Why Learning from Context

City Mine(d) has been active in London for about 15 years. The neighbourhoods we work in are among the more deprived in the country, and as a consequence constantly subject to ambitious development plans. Take for instance the redevelopment of Kings Cross (where a Eurostar terminal was to regenerate the area) or the East End (where the Olympics were the engine for transformation). These plans are seldomly known for their inclusive and bottom-up character. Affected residents and citizen, therefore, need to acquire the skills and language of planning in order to resist what does not suit them.

It became apparent to us that many of those citizens active in resisting top-down development actually acquire quite advanced skills. Take Martin, a resident from the East End whose house was affected by the London Olympics. Early on he tried to understand what expropriation means and what entitled a government to take over someone’s house. This led him to familiarise himself with the local and then the Greater London planning context. In the end he acquired a rare expertise in urban development and planning. When several years later the Greater London Authority published a new development plan, called the London Plan, in no time he identified the positive from the negative, the opportunities from the threats in the new Plan.

What struck was us that by being active in a specific context, Martin acquired skills and competences that were useful beyond that context. Often certification of those skills was lacking, but it was a deeper and more applied form of knowledge than educational institutions would be able to offer him. And he was not an exception. Many of the urban and community activists we have come across have a rather advanced level of skills in a certain field, just because they needed and have been applying those to advance their initiative.

Together with Transit from Barcelona and Tesserae from Berlin we ran a trajectory on this subject in each of our cities. From that, Tesserae drew some conclusions on Learning from Context. They wrote:

“The traditional mainstream approach to employment often refers to education as conforming to market demands through specialisation. In contrast, existing social innovation literature* considers the potential of voluntary, self-organised, citizen-based initiatives in different areas, for instance in public services and provision of social welfare**. Here, the attainment of skills and competences is often based on paradigms of sharing knowledge, learning by doing, solidarity and commons. It is not unlikely, that the contexts in which such approaches flourish happens at the micro level within local communities and neighbourhoods.

Meanwhile, we have come to understand that Learning from Context also happens outside urban planning but expands to other fields of human activity. Our current focus lies with cultural heritage, not only as tangible forms such as artefacts, buildings or landscapes but also through intangible forms perceived through cuisine, clothing, forms of shelter, traditional skills and technologies, religious ceremonies, performing arts, storytelling.

We are convinced that skills are being developed within this field that are insufficiently picked up. Community activities generate a potential that can become meaningful in empowerment, emancipation an even employment. With OpenCCCP, we aim to develop a procedure (a curriculum) that can accompany community groups in unlocking the hidden skills and competences, and make them useful in other contexts. Identifying milestones or progress indicators along the way of their initiative enable all involved to recognise, focus and improve the learning that is taking place.

Learning from Context = developing skills and competences by being active in the community which can later be re-use in other fields of activity from formal employment to community activism.

* (Mulgan, Tucker, Ali, & Sanders 2007; Franz, Hochgerner & Howaldt 2012; Moulaert 2013; Durkin, 2016)

** (Oosterlynck, Kazepov, Novy, Cools, Barberis, Wukovitsch, & Leubolt, 2013)