Presentation by Mike Osborne at the 5th International Conference on Learning Cities

A report entitled, Learning for global health in cities community resilience and the strengthening of learning cities, was written by SHLC team members Mike Osborne, Yulia Nesterova and Ramjee Bhandari as a background paper for UNESCO’s 5th International Conference on Learning Cities held in Yoensu, Republic of Korea from 27-30 October 2021. In his presentation to the conference within the strand, Strengthening community resilience and the resilience of local learning systems, Mike Osborne summarised the key issues that emerged in the course of analysing responses from an analysis of 25 cases of city responses to COVID-19 through an educational lens. These cities include some of those that are the focus of SHLC work

His 15-minute presentation can be found in the recording of the conference (between 5h 3m and 5h 18m).

Whilst the full report is not yet available, a copy of his powerpoint presentation is available to download together with the overall background paper for the conference entitled, From emergency to resilience: Building healthy and resilient cities through learning. A summary of Mike’s presentation is found below.

We all know that in the last two years there have been enormous effects from the COVID-19 epidemic. There’s been an exacerbation of the already deep-rooted inequalities and injustices that exist in societies all over the world. These are especially prevalent in cities because of population concentration, and on the great heterogeneity in life circumstances of those who live in urban space.

We know that where poor services exist, they have become even poorer for disadvantaged groups – those who remain excluded by virtue of race and ethnicity,  social-economic status, gender, disability and a range of other personal characteristics.

And whilst there has been much discussion about resilience, much of that discussion has been about individual resilience rather than system resilience, and especially the resilience of learning systems.

We know also that there have been learning losses and the emphasis has been learning losses for children. But people of all ages have experienced learning losses and part of our discussion in this conference might be about how we ameliorate those losses for people in later life.

Of course, digital learning has come to the fore. It’s obviously been a solution for many and we’re now seeing technologies that we could have hardly imagined in the past being used routinely and for many the digital divide is becoming closed. But for others it’s an impediment. There are still many all around the world who neither have access to technologies nor the skills to be able to take advantage of them.

But crises are an impetus for change and we see many many innovations around the world in our learning cities that are exemplars of excellent practice. Many of the examples that we quote in our report for this conference relate to the interface between health and education. We know that this interface is very important. One adage is that ‘good places’ are those that contain healthy people and healthy people are much more likely to take advantage of learning. The converse of that is that if we provide learning opportunities, we’re much more likely to produce better places and as a consequence healthy people.  And certainly, in the last two years we can see many examples of that happening.

Furthermore, non-formal as well as formal learning are both bedrocks for combatting adversity and developing resilience.

When we think about the types of interventions that have been going on in recent times, we can broadly classify them as those that come from the top – from governments, from regional authorities, from cities and so on and those which are inspired directly from the ground by citizens and community organisations.

One thing for sure is that having a learning city structure is associated with a coordinated approach to crisis. This is for two principle reasons. Firstly, learning city structures encompass multiple stakeholders that cross the formal and non-formal system.

Secondly such a structure recognises the need for joined up provision that crosses different service areas. It’s not just about education –  it’s about health and social care,  environmental services, cultural services and so on.

You will know yourselves of multiple examples of initiatives from cities around the world and very quickly I will just mention a few of these.

If you want an example of a whole system integrated approach you need go no further than the mega-city of Shanghai in China.

The city of Helsinki in Finland illustrates the importance of learning being integrated within different service sectors and illustrates the importance of organisational learning. One of the responses in the city of Helsinki was to ensure that the construction services adopted their own organisational learning approach in their responses to the epidemic

You will also know that the importance of engaging a range of stakeholders. This includes the private sector, non-governmental organisations and individual citizen groups.

And when we involve other sectors there is an important role:

  • For arts and culture
  • For learning initiatives that cross generations and
  • For celebrating learning.

It is through some of these less obviously direct means of offering learning opportunity sitting alongside more formal approaches that we may create more resilience populations.

Let me give you just a few examples of such initiatives.

Firstly, the importance of hearing stories from the grassroots about experiences of COVID-19 and learning from them is illustrated by Africa’s Pandemic Stories, an initiative funded by the MasterCard Foundation

Secondly, the importance of cultural entertainment as an intergenerational activity is highlighted in the Rongmohol programme in the city of Khulna in Bangladesh.

Thirdly, another bottom-up initiative is illustrated in one of the neighbourhood communities of Manila through a home school programme for lockdown which increases parent-teacher engagement.

Last but not least, amongst these examples, in just over a week the cities of Wyndham and the Melton in Australia, both longstanding members of  the GNLC are truly celebrating learning in its many facets through an extensive global programme of learning with almost 100 different programmes.

There are of course many challenges, but there are ways forward in developing greater resilience through learning.

Let me mention the four major challenges and some ways of addressing

One – Joined-up Policies

As I’ve mentioned previously, we need joined up policies in cities. In the context of resilience, we need to develop a contextually relevant and easily operationalized definition, which will allow us shared visions and objectives for everyone to follow. It is important that we recognise capacity within organisations and the capacity they can drawn from beyond. Within education we need co-operation between stakeholders.

Two – Digital Learning

We were unprepared for the pandemic in many ways, not least in relation to digital learning because our technologies have rapidly overtaken our pedagogies. There is much we can learn from what has been successful, but as in other arenas we must not assume that we can uncritically borrow and transfer practices.

Three – Learning Loss

 There has been much debate about learning loss, but little debate beyond formal schooling. We must however address this issue for adult learners as well, though the structures that serve them, to build resilient systems of learning.

And not all learning is good – the pandemic has exposed the fragility of truth with disinformation reaching new heights. This makes enhancing literacy, especially media literacy, vital.

Four – Partnership

We need partnership

  • Between public and private sectors
  • Between services
  • Between generations
  • And why are we here? We need partnership between cities

Let me end with this quote from the Resilience Cities Network.

In times of crisis, community members themselves are a core part of a local resilience capacity: they are often the first to respond in diverse ways and are “present to support recovery long after the immediate risks end”

If we are to recover from the pandemic, and we will, it is ultimately citizens who will lead us all because of the learning opportunities we provide, and how we learn from them.