Sustainable Development in 21st Century: The Role of Learning Cities

Today, over 3.5 billion people live in cities. This figure is projected to rise to almost 5 billion by 2030. In view of it, in what way can our cities fulfill the SDGs, especially SDG4?

ByDebananda S Ningthoujam

Updated 28 Jan 2023, 2:42 pm

Imphal, Manipur (Photo: IFP)
Imphal, Manipur (Photo: IFP)

Sustainable development goal 4 (SDG4) calls for ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Today, over 50 per cent of the global population, i.e. about 3.5 billion people, live in the world’s cities. This figure is projected to rise to almost 5 billion by 2030. In what way can our cities fulfill the SDGs especially SDG4? One way of doing this is by creating infrastructure, and facilities, and fostering development of lifelong learning-cradle to grave-of all citizens irrespective of age, religion, gender, and ethnicity. There are now several initiatives towards this direction, promoted by the UN bodies especially UNESCO.

Present status of UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC)

GNLC is a global network providing inspiration, know-how, and best practices for nurturing learning cities across the globe. This network supports the attainment of all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) especially SDG4 and SDG11 (“make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”). GNLC promotes lifelong learning in the world’s cities by encouraging policy dialogue among member cities; forging links, fostering partnerships; providing capacity development; and developing tools to monitor progress made in building learning cities.

What is a learning city?

1. A learning city is one that promotes lifelong learning for all its citizens by:

2. Mobilizing its resources to promote inclusive learning (basic to higher education);

3. Revitalizing learning in families and communities;

4. Facilitating learning for and in the workplace;

5. Extending the use of modern learning technologies;


6. Enhancing quality and excellence in learning; and

7. Fostering  a ‘culture of learning’ throughout life.

8. Through its manifold activities, a learning city promotes individual development, social inclusion, economic growth, cultural progress, and sustainable development.

Why do we need learning cities?

Lifelong learning (LLL) is assuming urgent importance in today’s disruptive world-a world in flux due to technological innovations such as AI, the vagaries of climate change, and sudden emergence of pandemics such as COVID-19. Several studies have proved that lifelong learners are better prepared to adapt to changes in workplace, personal lives, communities, and society.

LLL, and the learning society have a crucial role to play in empowering citizens and ensuring a smooth transition to sustainable societies.

One effective way, as envisaged by UNESCO, for nurturing a learning society is by building learning cities across the world, both developed and developing world.

How can learning cities support equity & inclusion?

A learning city can support equity and inclusion by:

1. Promoting education and learning opportunities for all, especially the vulnerable groups;

2. Offering online courses on diverse topics relevant to the local community;


3. Establishing migrant colleges, enabling migrant workers to gain professional growth;

4. Providing career guidance, especially for women;

5. Establishing mobile libraries especially for people with disabilities, older people, and preschool children;

6. Making use of cultural centers e.g., museums that serve as learning sites; and

7. Creating civic participation networks that encourage citizens to take part in the city’s decision-making process, through the wide use of social media and modern technologies etc.

Indian Cities in GNLC

In 2022, three Indian cities were among the 77 cities from 44 countries that were added to GNLC. These are Warangal in Telangana, and Thrissur and Nilambur in Kerala. Other cities outside India included Sharjah, Durban, and Kyiv etc. Altogether, 294 cities from 76 countries are now members of the Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC).

It’s high time for all of us to work in coordination to ensure that our city, Imphal, becomes a learning city and joins the UNESCO GNLC in the near future. Learning in the 21st century must move beyond the confines of space and time.

To usher a knowledge society, learning must become ubiquitous, asynchronous and multi-modal. That is, learning must occur outside the classrooms too, must continue throughout life (“cradle to grave”), and must be provided via a plethora of platforms: lectures, MOOCs, text, audio, video, animation, games, drama, and cultural activities etc. Only by doing this, can we ensure equitable, inclusive and sustainable development for the citizens of our city. Towards this objective, the government may work in concert with NGOs, CSOs, farmers’ bodies, private companies, and citizens’ groups etc., catalyzed by knowledge workers in the city' higher education institutions e.g., MU, DMU, MTU, NIT, and MUC etc.

(The views expressed are personal)


First published:


sustainable developmentlearning citysdg4gnlc

Debananda S Ningthoujam

Debananda S Ningthoujam

The author teaches and studies microbial biochemistry and biotechnology at Manipur University


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