunities in the area, (including distance learning and internet learning). This information is to include details of costs, subsidies, access by transport, child care, and so on, and is available free to residents.
  • Forge partnerships and contracts with all business, industry, training and educational sectors
  • Set up a website and networks within “learning cities” and just as importantly, between them
  • Develop a learning strategy and action plan, which includes ideas and plans on how to communicate with those responsible for implementing them and the community at large.

Councils are an integral and important part of the Learning City concept. Throughout the world, but especially England, Scotland and Australia, the Learning City fundamentals are provided by the local authority or the State Governments. 

In New Zealand the government, through the Tertiary Education Strategy, is leaning towards a more comprehensive approach to ‘learning’ even though our education system is centrally driven. Therefore, it is vital that councils get involved with the structures, but not the educational outcomes, surrounding lifelong learning to enhance this approach - i.e. councils should NOT provide the ‘learning’ opportunities, but they should provide the opportunity to access those opportunities more readily. 

For example, Councils should provide the premises from which the strategies and organisation can be developed and delivered, such as the City Charter, Ideally these premises could include the library, or museum, or educational resource centre and so on. 

Specific opportunities for Council involvement include:

  • Organise a public launch of the Learning City
  • Run a campaign to promote learning e.g. festivals, conferences etc.
  • Set up a multi-agency team, and an independent Lifelong Learning Trust, to work together to access funding
  • Join an international learning city network to keep up to date with overseas events, and achievements
  • Establish policies - accessible centres - free programmes - targeted programmes for non-learners, and in particular disadvantaged groups
  • Work with other agencies and providers to provide a collaborative approach rather than a competitive approach to the provision of ‘learning’

Ongoing development is also an important feature. 

Learning must become the focus of the town or area, it must be celebrated, interconnected, and public, so that it ensures community engagement and ownership. 

It is important to establish communication links with all aspects of society, business and industry and the formal education providers in your area. 

It needs to be emphasised that the Learning City concept is neither a threat nor a challenge to the existing system, nor is it a criticism of existing facilities and their teaching fraternity, but that it runs parallel to, and complementary with, those facilities.  

See Also:


South Waikato Lifelong Learning Group

South Waikato Lifelong Learning group


Skills Gap Project
Group Members




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