This blog post is a response to the Meeting of the Minds and Living Cities group blogging event, which asks: “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

Today’s youth will have four to six careers by the time they retire, and they must “learn how to learn” if they are to succeed. It’s likely that among the many skills & competencies they’ll need to succeed in the 21st century, imagination may be the defining aptitude.

We know that kids spend only 14 percent of their time in school. And we understand that learning doesn’t begin and end at the school door. We also know that hands-on, interest-driven learning is the most effective way to learn. For example, more than 500 children a week flock to the urban arts center created by Bill Strickland, president of Manchester Bidwell Corporation and a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, because as he says, “kids are built for creativity.”

Nurturing the inherent curiosity and creativity of our youth is integral to learning and economic opportunity.

Here in Pittsburgh, the Kids+Creativity Network is helping kids build that imagination by coordinating nearly 200 organizations in a networked approach to turning the city into a campus for learning—because we believe schools shouldn’t bear sole responsibility for educating our children. It’s a kind of cluster development for innovative education.

Working together with schools, libraries, museums, and community centers, we’re knitting together the expertise of hundreds of educators, artists, and innovators to create new seamless learning pathways for youth, so they can connect what they learn to their lived experience.

Pittsburgh is ensuring that all kids can use new digital tools along with traditional hands-on learning to develop critical-thinking, systems-thinking, and collaboration skills.

To cultivate an innovation mindset among our region’s youth—one that values curiosity, creativity, and grit as much (if not more than) it values test scores— Pittsburgh educators are focusing on expanding opportunities for kids to engage in old and new forms of learning: hands-on creative learning inspired by the DIY maker movement, learning that helps youth develop next generation digital literacies, and learning focused on turning STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) into STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math).

The city is ensuring that kids can use new digital tools along with traditional hands-on learning to develop critical-thinking, systems-thinking, and collaboration skills. The Remake Learning Digital Corps, for example, aims to bring these skills to tweens and teens throughout Allegheny County. In an effort to help catalyze young people to reach their potential in the digital world around us, we’ve trained a team of mobile digital literacy mentors to bring digital literacy education to youth participating in afterschool programs around the county. 

The vision goes beyond enabling today’s youth to prepare for future employment. It’s also about empowering youth through new opportunities for civic engagement  their communities. A recent student film focused on longtime Homewood resident Vanessa German and her Love Front Porch community art project, where kids gather on her porch to paint and create mixed media works. The students wanted to shift national media attention from the violence plaguing Homewood to the positive contributions of community members.

These partnerships and new connections are changing the organizations as well. Teams from museums are working with librarians in new ways; classroom teachers are joining with game designers to explore the best ways to engage children. Like any entrepreneurial ecosystem, this collaboration is spurring new thinking and approaches to teaching and learning. People play off each other’s work, appropriate it, build on it, learn from it.

Remaking learning requires new learning for educators too. That’s why state education agencies servicing greater Pittsburgh have partnered to develop the Center for Creativity, which was created to serve as a “digital playground” for teachers to tinker with technology, make mistakes, learn, and create. At the Center’s TransformED local educators can experiment the latest digital tools and attend regular professional development workshops.

In the Pittsburgh region all of us are working together to prepare our students for the future. And we think a focus on creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration is an important model for cities and for the future economy.

And Pittsburgh’s not alone. Starting this summer, cities across the country are uniting to advance a shared vision for a future of expanded learning and expanded opportunity. The Cities of Learning initiative, a nationwide movement to leverage the wealth of learning resources and cultural assets that exist in all cities to ensure learning doesn’t stop when school lets out.

Our future as a city depends on preparing our youth for success in school, at work, and in the community. By creating opportunities for young people to explore and discover new interests, Pittsburgh and its fellow Cities of Learning will foster the curiosity and resilience youth need to thrive in a world of constant change — and help them envision how their talents can connect them to real-world opportunity.