Lessons in Learning for the Future Prosperity of Cities

Wednesday, March 10, 2010 13:32

Marcia Caines

artwork Mario Suarez, image Cluster

Today cities are home to over half of the world’s population, and according to The United Nations Habitat report, this figure is set to reach 75% by 2050. The success or failure, growth or decline, of cities directly contributes to the overall condition of the planet and the wellbeing of the global population. Cities both provide solutions and pose challenges to 21st century living, and this is why they are the subject of so much discussion.

the city’s power structures and the interaction between key individuals within the public, private and civil sectors, need to acknowledge the importance of learning in order for it to be translated into innovation and reform.

Globalization, the recession, climate change, digitalization and decentralization have determining affects on cities of all sizes and are radically shaping their organizations, strategies, systems, production, and consumption. Exposed to a global world, cities are under increasing pressure to make profound changes in order to prosper in the future. This is especially true for intermediate-sized cities, which struggle to keep up with the pace and development of powerful metropolises while competing with their counterparts on a global level.

There will be cities, especially those whose economic development has depended on the successes of the first and second industrialization that will experience an inexorable decline and fail to replace their vocation with new productive models.

These cities still need to learn to face systemic change, and recent research reveals that cities that actively engage in learning for strategic change reap social and economic benefits.

Last July, Tim Campbell, chairman of the Urban Age Institute, held a seminar in Torino, which was organized by Torino Internazionale as part of the Comparative Domestic Policy financed by the German Marshall Fund, entitled ‘Learning Cities’.

In short the Comparative Domestic Policy program is a US and European bridging program aimed at providing opportunities for practitioners and policy-makers involved in urban, economic or social issues through research that is funded by GMF and the Compagnia di San Paolo. The program addresses mid-range cities in transformation, and Torino enters into this category.

A ‘learning city’ is a city that gains leverage from ‘knowledge’ in order to improve the social and economical condition of the urban environment for long-term benefits. So, just what is meant by ‘knowledge’ in this context, and why does it matter?

Cities have always been important hubs for learning: universities, libraries, museums and galleries are just some of the entities we associate with a city’s knowledge capital. There are, however, other learning paths, such as networks, gossip, memories, experience and information, which by nature are more invisible, making them more difficult to account for and measure. Yet these knowledge sources contribute to forming the learning environment and are equally important when it comes to defining new development strategies. The key question is ‘how do cities learn?’ How can knowledge capital transform into policies and become a decision maker’s patrimony?

Based on extensive research carried out in different cities worldwide, Tim Campbell’s seminar ‘learning cities’, provided valuable insights on how cities learn, transform and acquire knowledge for long-term prosperity, drawing lessons that may serve for cities like Torino. Campbell illustrated three case studies of cities that have succeeded in embedding knowledge into their hard (infrastructures and institutions) and soft infrastructures (culture and quality of life) for more efficient actions and effective lives, and therefore can be characterized as ‘learning cities’: Bilbao, Seattle and Curitiba.

Images: Bilbao via www.tripadvisor.com by ElodieG on Jul 2009; Seattle via
thecityfix.com; Curitiba via www.projetosurbanos.com.br/; Torino via www.metrotorino.it

Interestingly, these cities all have something in common: crisis. Even though each of these cities has adopted its own approach to learning, the recession was a key driver in their innovation process, prompting leaders to take action to foster the exchange of knowledge. Incidentally, each of these cities also formed a dedicated agency for the city.

Bilbao’s ‘city learning’ approach, which Campbell describes as ‘formal and elected’ began with a harsh wake-up call when the steel trade collapsed in 1989. In 1991 the leaders gathered together to form the organization and elect the assembly of ‘Metropoli-30’, which heralded the start of the city’s transition from steel to knowledge and culture.

The city of Bilbao decided to radically redesign its position to embrace this change. The first step was to relocate the port and reclaim the city centre, and the following period, from 1991 to 2005, saw many important milestones for the city: the Metro-system in 1995, the Guggenheim in 1997, the Bilbao 2010 strategy in 1999 and in 2000 the airport.

The strategic leap in becoming a ‘learning city’ was the decision to invest in importing knowledge, the characteristic of which is bringing in multiple stakeholders, city leaders, experts and decision-makers from outside to present and gather external advice and ideas.

From 1990 – 2005 Bilbao organized over 40 international seminars and thinktanks, bringing together world class thought leaders. In 2006 the city hosted the World Forum on values for City Development and in 2008 it founded the European City Institute for City Development.

Seattle is exemplary as a ‘knowledge seeking’ city. The city’s Trade Development Alliance (TDA) has been organizing annual outbound missions to different cities since the 1980s, when leaders felt a legitimate need for innovation and change due to cutbacks at Boeing Aircraft.

The TDA study tours see the city’s leadership elite – roughly 100 civic and business leaders – travel to foreign cities for 10 – 14 days literally on a mission to absorb as much knowledge as possible to take home, and to strengthen the city’s external relationships.

From 1992 Seattle’s TDA has organized visits to cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Barcelona, Singapore and Munich, to name but a few, and these missions have served to broaden the understanding of the city’s position and state within the global economy.

This style of learning is based on relationship building, intensive interaction and team building.

Curitiba in Brazil adopted a more technical approach to acquiring, transforming and bringing knowledge to fruition: importing knowledge in the form of technical expertise. In Curitiba the joint work of IPPUC – Institute of Urban Research and Planning – and the urban planner and designer Jaime Lerner, who was elected mayor in 1989, transformed the city’s infrastructure. The IPPUC, in charge of strategic thinking and technical analysis, hired foreign experts on a private contract basis to work under Lerner’s leadership to tackle congestion problems, land use and flooding problems through innovative and ecological methodologies.

One of Curitiba’s most celebrated achievements is the implementation of the Rapid Bus Transit System.

artwork Mario Suarez, image Cluster

Tim Campbell carried out a month-long field study in the city of Torino, and the results of his research can be consulted in a paper available for download at www.gmfus.org/publications/index.cfm, and in Italian on the Cluster website here.

TORINO – The story of Torino as a ‘transformative city’ is also a pretty exemplary one. Torino was the first Italian city to craft a strategic plan for future urban development, in 2000, the same year it also established Torino Internazionale, an agency dedicated to the implementation of the plans.
A second plan was launched in 2006 addressing the city’s ‘soft’ infrastructure under the leadership of mayor Sergio Chiamparino.

The transformation of Torino has been a lengthy undertaking, in both urbanistic and cultural terms.

The first physical changes included relocating public services from the city centre and converting old industrial areas into mixed use areas; the pedestrianisation of large sections of the city centre, and building a metro system from scratch.

The cultural transformation began with a commitment to culture and the arts, which saw the city organizing a variety of international initiatives and led to an increase in foreign visitors. This culminated with the successful organization of the 2006 Olympic Games and in 2008 Torino was nominated the world’s first Design Capital.

These enormous efforts and demonstration of competencies in diverse fields show how Torino has paved the way for inevitable change and has taken the preparatory steps for future action required to face global challenges. However the research reveals that from a learning perspective, Torino is still behind the benchmark cities Bilbao, Seattle and Curitiba.

The question that remains is how can Torino – and many other European cities for that matter – empower themselves through knowledge?

The research work of the GMF points to the fact that knowledge in cities resides in networks and dynamic leadership and that accessing, transforming and storing that knowledge requires strong and enduring motivation, the right approaches, the right place, openness and trust.

How a city decides to learn, whether through a formal or informal structure, through inviting knowledge in, or seeking knowledge outside, through intense collaboration with various knowledge sources, may differ from case to case, but the city’s power structures and the interaction between key individuals within the public, private and civil sectors, need to acknowledge the importance of learning in order for it to be translated into innovation and reform.

If the learning process manages to bridge the gaps between different players, skills and insights, and converge into strategy and policy, then the distribution of knowledge will become a fundamental condition for the prosperity of cities in the future.

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5 Responses to “
Lessons in Learning for the Future Prosperity of Cities”

  1. Marcia Caines says:

    March 10th, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    New blog post: 'Lessons in learning for the future prosperity of cities' http://tiny.cc/ieVGH

  2. Marcia Caines says:

    March 10th, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    New blog post: 'Lessons in learning for the future prosperity of cities' http://tiny.cc/ieVGH

  3. Mark Vanderbeeken says:

    March 10th, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    Lessons in learning for the future prosperity of cities http://is.gd/a8oCm

  4. Paulo Alves says:

    March 10th, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    Learning cities: Lessons in learning for the future prosperity of cities http://is.gd/a8oCm (via @vanderbeeken)

  5. Jane's Walk Phoenix says:

    March 10th, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    "The city’s power structures need to ack the importance of learning for it to be translated into innovation & reform" http://bit.ly/av7Op6

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