Revitalization

Becoming a Learning City

By Mahesh P. Butani
Published January 28, 2010

The reason we have become a non-learning city is because we have been using social causes to develop job-creation industries, rather than going the extra mile and unleashing social capital that discovers new rationales for industries and develops new markets that create new jobs.

The reasons we cannot go the extra mile is because we have become a non-learning city.

We use the resulting halo-effect from the illusion of our job-creation industries to bask in its glory and refine strategies to fine-tune already well-rounded careers in protected industries accessibly only to the initiated.

Well-mannered consensus building and calls to collaborate by asking 'what you can do for your city' have always been effective tools since antiquity for perpetuating self-empowerment illusions that deflect our inability to re-invent our city into a Learning City.

Making affordable housing, poverty reduction, immigration, process streamlining or the mother of all illusions - jobs prosperity itself - are nothing but sophisticated ways of developing more job-creation industries.

Our social registry has not changed in a hundred years. The illusions only serve to develop a demand for its waiting list.

Crafting platforms for elections from any of these illusions is a sure way to political failure in the coming 2010 Hamilton elections. The ground rules have changed since the last election.

The glue that binds collaborative forces has turned dry and brittle. We have not created new industries that are capable of creating the new glue needed to bind all our illusions for the next four years.

Attempting to build social conscience is pretty much the only way left out for a society that has painted itself into a corner.

Has anybody been able to build social conscience ever in the political history of our world?

Platform making in 2010 is no longer about the science or art of demand forecasting. It has become about alchemy. For it is no longer about illusions; it is about the fight for the very soul of a city whose potential has been smothered for far too long.

What will the political platforms look like in the coming election? Some will offer illusions; some will offer better processes for social-conscience to emerge.

The ones that will stand a chance will be those that don't offer tired old discover processes in new Stubbies, but those that are able, from day one, to bring: the ability to create new industries; bring foreign-direct investments to jump start local markets across the city and suburbs; unleash the education and real-estate genie in the core; and inspire the bureaucracy to reinvent itself.

This will offer ample room for the uninitiated and the networked generation to create their own social registries, from which will spring open networks that will put our city onto the path of becoming a true Learning City.

Mahesh P. Butani is a non-architect, and a developer by default. He is involved in re-developing properties in downtown Hamilton; and has an MA in Arts Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, NYC (1986), and bachelors in Architecture from Bombay, India (1982). Currently he is not an architect in Ontario on account of not having enough Canadian Experience; and does not qualify to teach as he carries too much baggage to fit into the Canadian education system. He refuses to be re-trained to fit in, on a matter of principle, and is a passionate disbeliever of icons and self-regulation of professions in Canada - but still maintains his belief in collective self-organizing behavior; and feels that the large swath of intellectual brownfields across Ontario are far more harmful to the economy than the brownfields left over from deindustrialization - and in response has set up a social network called Metropolitan Hamilton. http://metrohamilton.ning.com/

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted January 29, 2010 at 06:06:37

If I have any identifiable trait when it comes to the things I'm passionate about, it's a desire to focus on a much bigger picture. The 'incident' is important, yes. But what led to it, the circumstances from which it resulted...the social arena within which it occurred...these are what my energies are almost always addressing.

"Has anybody been able to build social conscience ever in the political history of our world?"

Most times, what we're really talking about regarding change, is our value systems. Not the specifics of an incident, the transgressions involving suspect ethics and mores. (For example, The Century débacle.) Behaviour, by-and-large, is the expression of a person's, a family's, a neighbourhood's, a community's, a city's, etc value systems. (Of course, there are always going to be aberrations. Always going to be those who are behavioural blips.) The 'details' are important, yes. But, using a sport analogy, you need to have a cohesive game-plan in order to compete successfully against your opponents. Within the context of our society, this 'game-plan' is our value system.

I've long believed that change really only happens when there's either a crisis, or something 'sexier' is offered. (By 'sexier', I don't necessarily mean 'better'.) In both instances, how a society reacts is predicated on its value system. No surprise here; people react according to their character, of their personal value system. (Going back to The Century, the current owner showed his true character when he responded to the roof issues -the ones that led to the deterioration of the building that led to its demolition- in the way he did; with benign neglect.)

So I agree entirely with what Mahesh is saying here. And...

'Wisdom's not in the knowing...it's in the doing.'

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 29, 2010 at 10:51:43

Mahesh, do you honestly believe we will hear anything like those platforms in the next election? If Ferguson runs, all we are going to hear is moldy boilerplate about running the city like a business and treating citizens like customers. My biggest fear is that people's disappointment in Eisenberger's lack lustre leadership style will cause them to fall for that tired old crap. Sometimes I fear we are not so much a non-learning city as an un-learning city - moving backwards through time.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted January 29, 2010 at 10:53:50

Sometimes I fear we are not so much a non-learning city as an un-learning city

I'd go so far as to call us an anti-learning city.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted January 29, 2010 at 12:49:53

This has to be one of the worst posts ever on this site. You just keep spewing a bunch of BS without even saying anything.

"We use the resulting halo-effect from the illusion of our job-creation industries to bask in its glory and refine strategies to fine-tune already well-rounded careers in protected industries accessibly only to the initiated."

"The glue that binds collaborative forces has turned dry and brittle. We have not created new industries that are capable of creating the new glue needed to bind all our illusions for the next four years."

"This will offer ample room for the uninitiated and the networked generation to create their own social registries, from which will spring open networks that will put our city onto the path of becoming a true Learning City."

What the hell does all this crap mean? What is a social registry?

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted January 29, 2010 at 13:46:35

What the hell does all this crap mean? What is a social registry?

You don't understand it so you insult it.

Reminds me of grade school.

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By M.P.B. (anonymous) | Posted January 29, 2010 at 18:47:53

Well Highwater - I can only hope that Clr.Ferguson is curious enough to engage with the community outside his circle in the coming days - if only to see for himself how much of a disconnect there is between his perception of Hamilton and its reality.

If he does find that the world has indeed changed in the last four years - and he is up to some serious recalibration of his views, it might bode well for his run.

If he thinks a -corporate management approach- will lead to progress and growth in Hamilton - we all are in for a bumpy ride!! Given that our old media is itself a victim of this old-fashioned approach, and still continues to resist evolution - your fears are justified.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted January 29, 2010 at 18:50:58

Good article Mahesh: I understand what are trying to say. I think that there have made some points in history where social conscienceness has made marks. One could look at some of the gains that the labour movement won. Some things that people or workers take for granted today, while other workers have lost much. This is only one example.

Schmadrian hit on the point of our value system and it has been our value system that for the most part has eroded, so that there is much division among the masses.

Maybe the question to ask individuals to think about, is it all about me or should it be about the collective as a whole.

If people think about the whole, then you will gain the social conscience.

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By Yup (anonymous) | Posted January 29, 2010 at 19:49:48

But Dalton, you're doing the same thing. Much as I agree with Maheesh's assessment, in this essay it's ill defined wishful thinking. His link for Social Capital, for instance, states that it's an illdefined concept.

Can we say that Social Capital is leveraging social, familial, commercial and institutional connections to find resources for community building, rather than toward lobbying government for similar purposes? I like the concept. I'd rather see a lot of the energy that goes into complaining about local bureaucrats and developers in RTH go into directly undertaking alternatives. I admire the folks who have opened galleries and shops on James St. N. for instance, and think they've accomplished much more than downtown BIAs. So do the BIAs, I suspect, because they seem to want to crowd in on the action. And I think the folks on James N. get more attention from city hall by virtue of having opened their shops and organized the monthly stroll than they would have gotten if they'd simply gotten together once a month to e-mail petitions to city counsellors. Sky Dragon is another example, and probably Maheesh's building is too.

But specifically, what else do you have in mind? I'm not quite following the "Learning City" concept except as a criticism of Hamilton. Maybe I didn't read the link closely enough. I saw "linking with other Learning Cities" and a dedication to life-long learning. So Mac, Mohawk, the Bds of Ed open adult evening classes. What more? What subjects? Are you starting a class on property development and architecture? Enlighten me please.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 30, 2010 at 13:16:14

I can only hope that Clr.Ferguson is curious enough to engage with the community outside his circle in the coming days...

That's the first time I've ever seen the words 'Clr. Ferguson', 'curious', and 'engage' in the same sentence. Your optimism is touching.

If he does find that the world has indeed changed in the last four years - and he is up to some serious recalibration of his views, it might bode well for his run.

Ferguson isn't even aware that the world has changed in the last 30 years. If he runs, and there isn't another serious challenger to Eisenberger, we're screwed.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted January 30, 2010 at 14:10:09

  • Yup >>> "His link for Social Capital, for instance, states that it's an illdefined concept."

That link does offers much more for thought!! We just have to sharpen our local context. Your read of Social Capital in the context of shedding Hamilton's path-dependencies is a perfect starting point!

  • Yup >>> "But specifically, what else do you have in mind? I'm not quite following the "Learning City" concept except as a criticism of Hamilton. *Maybe I didn't read the link closely enough."

A closer read of the link will revel that many of the issues facing Hamilton stem from our inability to learn. Literally translated, it could imply rushing to join continuing ed classes, to catch up :-)

But a closer read of Learning Cities would revel much more.

For example in the context of Vancouver the Learning City campaign transcends limited pre-conceived notions of learning.

In the context of the Lower Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle, the Learning City translates into Urban Regeneration:

Where "the grassroots community- led regeneration of the formerly industrial wasteland of Ouseburn Valley has been cited as ‘best practice’ within the UK governments sustainable communities award programme. Since 1988 the regeneration has shifted from a ‘reactive’ to ‘proactive’ strategy, including episodes of partnership working with the city council, but remains wedded to the voluntary contributions and interests of the members of the grassroots Ouseburn Trust organisation. Key projects include conversion of former industrial sites for social housing and workspaces, together with an array of cultural projects."

Or, in the context of Tampere City-Region, Finland - where Learning City develops into Learning for competitiveness and inclusion.

And in the context of Dortmund, Germany - the 6th biggest city in Germany with a population of 600,000, where Learning has very much a spatial dimension - and their residents are proud to say: Dortmund has learnt to learn!

"The University of Dortmund, for a long time an isolated entity in the city, has become a key component in local learning networks together with local research institutes. Most learning networks incorporate individual actors from the university and its related local knowledge complex."

In the context of Hamilton Region it is critical now more than ever in our history to understand: The notion of the learning city & How do Cities Learn? - (...more case studies.)


Intelligent cities should be:

  • Open to external ideas with an ability to synthesise knowledge from outside and inside.
  • Willing to invest in experimentation and to learn from both success and failure
  • Have an ability to value and build up an inheritance of knowledge culture and institutions without being trapped by the past.
  • Open and inclusive to knowledge and ideas from all parts of the community
  • Respond effectively to crisis and with an ability to generate a sense of urgency and avoid complacency
  • Constantly reflective and building capacity to develop new ideas and initiatives
  • Having and encouraging key individuals both leaders and champions as well as moderators/communicators and boundary spanners.
  • Neutral places of dissent and discussion
  • Learning towards shared visions
  • Empowered to act wisely on the basis of knowledge with social and environmental responsibility.

From ~ Rustbelt to Creative City: Repositioning Newcastle as a City of Learning and Culture - Prof. David Charles, Cheryl Conway & Dr Stuart Dawley CURDS, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.


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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted January 31, 2010 at 14:08:47

Now how do we get our politicians to read (and comprehend) this stuff? ^

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted January 31, 2010 at 20:21:25

We don't, Meredith. We do more of what you have already started to do - which is helping voters read this stuff.

It is their actions in October that will get our politicians to comprehend this stuff.

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By Yup (anonymous) | Posted February 01, 2010 at 15:03:08

Thanks Maheesh. Since my last post I've read much of Metropolitan Hamilton including watching the TED videos, and will read more about Learning Cities. I would like to repeat, however, what I've said here and elsewhere. The frustration of dealing with public institutions, or any large institution for that matter, to effect the ideas I see raised on this list and elsewhere, is all too evident. The problem is two-fold.

Fold #1 is that successfully institutionalizing the solution to a problem inevitably leads to additional problems, or the awareness of additional problems that cannot be solved by the "more of the same" mentality that is inherent in institutionalization. I give as an example the institutionalization of the automobile in the North American lifestyles, economics and politics. By increasing mobility the automobile proved a huge stimulus to economic activity. But now we have problems of pollution, energy supply and, most critically, congestion as a result of the scale of that successful stimulus. Cheaper, non-polluting energy sources may eventually solve some of these issues, but as we're learning at present, the cost to widen the QEW from Hamilton to Toronto increases exponentially each time it is done, without reducing travel times. Use quickly fills capacity, surrounding properties become more expensive and construction itself becomes a cause of delay.

Fold #2 is the system of leadership cultivated in major institutions. Decision makers, whether in business or politics, do not choose their careers in order to be told what to do. They are leaders. Leaders do the telling, not the listening. Competing over who does the telling and who does the listening is what we call politics. Political action quickly becomes a diversion from the task at hand. I suspect this may be the fundamental frustration Maheesh discovered with the IV BIA. Elsewhere, it has taken longer, and probably more man-hours, to get the city to purchase and find a way to renovate the Lister Block than to do the renovation itself. But we did see a fairly long list of community and political leaders come and go during the process. I'm wondering if Bill Strickland, whose TED slide presentation I accessed through Mentropolitan Hamilton, had decided to lobby his municipal government to raise the community educational arts centre he built in Pittsburg, would it be built today. Fortunately he just went out on the street with a cardboard box to raise funds, later producing a slide show to illustrate and build on each stage of success.

I know whatever success has been achieved on James St. N. is not the result of political action. It was the result of a few artists opening galleries in the cheapest space possible, and uniting with openings once a month to stretch promotional resources. The politicians came later, after the initial success, and they haven't contributed all that much since. I think it is indicative that Raise The Hammer and Metropolitan Hamilton and other weblog sites are examples of more successful civic action than the city's own My Hamilton web site, which is much larger.

But there does seem to be some impediment to the expansion of direct constructive (as opposed to organized complaining about by-law enforcement, for instance) citizen civic action. Maheesh might suggest it is a lack of information or a current, non-institutionalized educational system. If so, what is the local impediment to that? Or is there none, and I'm just not seeing what's happening on this front locally?

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By dorsan (anonymous) | Posted February 03, 2010 at 17:42:05

Mahesh, I understand some of your points, however, I am curious as to what concrete, measurable, tangible and intangible outcomes you feel a learning city would accomplish in Hamilton. I feel that there is a lot of rhetoric out there about this topic.

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By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted February 05, 2010 at 03:15:05

  • dorsan >>> "I am curious as to what concrete, measurable, tangible and intangible outcomes you feel a learning city would accomplish in Hamilton."

Learning City is more a road map than a blueprint. A road map could assist you in locating a destination and offer many paths to get there - but offers no assurances of outcomes during the journey or upon arrival.

Cartography is really about discourse - about persuasion - about projections of spatial perceptions and misperceptions. A Learning City is also about discourse. Rhetoric just comes with the territory, as different cities adapt the notion of Learning to their own conditions.

Hamilton has had many road maps in its recent past, but has come to depend on measurable outcomes before undertaking journeys - and as a result has talked itself out of many undertakings which would have resulted in some very fascinating placemaking and job creation outcomes - as it once did in our distant past.

But now we are afraid of maps - as they bring with it associations of movement, journeys and the possibility of unmeasurable outcomes like change.

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