International Review of Education

, Volume 64, Issue 3, pp 373–392 | Cite as

How collaborative governance can facilitate quality learning for sustainability in cities: A comparative case study of Bristol, Kitakyushu and Tongyeong

  • Paul Ofei-Manu
  • Robert J. Didham
  • Won Jung Byun
  • Rebecca Phillips
  • Premakumara Jagath Dickella Gamaralalage
  • Sian Rees
Original Paper


Quality learning for sustainability can have a transformative effect in terms of promoting empowerment, leadership and wise investments in individual and collective lives and regenerating the local economies of cities, making them more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. It can also help cities move towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Effecting the transformation of cities into Learning Cities, however, requires changes in the structure of governance. Drawing on interviews with key informants as well as secondary data, this article examines how collaborative governance has facilitated quality learning for sustainability in Bristol (United Kingdom), Kitakyushu (Japan) and Tongyeong (Republic of Korea). Focusing on a conceptual framework and practical application of learning initiatives, this comparative study reveals how these cities’ governance mechanisms and institutional structures supported initiatives premised on cooperative learning relationships. While recognising differences in the scope and depth of the learning initiatives and the need for further improvements, the authors found evidence of general support for the governance structures and mechanisms for learning in these cities. The authors conclude by recommending that (1) to implement the Learning Cities concept based on UNESCO’s Key Features of Learning Cities, recognition should be given to existing sustainability-related learning initiatives in cities; (2) collaborative governance of the Learning Cities concept at both local and international levels should be streamlined; and (3) UNESCO’s Global Network of Learning Cities could serve as a hub for sharing education/learning resources and experiences for other international city-related programmes as an important contribution to the implementation of the SDGs.


collaborative governance quality learning sustainability learning cities multi-stakeholder Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 


Comment la gestion concertée peut faciliter un apprentissage de qualité en vue du développement durable dans les villes : étude de cas comparative à Bristol, Kitakyushu et Tongyeong – Un enseignement de qualité visant la viabilité peut avoir plusieurs effets transformateurs : stimulation de l’autonomisation, de l’esprit d’initiative et d’investissements judicieux dans la vie individuelle et collective, ainsi que relance de l’économie régionale des villes, qui favorise leur caractère inclusif, leur sécurité, leur résilience et leur pérennité. Cet enseignement peut en outre aider les villes à progresser vers l’atteinte des objectifs de développement durable (ODD) des Nations Unies. Réaliser la transformation des agglomérations en villes apprenantes exige néanmoins des changements au niveau de la structure de gouvernance. Au moyen d’entretiens menés avec des informateurs clés ainsi que de données secondaires, les auteurs de l’article examinent comment la gouvernance concertée facilite un apprentissage de qualité en vue de la pérennité dans les villes de Bristol (Royaume-Uni de Grande-Bretagne et d’Irlande du Nord), Kitakyushu (Japon) et Tongyeong (République de Corée). Fondée sur un cadre conceptuel et sur l’application pratique d’initiatives apprenantes, cette étude comparative démontre comment les mécanismes de gouvernance et structures institutionnelles de ces villes favorisent des initiatives reposant sur des relations d’apprentissage coopératif. Tout en relevant les différences en étendue et en portée de ces initiatives et le besoin d’améliorations supplémentaires, les auteurs constatent un soutien global aux structures de gouvernance et aux mécanismes d’apprentissage dans ces villes. Ils concluent par trois recommandations : 1) Pour réaliser le concept des villes apprenantes énoncé dans les Caractéristiques clés des villes apprenantes de l’UNESCO, il importe de valoriser les initiatives d’apprentissage liées à la pérennité existantes dans les villes. 2) La gouvernance concertée du concept de ville apprenante doit être rationalisée au niveau tant local qu’international. 3) Le Réseau mondial UNESCO des villes apprenantes pourrait servir à d’autres programmes urbains internationaux de plaque tournante dans le partage des ressources et des expériences en enseignement et apprentissage, ce qui représenterait une contribution décisive à la réalisation des ODD.


Recent decades have seen a continuation and acceleration of the global demographic shift from rural to urban settlement. The majority of the world’s population now lives in urban areas (UN 2014). This trend has been accompanied by the emergence of megacities (cities of 10 million or more inhabitants). These megacities are both where the largest proportion of the world’s goods and energy are consumed, generating extensive amounts of waste, and also where critical human development is most likely to occur. The global population shift to cities has occurred against the backdrop of its continual growth, unprecedented climate change and other factors. The proportion of the world’s population living in cities is predicted to increase from the current 54 per cent to 66 per cent by 2050 (ibid.).

Many cities around the world are concerned with the challenges arising from population growth and abrupt changes in the environment, and a number of them are looking to education/learning to raise their citizens’ awareness and engage them in participatory decision-making about their cities’ futures. The objective of developing sustainable cities that are inclusive, safe and resilient has been enshrined in the 2030 Development Agenda under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11, while education and lifelong learning are the focus of SDG 4 (UN 2015).1 Efforts at city level and involving education are also considered in many of the other SDGs; for example, those relating to health, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, decent work, responsible consumption and production, and climate action.

The type of education/learning that cities adopt will be crucial in determining their pathways to becoming “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” (SDG 11, in UN 2015). As a fundamental human right, education can be the foundation for progress in every city. Through sound leadership and wise investments in quality education, individual and collective lives as well as local economies can be transformed, and investments in education are likely to yield greater returns than a focus solely on infrastructure development (Lutz et al. 2014; Muttarak and Lutz 2014). Thus, quality learning in the form of community-based and cooperative learning approaches and empowerment, engagement and collective generation of new knowledge can act as an engine to help cities transform and transition towards achieving many of the goals set in all 17 SDGs.

However, effecting the transformation of cities into learning cities requires changes to governance structures. Multi-stakeholder governance involves optimum use of political, technical, financial and managerial capacities as well as citizen engagement and stakeholder processes to achieve a city’s ultimate goal of productivity, resilience, inclusiveness and sustainability (Wang et al. 2012; Sachs 2015). Collaborative governance comprises several factors including process, structure, relationships, a common purpose, principled engagement, shared motivation, institutional design of basic protocols and ground rules, facilitative leadership, involvement of public agencies and non-state stakeholders, modelling and a culture of learning (Hutter 2016; Evers et al. 2016; Francesch-Huidobro 2015; O’Brien 2010; Ansell and Gash 2008).

UNESCO’s framework document, The Key Features of Learning Cities, identifies the fundamental conditions of a learning city as “strong political will and commitment, governance and participation of all stakeholders, and mobilization and utilization of resources” (UNESCO GNLC 2015a, p. 11). A learning city is thus defined as

a city which effectively mobilizes its resources in every sector to promote inclusive learning from basic to higher education; revitalizes learning in families and communities; facilitates learning for and in the workplace; extends the use of modern learning technologies; enhances quality and excellence in learning; and fosters a culture of learning throughout life (ibid., p. 9).

The learning city approach aims to strengthen learning performance and provide learners with the capacities to manage the various challenges involved in a transition to sustainability. Learning cities offer benefits in terms of both individual and collective sustainability (socio-economic, cultural and environmental) (Kearns 2015).
The recent merging of quality education/learning and education for sustainable development (ESD) into “quality education for sustainable development” provides a learning model that is equally well applied in non-formal and community-based applications as it is in formal education settings.

Quality education is about what and how people learn, its relevance to today’s world and global challenges, and its influence on people’s choices. Many now agree, quality education for sustainable development reinforces people’s sense of responsibility as global citizens and better prepares them for the world they will inherit (Buckler and Creech 2014, p. 28).

The benefits that quality education can bring to people’s ability to live healthier, happier and more productive lives in a sustainable manner are well noted (see Didham and Ofei-Manu 2013). Quality education for sustainable development (ESD) is vital in developing capacities for sustainability transformations by supporting higher-order learning and the lifelong acquisition of skills to analyse, synthesise and evaluate complex information in decision-making, planning and problem-solving (Ofei-Manu and Didham 2014).

One feature of the quality ESD model which is particularly valuable in the work of learning cities is the application and promotion of cooperative learning relationships to strengthen group learning, partnerships and collective knowledge generation. The employment of cooperative learning relationships as a broad learning strategy utilises “educational methods and approaches such as social learning, communities of practice and collaborative/cooperative inquiry”, and places strong emphasis on “multi-stakeholder participation, collaborative relationships, and sharing ideas and strategies over a period of time that create opportunities for reflexive and inclusive building of trust to develop solutions and innovations” (Ofei-Manu and Didham 2014, p. 6).

While public participation and multi-stakeholder governance are often valued at the city level for strengthening decision-making on sustainable development pathways, the significance of cooperative learning relationships and social learning processes for generating new knowledge and understanding which is culturally and contextually relevant is not as well appreciated. This article examines the nature of learning initiatives premised on cooperative learning relationships such as participation, multi-stakeholder partnerships and coordination in three cities: Bristol in the United Kingdom, Kitakyushu in Japan, and Tongyeong in the Republic of Korea. It also examines how these cities’ policy and governance mechanisms and institutional structures support these learning initiatives.


The study presented in this article is based on a comparative case study of three different cities. As a research methodology, the comparative case study is a valuable approach for generating information with considerable depth, and for comparative evaluation/assessment: “The more complex and contextualized the objects of research, the more valuable the case study approach is regarded to be” (Scholz et al. 2006, p. 229). While the case study approach aims to investigate a predefined issue – in this case learning cities – it does not manipulate or control variables in the study. Rather, the purpose is to generate “in-depth understanding of a phenomenon and its context” (Darke et al. 1998, p. 275).

Through the comparison of similarities and differences between the cases, the comparative case study methodology allows for greater examination of variables than that of a single case study (Baxter and Jack 2008), and was applied in this study as part of the research objective to examine factors of governance that can support or improve the functioning and effectiveness of learning cities.

The three cases were prepared using a common reporting format containing questions developed by the authors and completed by key informants in the target cities. We also collected secondary qualitative data on Tongyeoung and Kitakyushu from publications, particularly Ofei-Manu and Diham (2012), and on Bristol from the Bristol Learning City homepage. Key aspects examined in these cases include details of the learning initiatives and their relevance for sustainability learning in the city, and the governance and management of these learning initiatives.

Results and discussion

Characteristics of the three cities and their learning initiatives

The three cities we examined range in size from relatively small (Tongyeong: 138,880 inhabitants), to medium-sized (Bristol: 449,300 inhabitants), to large (Kitakyushu: 957,681 inhabitants; all data taken in 2016). They share commonalities such as basic governance and institutional structures/processes that underpin the functioning of the cities. They differ in other aspects such as cultural and ethnic composition and social structures (UNESCO GNLC 2015a), suggesting different priorities in each city (Wang et al. 2016; Valdés-Cotera et al. 2015). For example, the population of Bristol includes people born in 180 different countries, speaking 91 languages, with 20 per cent under the age of 16. Thus, the city has a young population and diverse culture that can potentially sustain growth into the future, especially if it is able to apply quality learning to minimise/eradicate social and educational inequalities. By comparison, the populations of Tongyeong and Kitakyushu are less diverse. Concerning policy-making, although in principle the education policies of all three cities are driven nationally, some of these policies can be adapted at the local level to suit local appropriateness and cultural relevance. All three cities are adjacent to water. Bristol, a port city on the river Avon, needs to embed (flood) risk education in its education programmes. Tongyeong and Kitakyushu are both coastal cities and need to incorporate the impact of climate change in their learning initiatives and in the cities’ development plans. Cities are at the forefront in addressing sustainability issues due to the frequent gridlock on sustainability processes at global and national levels.

The three cities’ learning initiatives we consider in this article are called “Passport to Employability” (Bristol), “Palette for the Future” (Kitakyushu) and “Learning and Sharing for Sustainable Future” (Tongyeong). Selected aspects of the learning initiatives in the three cities are presented in Table 1. Bristol’s “Passport to Employability” (PEBL) aims to create opportunities for all citizens to enjoy learning more generally, and in particular to acquire skills enabling them to match the needs of their community and their city’s job market. The objective is to create a culture of learning where all are proud to learn, while the learning initiatives of Kitakyushu and Tongyeong cover the sustainability subject more comprehensively. Kitakyushu’s “Palette for the Future” (the term palette was chosen to allude to a wide and colourful choice of options) aims to strengthen awareness and networks of its citizens to make it the “world capital of sustainable development”. Tongyeong’s “Learning and Sharing for Sustainable Future” aims to realise a vision of coexistence through learning and sharing for a sustainable future, promoting ESD via field education.
Table 1

Details and characteristics of learning initiatives implemented in the three cities





Learning initiative (name)

Passport to Employability (PEBL)

Palette for the Future

Learning and Sharing for a Sustainable Future





Responsible agency

Bristol Learning City Partnership

Kitakyushu ESD Council

Tongyeong Education Foundation for Sustainable Development


To envisage Bristol as a Learning City, where: (1) all individuals and communities are proud to learn throughout their lives; (2) every organisation has a committed, skilled and diverse workforce; and (3) the city’s success is shared by all

To strengthen awareness, capacity and networks of citizens, communities and various organisations to make Kitakyushu the “World Capital of Sustainable Development”

To implement a vision of coexistence through learning and sharing for a sustainable future and to promote ESD via field education Sejahtera Forest/Sejahtera Regional Centre of Expertise (RCE) in Asia Pacific

Major activities

• Celebrating the benefits of learning as a way to transform lives and championing learning for all ages and all communities

• Commissioning activity to increase participation and achievement

• Connecting planning, decision-making and resources

• Learning in Education – Raising student attainment through formal learning in Bristol’s schools, colleges and universities

• Learning for Work – Helping citizens into work and ensuring that the local workforce is skilled and diverse

• Learning in Communities – Fostering a culture in communities where learning is valued by everyone

• Promote various learning and monitoring tools/methods to understand and strengthen citizens’ awareness of SD and ESD

• Promotion of neighbourhood ESD projects using community centres

• Promotion of environmental field activities and events to build a sustainable community

• Kitakyushu Manabito ESD Station programme to promote ESD in formal education to strengthen collaboration between schools and local communities

• Organise Mirai Palette (Youth activities) and ESD Café outreach activities beyond the RCE community

• A network of formal, informal and non-formal education institutions joined together to promote ESD in diverse education initiatives in schools, NGOs etc.

• School ESD programmes, including both integrating ESD into the curriculum and providing extra-curricular programmes

• Youth ESD programmes

• Lifelong learning programmes

• Training for trainers

• Partnership network management ESD projects

• International ESD partnership promotion and joint projects, including annual Tongyeong ESD International Forum

Expected outputs & outcomes

• Greater awareness of the value of learning

• Increased participation in learning

• Improved achievement and life chances for everyone

• The Learning City Evaluation Group aims to evaluate the attitude, experience and impact of learning on individuals, organisations and the city

• Increased awareness of ESD and SD among participants

• Increased partnership for taking collaborative action towards SD

• Increased network and sharing experiences

• Increase in international cooperation

• 7,035 programme participants (2015)

• 25 RCEs in Asia Pacific networked through Sejahtera Network

• Growing awareness of ESD and SD in the region, monitored via biannual ESD survey on key indicators

RCE = Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development

Activities organised under the cities’ learning initiatives varied in scope. The Bristol initiative focuses on tackling systemic challenges for citizens of all ages around three key themes (see Table 1). The approach is to plan strategically and take collective action; bringing together public-private partnerships to act on evidence, maximise resources and deliver change. The Kitakyushu and Tongyeong initiatives are much broader and could be characterised as several project activities, each with its own specific objectives. The advantage of these initiatives is that solutions can be developed within larger thematic contexts. Expected outputs/outcomes of all three cities’ learning initiatives include increased awareness of sustainability, increased skills, increased networking, and greater levels of cooperation.

Governance and management of the learning initiatives

Developing a structure for collaborative governance

Developing a structure (Figure 1) that can enable the process of collaborative governance to support quality learning (at city level) involves:
Fig. 1

Developing a governance structure and creating a space for collaboration Source: Authors

  1. (1)

    Common or mutual identification of a need/problem and of the relevant target group(s). The need can be specific, such as youth unemployment, which was identified in one of Bristol’s projects, or complex/holistic, such as urban sustainability in Kitakyushu. It can also be identified within the social structure or during a public discourse.

  2. (2)

    Determining the features/characteristics of the need is important, because it helps identify the required capacity (input, process) and the kind of actors and stakeholders required to address the need. For example, likely features of youth unemployment are poverty, domestic problems, low educational level, inequality, etc. Other considerations include: (a) whether the need is a priority on the city’s agenda; (b) whether addressing the need will have a multiplier effect on achieving the overarching objective of the initiative and/or the city; and (c) whether the need has historical precedence.

  3. (3)

    Creating a space and setting out to address the need, for example by facilitating a learning initiative for the city’s relevant actors and stakeholders. These include political leadership and bureaucrats, the business community, academia and civil society organisations, and the target group(s). The intention is to assemble these stakeholders premised on trust and commitment to inclusion and bounded by legitimacy (O’Brien 2010). It is in this space that the structure/framework of the collaboration will be set and the need which has no ready-made solution(s) will be directly addressed by all participants with a shared goal. Determining the possible approaches, setting up levels/stages of addressing the need, and determining the level of input/contributions of each actor/stakeholder at different stages will be important to arrive at a common solution. It is necessary that certain fundamental rules are set for all to abide by. The capacities that various actors/stakeholders bring to the table include knowledge and expertise, political leadership and legislative mandate, experience, funding, and a readiness to learn. Various city-level collaborative governance components such as integration and coordination of local institutions, policies and strategies, citizen participation and multi-stakeholder partnerships, decision-making processes and power relations, accountability mechanisms and the city’s systemic capacity for implementation (of, for example, the Learning City concept) will all be expressed and discussed in that space (Wheeler 2014; UNESCO GNLC 2015a).

Collaborative governance can help facilitate and shape the learning process during the implementation of the initiatives. In fact, engaging in collaborative governance is, in itself, part of the learning process. Thus, achieving quality learning through collaborative governance would require a vision and a sense of responsibility to that vision with a common sense of purpose from all stakeholders/actors, as well as shared motivation and eagerness to participate in the creation and maintenance of the harmonious environment needed to facilitate the learning process. Initiating a learning process that involves dimensions of perception and processing as well as learning styles2 (Ofei-Manu and Didham 2012) requires basic protocols and ground rules, and a capable leadership to guide a transformative learning experience.

Three components of collaborative governance are discussed in the next section: multi-stakeholder participation, decision-making, and coordination. These were selected because they are part of the means of implementation for SDG 4 (Didham and Ofei-Manu 2015, pp. 106–112); and they were identified as fundamental conditions for building a learning city (UNESCO 2014, p. 36). Moreover, they are described in the Key Features of Learning Cities under “major building blocks of a learning city” (i.e., “enhancing quality in learning”) and “fundamental conditions of building a learning city” (i.e., “strengthening political will and commitment” and “improving governance and participation of all stakeholders”) (UNESCO GNLC 2015a, pp. 16–17). These components also link well with the learning initiatives of the three cities we examined in this study.

Citizen participation and multi-stakeholder engagement

We found significant levels of participation in the learning initiatives across age groups, vocations and levels of expertise in all three cities. This suggests that the ultimate aim of becoming a learning city can be achieved by bringing together citizens of all ages to create a conducive learning environment and develop capacities to build a productive, resilient, inclusive and sustainable city. The long-term objective is that all citizens will become lifelong learners able to enhance their adaptive capacity to cope with risk and maintain a sustainable society. Regarding the existence of collective identity and active citizen participation in designing the initiatives, Kitakyushu employed a direct citizen participation approach in designing the city’s ESD Action Plans by assembling inputs in a consultative manner through meetings, focus group discussions and public hearings before finalising the plan. Tongyeong also adopted a bottom-up approach, with members of three committees (see Table 2) charged with planning and organising programmes, while the steering committee coordinated the plans and strategies. In Bristol, although participation towards designing the initiative is in its early stages, it is being promoted by the Youth Mayors and Junior Chamber3 whose members are involved in the governance structure and by Learning Ambassadors4 who champion learning in their communities (see Table 2).
Table 2

Evidence of citizen participation in designing educational initiatives




Bristol is involving citizens to demonstrate that learning is for everyone and encouraging more people to get involved. For example, the Youth Mayors and Junior Chamber are involved in the governance structure and over 130 “Learning Ambassadors” champion learning in their communities. Also, assessment is carried out by evaluators. There is a desire by the Learning City Board to take ownership and drive change through learning

There is a strong citizen participation in designing the city’s ESD Action Plans. There were a series of consultation meetings to get the views of citizens with different expertise. The ESD Council organised six focus group discussions and café meetings with different groups to gather their input to the plan. A draft plan was issued in a public hearing before its finalisation

Citizens’ groups participate as members of (1) the Citizens’ Education Committee, (2) the School Education Committee, and (3) the Research and Development Committee. The Steering Committee coordinates the overall plans and strategies

Engaging the cities’ stakeholders, particularly the universities and local businesses, in moving and sustaining the learning process and content from theory in the classroom to useful applications in the real world is critical, because they provide a supportive learning environment (McCormick and Kiss 2015). It is therefore significant that in all three cities, leading academics serve as members of the governance committees to guarantee active participation of the local universities in implementing the initiatives’ activities as well as the involvement of the private sector. Working with the local universities – one in Tongyeong, two in Bristol and ten in Kitakyushu – ensures in principle that the education offered to students is consistent with the needs of the local labour market. The university–workplace partnership in the form of “living laboratories”5 or supportive learning environments can hence be strengthened to create appropriate skills and knowledge for available jobs and for building the overall learning capacity of citizens. For example, in Bristol, a review of education outcomes was carried out by the Learning in Education sub-group of the Learning City Board across the city, including detailed reports on minority achievement. After this, the city requested the support of local schools and universities to integrate the City’s priorities in their work, by for example involving the Race Equality in Education Steering Group, which represents schools and communities in their activities. The Kitakyushu Manabito ESD Station programme brings together the local universities to promote ESD in the formal education system and to strengthen collaboration between schools and the communities in the city and surrounding region. This programme is also supported by local business and government, as it aims to harness the potential of local resources including human capital through practical research and capacity building. In Tongyeong, the Regional Centre of Expertise (RCE) on ESD itself was initiated by experts from Yonsei University in Seoul, Gyeongsang National University in Tongyeong and Tongyeong City who introduced the concept of sustainable development and emphasised the need for adoption of ESD initiatives by the city government.

Decision-making processes and deliberative engagement

Assessment of the decision-making processes within the learning initiatives is key to determining the dynamics of power relations, where citizens can actively provide inputs. Aspects to address include (a) who sets the agenda of the initiatives, (b) how the objectives of the initiatives are defined, and (c) whether there are avenues to channel decisions/inputs from the bottom. Vertical, bi-directional decision-making processes were observed in all three cities, largely under the control of boards (in Bristol) or steering committees (in Kitakyushu and Tongyeong) with varying strengths. In Bristol, citizens actively helped to shape the outcomes of decision-making through their groups’ representatives linked to the board. The city of Kitakyushu delegated oversight responsibilities to Kitakyushu ESD Council Steering Committee, comprising representatives of different organisations that engaged in planning, implementation and monitoring of project activities based on the city’s ESD Action Plan (Table 3). In Tongyeong, decisions are made by the Steering Committee and the Board of Tongyeong Education Foundation for Sustainable Development, in which the three committees and other stakeholders, including the city government, are represented. The decision-making process also occurred horizontally across the initiatives’ various activities.
Table 3

Decision-making processes related to plans and strategies of the learning initiatives




Bristol Learning City provides a governance structure. It includes:

(1) a Partnership Board, chaired by the City Mayor, to oversee the vision, delivery of partnership activity and strategic planning; and (2) Learning Challenge Groups – local partners tackling identified priorities through three themed groups. Citizens actively contribute and shape outcomes through the Challenge Groups and Evaluation Framework

Oversight of the activities is the responsibility of the Kitakyushu ESD Council Steering Committee which comprises representatives of different organisations, including the City of Kitakyushu and engages in planning, implementation and monitoring of the project activities

The activities are designed based on the Kitakyushu ESD Action Plan

All projects and programmes under Tongyeong RCE are coordinated by RCE organisation (Board-Steering Committee and Citizens’ Education Committee, School Education Committee, Research and Development Committee and the Secretariat), with collaborative efforts from the city government

The mayors of the three cities made positive contributions to the learning initiatives by actively promoting and participating in the cities’ sustainability issues and activities. For example, the mayor of Bristol was directly linked to the learning initiative by chairing its decision-making body. The active involvement of these mayors in sustainability issues is a positive development, considering that many cities are currently involved in international initiatives on sustainability issues like climate change and air pollution. However, to establish the authenticity of their commitment and to ensure it is not motivated by greenwashing 6 or political motives, further evaluation of their participation may be needed. Also, there is no guaranteed continuity of the cities’ sustainability pathways/choices should a new mayor with a different worldview be elected.

Overall, we found that clear channels and mechanisms through which decision-related inputs can be sent from the bottom need to be strengthened in all three cities since it was failures in past downstream implementation and neglect of upstream inputs that led to the emergence of collaborative governance in the first place (Ansell and Gash 2008).

Coordination mechanisms to manage the results of the learning initiatives and inform policy

It is very important to ensure that the results of the learning initiatives inform future policy. Thus, all three cities developed coordination mechanisms to manage the project activities across the initiatives by gathering the initiatives under a larger plan or strategy and creating opportunities for participants to interact.

Bristol made a good attempt at coordination by linking employment entities to educators with a governance board of city leaders overseeing strategies and projects developed and delivered by Challenge Groups.7 The Kitakyushu ESD Council creates opportunities for the involvement of individuals and organisations from various fields and with a wide range of expertise in the coordination of the learning initiative within RCE Kitakyushu. These include citizens’ groups, private enterprises, academic and research organisations, and government institutions. This holistic approach may partly be attributed to Kitakyushu’s long tradition of city-level environmental sustainability initiatives. Tongyeong also coordinates initiatives involving a wide range of stakeholders, who lead various education projects that embed the concept of ESD in grassroots-level activities in all areas of learning (Table 4). Horizontal coordination within and between the initiatives occurred in the form of networking and the sharing of information and other resources with sister entities. For example, due to the networking of the RCEs, Kitakyushu and Tongyeong have already established a link which facilitates coordinated action and shared opportunities for learning. The Bristol learning initiative has been connecting with Learning Cities through PASCAL (Place and Social Capital and Learning) International Observatory,8 and established local connection with cities in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
Table 4

Coordination mechanisms to manage across the initiatives




The Bristol Learning City Partnership includes a governance board of city leaders, which oversees strategies and projects developed and delivered by the three Challenge Groups. These groups enable partners with the necessary experience and expertise to work together, taking action to address strategic challenges and priorities. The Learning for Work Challenge Group brings partners from all sectors together to address skills shortages in the city

The Kitakyushu ESD Council is responsible for the overall coordination of RCE Kitakyushu. This comprises individuals and organisations from various fields, such as citizens’ groups, private enterprises, academic and research organisations, and government institutions. Members select a president, three vice-presidents, two managing secretaries to the council and an advisory board. Activities are carried out based on the Kitakyushu ESD Action Plan

Tongyeong Education Foundation for Sustainable Development is responsible for the overall coordination of RCE Tongyeong. Various stakeholder groups including citizens’ groups, schools, government institutions and private sectors are represented in four committees and a Board of Directors. Fifteen staff members at the secretariat coordinate the activities

All three cities developed evaluation tools which can be used to improve the outcomes of the learning initiatives.
  • Bristol: The Learning City Partnership Board developed an evaluation framework to measure the impact of Learning City activities on individual citizens, organisations and the city as a whole.

  • Kitakyushu: The previous environmental initiatives undertaken by citizens have influenced successive environmental policies of the city by serving as points of reference for the formulation of the Kitakyushu Environmental Basic Plan which promotes comprehensive and systematic implementation of municipal environmental protection measures.

  • Tongyeong: A biannual monitoring survey of ESD activities using key ESD indicators is being carried out in Tongyeong since 2009; as well as an annual evaluation by city council, steering and board meetings; and an annual evaluation process by Tongyeong city is also in place, with reports resulting from all of these being published online each year as Annual Report of Learning and Sharing for Sustainable Future.

In addition to the support provided by the cities’ designated departments/entities in charge of the learning initiatives, leadership from the mayors (and also academics and businessmen), the cities’ governance board/steering committees serve as institutional structures and governance mechanisms to support these learning initiatives. Hence, collaborative governance processes that actively engaged the cities’ leadership, citizens and other multi-stakeholders in examining issues, active problem-solving, and development of innovative solutions can be seen to create cooperative and experiential learning cycles. This type of collaborative learning-governance partnership may be better understood as a community of practice 9 (Lave and Wenger 1991). Etienne Wenger (1998, pp. 273–279) proposes that the architecture for a successful community of practice comprises three forms of “belonging”: engagement, imagination and alignment. David Hung and Der-Thanq Chen (2001, p. 7) propose four additional elements – situatedness, commonality, interdependences, and infrastructure – as key features of an effective learning community.

A learning city provides individual and collective sustainability benefits (Kearns 2015). For example, to fully benefit from its multicultural heritage, Bristol decided to confront the downside of its multiculturalism (markedly different levels of education and skills) by increasing economic education and addressing the skills gap in the city by using its learning initiative to target especially vulnerable groups, while Tongyeong, whose learning initiative is more rooted in ESD-based lifelong learning, addresses sustainability issues using different learning approaches in the Sejahtera Forest/Sejahtera Regional Centre of Expertise in Asia Pacific. Although Kitakyushu City has not yet been officially recognised as a learning city, it will not face much difficulty becoming one due to its long history and broad-based approach to addressing several domains of sustainability, including education/learning. It is also noteworthy that we found some of the strategic features of sustainable learning cities as stated in the Mexico City Statement on Sustainable Learning Cities (UNESCO GNLC 2015b) to be present in the three cities studied, making them useful references for similar initiatives in other cities.


The role of the city as a locus for achieving sustainability is particularly pertinent in the context of recent gridlock in international sustainability processes and political ideology, especially in some developed countries, which are at times at odds with environmental sustainability. Learning for sustainability in cities premised on multi-stakeholder cooperative relationships can be harnessed as a critical driver of change. Achieving the SDGs in the coming years will depend on work done on the ground, particularly in cities, where more than half of humanity currently resides, with the trend likely to continue. Addressing the multiple and multi-faceted challenges faced by cities (in social, environmental and economic domains) thus requires the assembling, partnering and collaboration of public and private sectors as well as civil society to provide quality education and lifelong learning opportunities, and as a result help formulate innovative solutions to sustainability challenges.

In this study, we examined both the conceptual framework and practical application of the learning initiatives of three cities in the context of the idea of a Learning City. Conceptually, a structure for collaborative governance was developed whose aspects in principle are similar to two of the six key areas of action of the Guidelines for Building Learning Cities (UNESCO GNLC 2015c), namely (1) to “create a coordinated structure involving all stakeholders”, and (2) to “make sure that learning is accessible to all citizens” and therefore can be considered as a useful reference (ibid., p. 1). We used three city cases to examine the dynamics of collaborative governance within multi-stakeholder cooperative learning initiatives and the governance/management mechanisms or “institutional” structures underpinning them. Notwithstanding differences in scope and depth of the learning initiatives, we found a general support of the governance structures and mechanisms for quality learning in these cities. In some instances, examples were provided regarding what contributions were made by some major stakeholders, such as the mayors, top academics, businesses representatives, relevant local decision-making committes, and citizen groups.

From these cases, we see that collaborative governance – emerging from a collaborative structure created to enable partners to join forces – can support a cooperative learning process at local levels. We found the following factors to be important in developing effective learning processes:
  1. (1)

    Citizen participation and multi-stakeholder engagement can lead to collective ownership of solutions to problems or outputs/outcomes of engagements.

  2. (2)

    Decision-making processes that provide opportunities for all voices to be heard and for all contrary opinions to be explored help to ensure holistic outcomes and the realisation of collective benefits.

  3. (3)

    Coordination mechanisms can help to facilitate the identification and strengthening of synergies and weakening of barriers to cooperation.

However, there is still room to strengthen and improve the learning initiatives discussed in this study. Since all three initiatives involved programmes were comprised of several project activities, future studies should consider investigating specific activities by looking into the details of implementation, monitoring and evaluation, outcome and impacts. Also, the learning city actualising the concept of “living laboratories”, currently in its nascent stage, needs further study.

There has been a growing demand to develop a practical framework for implementing the Learning Cities concept. The UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning (UIL) has responded with the establishment of UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) and the development of a comprehensive framework in the Key Features of Learning Cities (UNESCO GNLC 2015a, pp. 9–18). If effectively utilised, this framework can aid a city in becoming more resilient and sustainable and able to harness the resources and talents of its inhabitants to address the sustainability challenges of our time. However, while we found that some of the Framework’s components in relation to governance and stakeholder participation linked well with the learning initiatives we examined in this study, it should be acknowledged that many cities aspiring to become a Sustainable Learning City already have learning institutions and structures, content and processes in place that need to be better integrated with the effort to implement the Learning Cities concept.

With reference to the Learning Cities concept at the international level, we observed that significant aspects of environmentalist culture in Kitakyushu and Tongyeong are closely linked to the RCE on ESD concept which was launched by the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability.10 The Mexico City Statement on Sustainable Learning Cities (UNESCO GNLC 2015b) calls for synchronisation of United Nations (UN) initiatives; it is therefore important to ensure that coordination and collaboration on the subject happen not only at the city level but also in the UN system with regard to programme efficiency and effectiveness. Furthermore, the approach of the Learning Cities concept through the GNLC is holistic, with a systemic perspective to use education/learning to support implementation of sustainability and hence the SDGs. Consequently, a platform should be created where other international programmes on cities, including 100 Resilient Cities and the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI),11 can converge for collaboration/dialogue allowing the GNLC to share its experience with these programmes.


  1. 1.

    SDG 11 aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. SDG 4 aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” (UN 2015).

  2. 2.

    The two dimensions of learning presented by David Kolb are (1) perception, signifying the way information is grasped from experience, ranging from concrete experience to abstract conceptualisation; and (2) processing, which is the way in which the information is processed, ranging from active experimentation to reflective observation. The four learning styles are: divergence, assimilation, convergence and accommodation (Ofei-Manu and Didham 2012).

  3. 3.

    Bristol’s Youth Mayors are young people elected by their peers to represent them and the city. They have regular meetings with the elected city Mayor. The Bristol Junior Chamber is part of a global not-for-profit organisation for 18-40-year-olds run by its members to provide development opportunities that empower young people to create positive change. Both the Youth Mayors and a representative of the Junior Chamber are members of the Learning City Board.

  4. 4.

    Bristol’s Learning Ambassadors are are local volunteers from the business sector and the community who are passionate about learning and want to both support the development of the Learning City and share the City’s message that learning can change lives.

  5. 5.

    According to the definition of the European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL), a living laboratory is a “user-centred, open innovation ecosyste[m] based on [a] systematic user co-creation approach, integrating research and innovation processes in real life communities and settings” ( [accessed 14 September 2017]).

  6. 6.

    Derived from whitewashing (concealing negative information to make something or someone look trustworthy), the term greenwashing refers to feigning an environmentally responsible public image.

  7. 7.

    Challenge Groups are composed of local partners tackling identified priorities through three themed groups, namely Learning for work, Learning in Education and Learning in the Community. For more information, see [accessed 25 August 2017].

  8. 8.

    For more information on the PASCAL Observatory, see [accessed 14 September 2017].

  9. 9.

    “In a nutshell: Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner 2015).

  10. 10.

    According to its own website, the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS) “is a leading research and teaching institute based in Tokyo, Japan. Its mission is to advance efforts towards a more sustainable future, through policy-oriented research and capacity development focused on sustainability and its social, economic and environmental dimensions. UNU-IAS serves the international community through innovative contributions to high-level policymaking and debates, addressing priority issues for the UN system” ( [accessed 25 August 2017]).

  11. 11.

    According to its own website, 100 Resilient Cities (100RC), “pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century” ( The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) maintains a network of “Local Governments for Sustainability”. For more information, see [both websites accessed 25 August 2017].


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. and UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paul Ofei-Manu
    • 1
  • Robert J. Didham
    • 2
  • Won Jung Byun
    • 3
  • Rebecca Phillips
    • 5
  • Premakumara Jagath Dickella Gamaralalage
    • 1
  • Sian Rees
    • 4
  1. 1.Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES)HayamaJapan
  2. 2.Center for Collaborative Learning for Sustainable Development, Faculty of Education and Natural Sciences (Campus Hamar)Inland Norway University of Applied SciencesHamarNorway
  3. 3.Sejahtera Forest RCE TongyeongTongyeongSouth Korea
  4. 4.Bristol Learning City, City HallBristol City CouncilBristolUK
  5. 5.Fluent StudiosLondonUK

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