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Dialogue for decision-making: unpacking the ‘City Learning Lab’ approach

The FRACTAL ‘City Learning Lab’ approach is designed to facilitate problem-solving at the intersection of climate change and urbanization trends across cities in Southern Africa.
Multiple Authors
FCFA webinar “City Learning Labs for dialogue and decision making” from 14th October 2019


In the last 30 years, climate change coupled with unplanned, rapid urbanization generated significant development challenges worldwide. The impacts of climate change are already being felt globally through increased temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns, and an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme-weather events. The intersection of climate and urbanization is a point of stress and challenge as well opportunity and learning.

The design and use of Learning or City Labs is part of a growing international trend (e.g. African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, Mistra Urban Futures, London School of Economics, University of Pittsburgh). The idea of and term ‘Lab’ means slightly different things in each instance.

The ‘City Learning Lab’ approach described here is designed to facilitate multi-disciplinary problem-solving at the intersection of the climate change and urbanization trends across five cities in Southern Africa. It has been developed and is being used by the ‘Future Resilience for African Cities and Lands’ (FRACTAL) project, which aims to advance and integrate scientific knowledge into climate-sensitive decisions on the city and regional scale. The FRACTAL project is a collaboration between 24+ organizations/units.

This paper* is a literature review of key themes related to the origins of the City Learning Lab process. It includes an exploration of the global socio-political and environmental context of South Africa, the complexity and interconnected nature of city systems, knowledge creation for resilience building in complex city systems (including knowledge production and inclusive decision-making), and an in-depth review of how to maximize individual and collective learning. Finally, the paper concludes with a discussion of the ‘City Learning Lab Process’, which combines the themes above into a model for research and city planning that is currently being tested in the five cities.

Through the City Learning Lab approach we plan to create an enabling environment for trans-disciplinary discussion, research and learning on the most pressing needs, due to a changing climate, facing various cities in Southern Africa.

START have created a podcast focussing on the implementation and lessons learnt from the FRACTAL project. Access the podcast here – City Learning Labs are discussed in Episode 1. This article describes how the idea for City Learning Labs was developed, and how it was implemented. The Learning Lab approach was applied in Windhoek – watch a video about this experience here.

*Download available form the right-hand column. The ‘City Learning Lab’ approach is summarised below (please note that references have been removed) alongside some key lessons learnt for its implementation.

Exploring complexity in cities: the learning labs approach (abridged)

The concept of City Learning Labs is based on the principles of social learning labs: processes that engage a variety of stakeholders in finding solutions for a specific question or problem that they all perceive as relevant and urgent. This process embraces the complexity of cities, knowledge creation in cities, and the principles of social and adult learning.

The core idea of this process is that all participants are encouraged to share views, needs, insights, research, etc. on a specific problem or burning question. While sharing these insights, all participants are asked to listen and possibly revisit their own perspectives.

The core of a City Learning Lab is trying to solve a complex problem through innovative solutions, requiring stakeholders to explore it from various angles.

Steps in the City Learning Lab process

The City Learning Lab process is designed to allow a broad range of stakeholders to constructively engage with a complex burning issue. This process is a facilitated engagement where the participants shape action. In the FRACTAL process, the City Learning Labs will be an important platform for exploring solutions, drawing on both research and the expertise of participants. It can be divided into four phases:

1. Scoping: This initial step is aimed at understanding the complexities of the city, its ongoing processes and networks. It should also explore what burning questions would bring a diverse group of stakeholders to the table through ongoing engagement.

In collaboration with key stakeholders, embedded researchers, and academic and city partners, this internal process will review some of the pressing questions identified and choose one to pursue.

2. Planning and engagement: This is a crucial step and will determine the success of the City Learning Lab. In collaboration with local partners it is important to determine the appropriate structure and setting for the first gathering, and to consider…

  1. How can different stakeholders be encouraged to attend?
  2. What specific resources would be useful?
  3. What is an appropriate time frame and venue?
  4. Have all relevant stakeholders been invited?
  5. Can some baseline information be presented?
  6. Is the planned process appropriate and engaging?

3. ​The City Learning Lab: The participants at the first City Learning Lab session will set ground rules for engagement, including roles and responsibilities. It is the facilitator’s responsibility to ensure that the lab is a safe learning space for all participants.

In each session participants unpack the complexity of the burning questions and focus on a particular aspect. Finally, they decide on further exploration before the next lab – possibly including scientific research, climate information and expert input – and define clear actions.

The next sessions will review and interrogate the research, integrate findings in the ongoing discussion, and possibly define new areas for research. This cycle continues until the group feels a way forward has been identified. Actions are jointly planned, implemented and monitored. Learning might pass through many loops as needs for action to emerge.

4. Closure:The final City Learning Lab will conclude the discussions on the burning questions and decide on action or sharing outputs. The group can then decide if this process is concluded or if there should be follow-up questions.

Lessons Learnt

It is crucial to facilitate the City Learning Lab in a way that ensures open and constructive dialogue. The Africa section of ICLEI – ‘Local Governments for Sustainability’, has put forward some important insights. Engaging with municipal stakeholders in sub-Saharan African city regions is a complex process, particularly when aiming to influence local government decision-making. Relating to this complexity and the challenges and opportunities in cities, a number of lessons can be highlighted:

  • Gain municipal buy-in from as high a level as possible: Gaining high level buy-in for a project, preferably from the mayor and/ or municipal manager encourages active engagement by municipal staff. To achieve this, FRACTAL is engaging with high level university and municipal stakeholders in city regions, for the signing of a three-way memorandum of understanding.

  • Establish and maintain a focal point/local champion: High-level delegation of a focal point/ local champion, preferably that is interested in project involvement is essential. The power relations that exist between this individual and municipal and non-municipal stakeholders is of vital importance.

  • Small, focused meetings are effective: Large workshops are useful for awareness raising, enabling different stakeholders to engage and gathering diverse viewpoints. For enabling actions and implementation, small, focused meetings with key stakeholders are most effective.

  • Listen more than you talk and be humble: Municipal stakeholders understand their context better than external researchers or practitioners; especially when these researchers and/ or practitioners are not based in the country and/ or city of interest. Listening and being responsive to the context is vital in ensuring that the knowledge disseminated is responsive to local needs/ requirements and is thus utilised.

  • Project/programme branding: Municipal officials receive an abundance of correspondence each day. Establishing clearly recognisable project branding that is eye-catching and represents the project ethos assists in project query response and engagement.

Related references

Anderson, P.M.L., Brown-Luthango, M., Cartwright, A., Farouk, I. and Smit, W. (2013) Brokering communities of knowledge and practice: reflections on the African Centre for Cities’ CityLab Programme. Cities 31:1- 10.

Cartwright, A., Parnell, S. and Oelofse, G. (2012) Emerging lessons from the Climate Change Think Tank. In Climate Change at the City Scale: Impacts, Mitigation and Adaptation in Cape Town, A. Cartwright, S. Parnell, G. Oelofse & S. Ward (eds). Oxford: Routledge.

Suggested Citation

Arrighi, J., Koelle, B., Coll Besa, M., Spires, M., Kavonic, J., Scott, D., Kadihasanoglu, A., Bharwani, S. and Jack, C. (2016) Dialogue for decision-making: unpacking the ‘City Learning Lab’ approach. Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre Working Paper no. 7. Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre: The Hague, Netherlands

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