If you’re in the education world, it’s likely you’ve heard about Pittsburgh. At Maker Faires and in early-childhood classrooms, the city has been on the leading edge of experiments in education both in school and out. Behind those innovations is yet another innovation: its learning network.

Networks are in vogue these days as top-down hierarchies lose their luster and centralized planning shows it is not nimble enough to address fast-changing facts on the ground. Learning networks are rooted in the economic development strategy known as “cluster development,” which taps into the power of regional concentrations of firms, workers, and industrial know-how to form a hub of talent and expertise. Doing so enhances the competitiveness of individual firms and regional economies. Just look at Cleveland with medical device manufacturing or St. Louis with biomed.

Now cluster approaches are being applied in other realms, like energy networks or education, including Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning Network.

Today, the Remake Learning Network includes more than 200 organizations and 2,000 educators and professionals who are building a learning ecosystem—a bit like a coral reef of learning and education. Its success has won recognition from the White House and many other places.

How did a city come together to build an education ecosystem?

Below are a few lessons learned during the process, as well as our playbook, which offers more details on the strategies we’ve used to build our network.

  1. It takes a design.

Though the Remake Learning Network grew organically, it wasn’t all serendipitous. In 2011, The Sprout Fund stepped in to formalize the network and make it more sustainable through a web of funders, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

What happens if an effort doesn’t have an intentional design? A few years ago, Joseph South, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology, and several others realized that Utah had serious potential to become an education innovation hub. But after a successful conference in Salt Lake City with educators, entrepreneurs, and government officials, efforts stalled.

“We didn’t have the answer to this question: How do you motivate people with mutual interest in education innovation but divergent missions and incentives to work together when the exact benefits of doing so are unknown?” South wrote in a blog post. “We didn’t even know what to call what we were doing. And it wasn’t like there was an instruction manual to tell us what to do next.”

South realizes now that he was trying to begin an education innovation cluster, but each piece felt too disparate to make an impact.

“It’s not only the professionals, it’s the university students, community college students—it’s everybody who can be mobilized,” Michele Cahill, vice president of the National Program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, told me last year about networks for education. “But it does take a design. I don’t mean it’s only one type of five-year plan, but it takes intentionality.”

In a decentralized network, someone or some organization must still call the plays.
  1. A “quarterback” is essential.

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s David Erikson, when talking about complex community change, said a quarterback is needed to shepherd diverse groups, articulate the project’s vision, marshal the resources, and manage multiple partners to execute that vision. In a project to rebuild disadvantaged communities in 11 cities, Purpose Built Communities plays that role, for example, or in a project spanning five Midwestern states, IFF is the quarterback. In a decentralized network, someone or some organization must still call the plays.

  1. Cultivate leadership at many levels.

As the Monitor Institute reports, in the RE-AMP energy network, funders, consultants, facilitators, staff, and members have at various times taken on leadership roles. This shared leadership created resilience and greater effectiveness, as the network could push forward on multiple fronts.

  1. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel.

When Pittsburgh was thinking about a network, it first turned to examples of networks around the country that have employed similar strategies.

“When we were first starting out, we learned about a bioscience science cluster in St. Louis,” said Ryan Coon, program officer for the Sprout Fund. “We have no interest in biosciences, but we read all about it.”

  1. Leverage your community.https://medium.com/remake-learning-playbook

While learning from other successes can inform a network’s efforts, a cookie-cutter approach won’t work. As we describe in our recently released Remake Learning Playbook, which chronicles many more strategies and lessons learned in building networks, a network has to play to each community’s authentic strengths.

Cleveland, for example, had a history of high-tech manufacturing from its years as an automaker supplier. It also had a deep pool of health care expertise with the Cleveland Clinic and other hospitals. So it tapped its talent pool to become a different kind of manufacturer—of high-tech medical equipment.

Pittsburgh leveraged its strengths in robotics, gaming, and maker learning. And as the Playbook points out, it’s easy to see how Los Angeles could hone in on entertainment or media making, and Houston on space and engineering.

  1. Find common language to ensure communication.

It may seem trivial, but if you want to share ideas, you have to speak each other’s language. One network that is bridging public health and community development has found CDC means two different things—Centers for Disease Control to public health officials and Community Development Corporation to community developers. Equity means one thing to financial investors but quite another to racial justice advocates. Confusion can ensue.

Though our playbook tells the story of a network focused on education, its lessons are far-reaching to other sectors hoping to leverage many assets toward a single goal.

Barbara Ray contributed to this story.