Are local communities demonstrating new forms of leadership when national Government can’t?

Cities of Learning exhibit a model of collective place-led leadership — ‘power with’. This is the story of how they have evolved as national politics faces gridlock.

By Anthony Painter, Director of RSA Action and Research Centre

“Power is around us everywhere, we all experience it in multiple ways even if we never think about it”
Jo Rowlands

On the first Monday and Tuesday of 2019, I spent my time operating in two entirely distinct worlds. The first was the network of community wealth builders — community activists, anchor public institutions such as universities, and ‘think and do’ tanks amongst others — engaged in developing models of practical inclusive growth. They were in dialogue with an academic community. The second was over dinner, back in London with tech venture capitalists, impact tech innovators, and senior Government innovators. Both conversations were engrossing, optimistic, even if daunting in terms of the challenges they were seeking to address. And these different worlds, looking at many of the same problems of inequality, exclusion, access to opportunity and economic security, were entirely apart. And, with each vested in radically different assumptions and language, it is difficult to imagine them coming together.

Increasingly, the energy for change is away from a central Government stymied by austerity and Brexit. Over the past few months new leadership models are appearing at local level (sometimes supported by national innovators) designed to leverage collective power.

The changes in Barking and Dagenham as council professionals and social enterprise integrate with the individual needs of people, or Preston where a new model of local community wealth building has emerged, in Wigan where the whole community has been brought together in a ‘deal’ to improve community life, health and well-being, in Doncaster where there is a buzz of new educational and economic possibilities through Team Doncaster, or the Humber region where the LEP working in partnership across a sub-region to widen economic, cultural and educational possibilities are all demonstrators of a new local and civic power dynamic.

All these approaches tap into what Jo Rowlands of Oxfam would appear to mean by ‘power with’ as distinct from ‘power over’, ‘power to’ and ‘power within’. And in Plymouth, Brighton, and Greater Manchester we have been exploring how we get there through igniting a community’s passion to learn — and this is the story so far as we embark on the first pilots of Cities of Learning in 2019.

Why we decided to take action

Back in 2015, the RSA published a report which considered new technology and the future of learning with inclusivity and social mobility as a set of goals. The new digital learning age was a pretty traditional think tank report (I can say that as I was a co-author). It contained a survey and segmentation of different experiences of learning and opportunity, an analysis of the social mobility literature, a look at institutions (most particularly, schools), a survey of interesting international case studies, and some policy recommendations.

The next step for any think tank would have been to build some policy maker support for the findings. One key recommendation was for there to be a UK pilot of a US initiative called ‘Cities of Learning’ — now called LRNG Cities. This is where we took a different turn. Instead of asking policy makers to implement the core recommendations, what if we took forward Cities of Learning ourselves? The department I head up at the RSA is called the Action and Research Centre after all.

In doing this, we were making a conscious decision to turn away from the traditionally hierarchical model of policy and social change. The thinking behind this strategy was that the elements required to develop a City of Learning approach in the UK that linked different domains of formal and informal learning institutions, business, culture, community, public services and civil society required a more flexible approach than traditional target and deliver models of public policy often allow. In making this decision we were surrendering access to central state resources and delivery. In order to move forward we needed partners of different types — city leaders, digital badge providers, learning experts, and funding partners. It was very brave, Minister.

How we faced the challenges of delivering change

And the decision almost back-fired instantly. In the start-up world there is a phrase ‘the death valley curve’ when a frugal early stage enterprise has some initial backing but no cash resource. We received a lot of initial interest from cities but struggled to convince funders that the early stage model could translate into tangible impact. In 2016, we held our first City of Learning Summit to see which partners would turn up and wanted to join the initiative. This was a turning point.

It was at the Summit that the partnership with Digitalme, the leading proponent of open badges — a form of non-proprietary shareable micro-credentials — was forged. LRNG who were then Cities of Learning in US gave us invaluable support. Representatives from UK cities came along, starting the process of finding city partners to prototype and co-design Cities of Learning. And three funders emerged as willing to consider taking the initial step of a modest grant to enable the early stage work to be undertaken: Further Education Trust for Leadership, City & Guilds, and UfI Trust.

Essentially, the Summit had catalysed the programme. In so doing, we were becoming, in the collective impact language of John Kania and Mark Kramer, a ‘backbone organisation’ to take forward Cities of Learning. The common agenda was to catalyse partner cities in seeing learning as intrinsic to their collective identity, to open-up to learners a wider range of informal, non-formal as well as formal learning opportunities, and to signpost further opportunities in work and education. Social justice is at the heart of Cities of Learning. Our hypothesis is that by opening out and connecting a wider array of learning opportunities, plus by translating — through open badges — hidden and latent skills that many seemingly excluded learners have at their disposal, our system of learning will better meet the needs of a wider range of learners — even beyond school age.

Out of a mixture of strategy and necessity, the Cities of Learning mission was glued together through the power we could identify around our network — a coalition of the willing was emerging. This was developing in a very different way to the usual ‘power to’ process of ‘design, raise cash, and deliver’ projects. Instead, we were inviting a whole variety of actors from place-focused social entrepreneurs to educationalists to major funders and commercial organisations to work together and with us in a collaborative, uncertain, flexing fashion. By Summer 2016, the national coalition was strong enough to begin work in cities directly.

Finding the right places to demonstrate leadership

At this point, we needed to decide on the cities that were best placed to take Cities of Learning forward with us. The programme needed local leaders who could work within local systems and develop new links to strengthen and broaden these networks. And the task was not one of implementation; the challenge was one of co-design. We needed local leaders who could operate within fields of common endeavour and between them also. They would need to be persuasive voices within education, but in public administration, commerce, culture and community also. These voices of persuasion would be able to catalyse and, in the language of Donella Meadows, lever change within systems. These points of leverage would become local anchors and field catalysts as Cities of Learning moved from blueprint to pilot. Establishing their influence in the early stages was critical.

Somehow we had to whittle down the initial interest to three places in which to prototype Cities of Learning UK and decided upon Plymouth, Brighton and Greater Manchester. From our own experience with a very strong cohort of active RSA Fellows in the city, we knew that Plymouth had a strong and entrepreneurial civic and social enterprise culture. This culture has been recognised by the Guardian columnist Aditya Chakraborty in his ‘the alternatives’ series. Interestingly, it was actually a public entrepreneur from the city council — in the terminology of Elinor Ostrom explored by Rowan Conway and Ian Burbidge for the RSA in 2018 — who led the Plymouth work in partnership with a group of social entrepreneurs, educational innovators, public services, commerce and community representatives. In Brighton, it was a collective impact-purposed vehicle, Our Future City, that stepped forward. Our Future City combines culture, enterprise, education, community and public leadership and were a natural fit for Cities of Learning. In the case of Manchester, the brilliant Science and Industry Museum gathered together a similarly broad and influential set of stakeholders. So three different leadership routes into our place partners but three organisations with similar capacities to gather latent power to catalyse change at a place level.

In each place our first task was to ‘see the system’ and think about the array of players who would be needed to enable Cities of Learning to succeed. Then we co-designed, including with groups of young learners with different needs, from those on vocational courses, to those pursuing an academic path in schools (one group in a school in Plymouth, Devonport High School for Boys, had in fact already designed an open badge integrated employability passport app!), to those who were more distant from work and education on account of having caring responsibilities within their families. We then worked with a wide variety of stakeholders to co-design blueprints for Cities of Learning in each place.

Understanding the needs of local communities

By exploring the particularly economic, cultural and social needs of each place and understanding the range of public, civic, cultural and commercial organisations who could support learners, a series of City of Learning visions were developed. For Manchester, the goal was ‘active participation’, for Brighton ‘a city of ideas and well-being, and for Plymouth a ‘city of lifelong learning’ with a focus on ‘social and commercial enterprise, public health, and access to digital opportunities.’ The blueprints were filled out through identifying the leading stakeholders who were willing to take forward the agenda; to energise change. In the approach of the RSA: ‘acting like an entrepreneur’.

All the approaches were designed to bring the coalition together as an early ramp into a pilot. Of utmost importance was in the RSA’s terminology ‘thinking like a system, acting like an entrepreneur’. This approach has caught on- Bruce Katz sees the approach as key to the ‘new localism’. We wanted to see to whole picture but spot where there was commitment and energy for gelling a whole system of access to learning and progress through education embedded in a sense of civic pride for learning.

What was achieved in this process? Valdis Krebs and June Holley describe the processes of ‘knowing the network’ and ‘weaving network’ to cultivate connected communities that are smart, productive and effective. Our partners in Manchester and Salford, Ashoka, have a leadership model called ‘weaving’ that has been unpacked by Ross Hall and Andreas Schleicher of the OECD (whose skills model underpins the ‘skills spine’ through which learning experiences, badges and badge pathways in the Cities of Learning will be designed).

Krebs and Holley describe how ever more robust forms of community power can be developed by skilled local leaders. Communities can start off as ‘scattered fragments’ where connections emerge slowly or not at all. The second stage is the hub and spoke network. By working as a system catalyst and co-designing the City of Learning as a set of design principles that bring together local leadership, networks underpinned by an open badge aligned platform, we have helped create or reinforce local field catalysts who have become local Cities of Learning anchors. These anchors are the hub.

The next phase as we move from prototype to pilot will be to support the evolution of a ‘multi-hub’ network where there are multiple points of strength- say in different Cities of Learning themes with one set of stakeholders, for example, taking ownership of skills through digital and another for public health and care. These multiple hubs would all be aligned with the local anchor and with each other. That is our hope and aim for the direction of local leadership travel in the next eighteen months to two years. The final stage in the Krebs/Holley scheme is the core-periphery network where community strength is mutually reinforcing, diverse, aligned and of strategic policy impact. That may be beyond the pilots!

Growing the ability of communities to lead effectively

Both at the level of systems catalyst nationally and field catalyst locally, Cities of Learning continues to deepen its partnership bonds and the capability to lead collectively. We were flattered to receive a global education innovation award. And new partners such as Openreach, the Arts Council, and the Learning and Work Institute have joined our growing band of changemakers. Inevitably, and quite rightly, the impact of Cities of Learning in terms of its influence on people and places, on their sense of esteem, belonging and opportunity will need to be developed. But to reach for impact metrics straight away without developing the capacity to collectively lead takes us back to an old model of commission and deliver. Avoiding that model too early was a major reason that we developed Cities of Learning in a very different way to most Government programmes in the first place.

Rachel Wolf, former adviser on education in David Cameron’s Number 10, recently reflected on the downsides of a knowledge-driven curriculum from the perspective of parents. Whilst not conceding the importance of a knowledge rich education (rightly), she saw that other capabilities, a wider array of skills, and a sense of excitement for learning were critical components of an excellent education. And yet, all the top down ‘power over’ mechanisms have for some time emphasised the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to reproduce it in exams to the exclusion of too much else. Woolf supports the recalibration of Ofsted away from a too narrow focus on metrics alone. And that is the challenge writ large: how to generate impact without hierarchical narrowing approach. How can we better align ‘power over’ with ‘power to’ and ‘power with.’ In so doing, how can we unleash the ‘power within’ of leaders of many different types? How can we bring together different worlds sharing similar goals all be it from radically different perspectives?

For too long models of policy change and strategic leadership, whilst not completely ineffective, have been incomplete and suffocating of innovation and motivation. Now our political system is completely log-jammed with Brexit also, new spaces for place-leadership, for collective leadership are opening up. The places that are able to discover latent assets, hope, determination, and creativity will thrive with their citizens. Those that don’t could start to sink and polarise further. Like so many organisations in the ideas and social change arena, the RSA is desperate to work with fellow travellers to try to find new pathways to positive social change. We will have to work relentlessly with multitudes to achieve such change.

How will we judge success?

When the chips are counted will the numbers be impressive enough? With humility, we can’t honestly say. The metrics will matter but just as important will be the capacity to catalyse new forms of leadership. If the model and execution of Cities of Learning doesn’t prove to be quite right, though we sincerely anticipate that it will succeed, then we hope that it leaves one marker for how to explore forms of ‘power with’.

Times of stasis such as the current times require a readiness to innovate. And they require new forms of leadership. And that is one of missions, working with hundreds of others, on which we have embarked.

This is the first in a series of themed essays on the Cities of Learning programme. Future essays will explore networks, platform, resources, place and identity. Find out more about the Cities of Learning programme on the RSA website.