Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Oct 22, 2018
Towards an urban learning collective

India’s urbanisation narrative coincides with the rapidly approaching fourth industrial revolution and the increasingly ubiquitous information age. It is, therefore, necessary that citizens are made proficient enough to navigate this information labyrinth while retaining their identity. Thus, education and learning must be envisioned differently in current and future urban spaces. While technology and data will drive learning in hitherto unseen ways, its manifestation within the physical environment of cities will have to be different and dynamic. This can include (but not be limited to) differential thinking of classrooms, laboratories, libraries, public transport, recreation centres, museums and even workplaces.

Since learning environments have ceased to be static, it is necessary to utilise the full potential of its widened scope and even conventional education spaces such as ‘libraries’ merit introspection and innovation. In addition to being the traditional reading spaces, libraries in urban hubs must be conceptualised as ‘meeting’ as well as ‘interactive’ spaces. This involves using existing infrastructure to its fullest as well as leveraging its potential in innovative ways.  In the seminal paper on ‘Public Libraries in the Knowledge Society’, the authors have analysed libraries in 31 ‘Informational World cities’ (no Indian city features in the list) and found that 77 percent have meeting spaces. In addition, around 97 percent have special learning spaces for children. Interestingly, in order to facilitate user mobility more than 70 percent of the libraries offered users the option of returning ‘borrowed media’ anywhere across the city. Thus mobility is hardly an issue for citizens with regards to accessing information.

Cities around the world have undertaken several such initiatives in order to ensure that rapid urbanisation is in tandem with civilisational advancement.


Most of these initiatives are fiscally prudent, make maximum use of existing infrastructure and add to the larger narrative of city-building.  For example, in 2013, Boston piloted the ‘Boston One Card’ project to provide public school students access to school resources, libraries across the city as well as community learning centres using just one card. The idea was to seamlessly connect students with learning spaces across the city. As a result, creating learning centres in different parts of the city became a policy prerogative that could be linked directly to improving the learning outcomes of public schools. Similarly, Villa Maria (population of 77,000) in Argentina gives each newborn and his/her family a municipal library card in order to encourage learning from a young age and promote family learning in community spaces. In addition, mobile libraries reach different parts of the city.

Despite being one of the world leaders in software development, India has yet to harness this prowess fully in the public information sector. While the world takes strides in library science technology, most of India’s steps have been confined to centrally-funded educational institutions. For example, NIIT Mangalore, Karnataka, recently started its e-library section consisting of digital reading and discussion rooms with access to 20 databases and 11,000 journals to students throughout the day from any internet-friendly location. In addition, it also started training sessions to teach students how to find relevant information within the digital library structure. In contrast, the Chaitanya library in Kolkata, started in 1889 by several illustrious names including Rabindranath Tagore, languishes primarily as nostalgia. It is home to several historical periodicals, many of which are now victims to termites and seeping rainwater. Needless to say, the paucity of funds makes modernisation a distant dream. Unfortunately, Chaitanya is a more apt representation of India's library scenario than NIIT Mangalore.

Firstly, there is no consolidated and reliable database of public libraries in India. Various sources peg the number to around 70,000 scattered in a haphazard manner across the country. While Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, is home to less than 100 of them, the southern states have libraries ranging in the thousands.

Secondly, despite being a state subject, several states are yet to have a library legislation. This prevents creation of a mandate to have uniform mechanisms and policies across a jurisdiction. As a consequence, the Raja Rammohun Roy Library Foundation, a Government of India body, is flush with funds but hardly enough proposals from State Governments. s

Lastly, the digital dream also seems to have a number of off-shoots but none operating at maximum efficacy. At the national level, funds have been used for a couple of library portals namely the National Digital Library (INR 39 crores) in collaboration with IIT-Kharagpur and National Virtual Library (INR 72 crores) in collaboration with IIT-Bombay. While the Virtual Library is still in the prototype phase for selected users, the Digital Library has a working pilot version that's difficult to navigate, the actual portal ( that claims to have 35 lakh registered users remained nonfunctional at the time of writing.

Libraries form part of the larger issue of focusing on the cultural ethos of urbanisation. Most urbanised countries have started looking beyond the dominant discourse of physical narratives to ones that have civilisational impact. In its bid to becoming a learning city in letter and spirit, Hangzhou (population of almost one crore), capital of eastern China’s Zhejiang province, has conceptualised a ‘15-minute cultural circle concept’ which postulates that there must be a museum, theatre or library within a 15-minute walking distance of every citizen’s home. In addition, 111 historic buildings, museums and galleries have been termed as ‘activity sites’ to conduct events for school students. As a result of several such initiatives, the city has been awarded the title of ‘Happiest city in China’ multiple times.

Gelsenkirchen in Germany is another interesting case in point. After the closure of coal mines, the industrial city faced a declining population and a high unemployment rate as compared to the national average. As a result, the city collectively decided (120 organisations) to focus on transforming into a ‘Learning City’ in order to prepare themselves for the future. Also, to balance its historical focus on mining, the city integrated environment issues and sustainable development as part of its learning spaces. For example, ‘Biomassenpark Hugo’, which was earlier a coal mine is now a sustainable park that doubles up as an educational space (in collaboration with 20 educational institutions) with several learning initiatives including history of plants, measuring pH values and other chemical indicators, creating a herbarium etc.

In the Indian context, it is still a policy norm to look at learning more as in isolated function of the government and not in tandem with other urban narratives. Unstructured and informal learning as a concept is still at a nascent stage.


While there are several civil society initiatives like ‘City as Lab’ that attempts to imbibe a research bent of mind among school students using local city issues like lack of water, congested roads etc., the country still has not started focusing on the manifold advantages of planning for learning environments outside the conventional ones in a significant manner.

Ultimately, a city is only as smart as its citizens. Today, using innovative ideas within the city plan, planning for the future economic transitions while ensuring a robust social structure is the ideal. Most of the examples mentioned above have been collaborative efforts involving the government, private sector, civil society organisations and citizens. Each has been tailored to suit the geography and demography of the city. However, every initiative is a step taken to build a learning collective that uses innovative spatial planning and technology to cut across age, economic as well as social status and occupation. While replication may not always be feasible, a sustained dialogue in every current and future city towards these goals is imperative.

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Priyatam Yasaswi

Priyatam Yasaswi

Priyatam Yasaswi Research Analyst The Council on Energy Environment and Water

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