The construction of the city was built on the mobility of men and women from a rural environment. With the emergence of concerns about the environment and the future of the human race, sustainability has become a priority and a challenge. Cities have responded to this challenge through an urban revolution in which a responsible and virtuous economy has an important place. This economy is based on the digital revolution and tends to create new economic models based on innovation. The city offers us the framework for this revolution. It helps, supports, shapes and innovates in every domain to give to its inhabitants energy, employment, transport and solidarity. Yesterday, it liberated individuals. Today, it liberates energies and development skills to provide citizens with the ability to be creative by giving them the information they need to rethink the city. We owe this revolution to the learning city.
Saifallah Lasram, Mayor of Tunis
Building a learning city
Efforts to build a learning city in Tunis have been strongly influenced by the process of decentralization and social change that accompanied the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. However, Tunis’s efforts to become a learning city predate the Revolution: at the local level, the city had already launched a range of cultural programmes as part of a major structural network, and was also supporting citizens through dedicated departments for child care, youth, and social reintegration. At the international level, Tunis possesses a strong network of partnership, for example, with the International Association of Francophone Mayors, and shares expertise with partner cities such as Paris, Marseille and Luxembourg.
The spirit of the Revolution, a genuinely popular uprising that began with acts of civil disobedience, is reflected in the city’s emphasis on developing civil society’s participation in public life. With their growing involvement in political and civic life, the people have become, in effect, the city’s main partner in developing appropriate strategies to tackle the challenges that Tunis faces.
In order to strengthen civic engagement, Tunis has made its data available to citizens, thus allowing civil society initiatives to flourish. The city promotes the training of municipal staff, seeing them as potential agents for change. It also supports local associations whose aim is to make citizens’ voices heard and provide inhabitants with services that are not currently covered by the municipality. Tunis furthermore acknowledges the important role of local associations in mobilizing civil society with regard to issues such as sustainable development, climate change and gender equality. In addition, Tunis is making use of modern information and communication technologies to initiate a dialogue with civil society and collect feedback that will help it better understand the needs of its citizens.
Tunis’s strategy for developing a learning city is based on creating the conditions necessary to encourage civil society to participate in public life. To achieve this goal, Tunis has deployed a number of measures. For example, it provides municipal staff with intensive training to promote citizen participation and equip them for the new challenges brought about by the decentralization of state functions since 2011. Tunis aims to give its staff the tools to support citizens as partners of the city. Moves to make data accessible, and disclosing municipal statistics and council proceedings online, testify to the city’s efforts to involve civil society in public life. Citizens can learn more, support the city’s initiatives, and give feedback that will influence the development of their living environment. This, moreover, fosters an increased sense of belonging to the city, and thus contributes to social cohesion. Furthermore, Tunisia’s capital is equipping associations with the tools they need to grow and become more efficient by being able to support citizens more effectively in their daily lives.
In addition, the city provides staff with hygiene awareness workshops delivered by the dedicated Tunis Sanitation School. The school provides non-formal learning courses on hygiene at work as well as public hygiene. These courses are also available to individuals.
To complement these actions and make the process of building a learning city more efficient, Tunis reinforces its partnerships with sponsors and international organizations. The city systematically relies on external knowledge carried by national and international experts in order to identify best practice. It has implemented transparent, effective project management, thereby winning the trust of its sponsors and partners.
Finally, the city works to revitalize the local economy through the promotion of social and solidarity economies; and to universalize civic values through the provision of continuous access to culture and lifelong learning. Today, a growing number of citizens engage in public life to contribute to the creation of a friendlier and more united society.
2. Developing a plan
The 2011 Revolution was followed by a process of decentralization that shifted power and responsibilities to new institutions and local governments, such as the city of Tunis. Before this, citizens were not fully involved in local decision-making processes and governance. They were neither asked about their needs on a regular basis, nor were they engaged in evaluating the services provided by the municipality.
In order to create an environment conducive to the building of a learning city, Tunis had to face a major challenge: namely, how to restore the trust of its inhabitants and public/private partners. Tunis recognized the crucial importance of restoring good relations with its citizens following the Revolution, a popular movement which undermined public services, demobilized civic representatives and made people mistrustful of the government. It is also important to note that the constitution of Tunisia’s Second Republic states that a participative democracy must be implemented.
In moving forward, the city has borne in mind two crucial needs. First, the city must train its municipal staff so they can become agents of change and approach citizens as partners rather than beneficiaries or users. To do this, Tunis provides training and workshops in collaboration with national institutions (such as the Centre for Decentralization Training and Support) and international experts. Second, Tunis must support local associations in their efforts to make citizens’ voices heard and to provide inhabitants with services that the municipality is unable to offer. These associations are developing into powerful organizations capable of promoting messages that mobilize civil society to take action on issues such as sustainable development, climate change and gender equality. In addition, Tunis is harnessing modern technologies and social media to engage with its citizens, gathering feedback and gaining a better understanding of their needs.
It is imperative that Tunis achieves these two goals if it is to fulfil its long-term objective of becoming a thriving and powerful Mediterranean metropolis.
3. Creating a coordinated structure involving all stakeholders
Tunis has created a committee responsible for coordinating the efforts of the city and its institutional and civil-society partners and ensuring continuous dialogue between them. This committee is a response to the need to build civic participation as a crucial means of establishing a bond of trust between the public sector and local citizens. Civil society greeted the committee’s launch with enthusiasm, encouraging many people to volunteer their participation. The committee highlights the municipality’s commitment to becoming a mediator in local life; a government open to a variety of attitudes and innovative ideas. In order to implement new programmes linked to the construction of a learning city in Tunis, the municipality has, in the wake of the Revolution, given more power and responsibility to specific initiatives, such as those carried by l’Association de Sauvegarde de la Médina (Safeguarding Association for the Medina).
The city has a close network of international partners. In particular, the International Association of Francophone Mayors, with 253 members in 50 countries, is cooperating closely with Tunis to implement social projects and foster a sense of innovation.
Tunis is a member of the World Council and Executive Bureau of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG). UCLG does not fund local government directly, but provides a powerful lobbying structure to launch development projects with international entities such as the World Bank, the Cities Alliance, or the global partnership for poverty reduction.
Finally, Tunis has shared its experiences and expertise with partner cities facing comparable challenges, such as Paris, Marseille and Luxembourg.
4. Mobilizing and utilizing resources
Tunis is equipping its human resources with the tools needed to create a learning city. Administrative and technical staff, as well as municipal councillors, regularly participate in workshops to boost their awareness of issues such as citizen participation, learning and education, and decentralization. Training is provided by national institutions (the National School of Administration, the Centre for Decentralization Training and Support, the Tunis Sanitation School) and international partners, including the International Association of Francophone Mayors, the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ), and partner cities such as Paris, Marseille and Lausanne.
Projects are funded using a leverage mechanism: the city uses its own budget to encourage international sponsors to invest in building a learning city. Following the Revolution, Tunis harnessed the international solidarity movement to implement a significant awareness-raising initiative related to decentralization and citizen participation. This initiative was launched during a global congress attended by a number of international sponsors. The congress was funded with the help of national and international partners, including various Tunisian ministries, the National Federation of Tunisian Cities, the National Constitutive Assembly, the United Cities and Local Governments Network as well as the Organization of Arabic Cities. Tunis has succeeded in building a trusting, transparent relationship with its project partners, underscoring how municipal governance has changed following the Revolution. It has fostered partnerships in order to launch complementary actions, such as learning visits for national and local representatives, and training workshops. Its successes to date have also attracted new project partners, such as EuroCities, a network of major European cities.
5. Making learning accessible to all
The city’s decision to make its data freely accessible has facilitated dialogue between Tunis and its citizens. The municipal budget, all council proceedings, the municipal investment plan, statistics, and information on local projects are uploaded to the Tunis website and Facebook page. This transparency has, moreover, fostered the emergence of initiatives spearheaded by individuals, associations, entrepreneurs and sponsors.
With the help of modern technologies and through direct dialogue with its inhabitants, the municipality has launched a number of projects to promote learning. After gathering feedback from inhabitants, for example, Tunis instigated a project to fight drug abuse. In partnership with school staff, experts and civil society representatives, the project informs young people of the risks of drug use. The city relies on the expertise of associations working with young people to encourage the latter to participate in cultural and sporting activities. The campaign is promoted in secondary schools as well as on social media. It is co-financed by the International Association of Francophone Mayors and the City of Luxembourg. The Tunis Sanitation School project, meanwhile, offers hygiene skills training to municipal staff, elected officials and citizens on request in order to foster a deeper and more universal understanding of urban sanitation issues.
Finally, a project to manage migration flows has established a network of 10 Mediterranean cities. The network fosters the exchange of experiences and best practices in order to help member cities manage migration flows and achieve a better understanding of migrants’ living conditions.
6. Organizing celebratory events
Tunis organizes a series of socio-cultural events to mark the month of Ramadan. Events are open to the public and also target inhabitants from poor neighbourhoods. To appeal to citizens, these events are promoted through various media: local and national newspapers, radios and television channels, online, and in locations across the city. Cinema and music, in all their forms, contribute to an international animation of the city. In the same spirit, investment has been made in local theatres, located in Avenue Bourguiba, in order to create a shared and collectively owned space.
The development of a new urban planning strategy created an opportunity to launch a dynamic consultation process involving citizens and various stakeholders. The process is now in its final phase, and lays down Tunis’s strategy for developing into a Mediterranean metropolis, respectful of its rich cultural heritage. In line with this are also investments in the renovation of the Medina and engagement with young people, so that they appropriate and identify themselves with this historical jewel of the city. The city’s commitment to promoting and respecting its cultural heritage underpins its desire to become a learning city, and is illustrated by Tunis’s decision to host the 2nd Conference of the Francophone Heritage Network in October 2016. The conference was organized in partnership with the Wallonia-Brussels region, the International Association of Francophone Mayors and UNESCO. One of its central themes was the development of participatory governance with regard to the promotion of cultural heritage.
7. Monitoring and evaluation
To evaluate its progress, Tunis relies mainly on statistical datasets. The city’s IT department ensures, on one hand, that information is updated to reflect the quality of its services, and, on the other, that the municipality responds to citizens’ feedback and needs. The department plays an essential role in linking the municipality and its citizens. It also manages the former’s social media channels and provides the council and other departments with detailed reports of online activity (e.g. number of Facebook likes, number of visits to the city’s website, etc.). The positive outcome of Tunis’s evaluation mechanism is that it encourages inhabitants to participate in public life,
Municipal departments hold regular meetings with associations working in their respective fields to exchange information on the progress of projects, assess satisfaction rates among inhabitants, and gather feedback and comments.
The progress of ongoing programmes and projects is also discussed during meetings of municipal commissions that bring together municipal staff, councillors and partners. These meetings allow project guidelines to be adjusted before they are submitted to the city council for approval.
Finally, the city council regularly examines activity reports submitted by technical and district representatives, comparing them with the findings of the municipal commissions. The Council approves or modifies projects depending on the results of this process.
8. Achievements and the way forward
By deploying a dedicated learning city strategy and ensuring constant contact with its citizens, notably through the use of modern technologies, Tunis has succeeded in establishing a real bond of trust with civil society, as represented by citizens and local associations alike. The latter have been transformed into one of the city’s most reliable partners, enhancing people’s desire to become responsible citizens.
Building a foundation of trust was essential to increasing citizens’ participation in public life. As a result of Tunis’s efforts, a large number of inhabitants became actively involved in the consultation process that was launched to support the development of a new urban planning scheme. Moreover, the learning city initiative helped Tunis to demonstrate its reliability to its partners, especially its sponsors, thereby enabling the launch of several local projects.
By taking into account citizens’ needs and proposals, and by promoting individual and collective learning, Tunis was able to organize a number of congresses and training workshops, as well as to inaugurate several innovative projects.
In the medium term, the city expects that civil society involvement will serve to complement municipal projects and raise the city’s profile, both locally and internationally. Tunis is currently intensifying its actions by mobilizing the private sector and the local university, with the aim of encouraging knowledge and research related to its municipal efforts, particularly in the area of participatory governance.
In the long term, Tunis aims to use the bond of trust that has been established between the city and its citizens as a healthy and universal basis serving social, cultural and economic cohesion.
9. Additional sources
UNDP. 2015. Human development reports. Table 4: Gender development index. Available at: http://hdr.undp.org/en/composite/GDI [Accessed 30 May 2017].
The World Bank. 2015. GDP per capita (current US$). Available at: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD [Accessed 30 May 2017].
Executive Officer for External Relations,
Official city website