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The Journal

The Learning App That Aims to Make American Cities More Economically Resilient

10 minute read

The ever-changing nature of work has redefined what it means to be hireable and to build a career. The need to acquire new knowledge and skills is constant. Yet in many communities, opportunities for continuous learning are scarce.

To address this disconnect, IDEO worked with the Drucker Institute to design a system that would instill a culture of lifelong learning in cities across America. It’s being piloted in South Bend, Indiana and will launch in June.

Part digital and part place-based, Bendable connects people with opportunities to learn for free from a range of leading online content providers, as well as local educational and training institutions. It serves up “Community Collections”—learning playlists curated by residents on topics of wide interest. And it offers sets of courses that help people build skills that match employers’ needs. Local businesses vet these “Career Collections” and even put their name and brand on them. Learners who complete the courses in a Career Collection can earn digital badges, which they can then share with an employer during the application or hiring process.

In South Bend, months of on-the-ground research and rapid prototyping helped to get the experience right. The public library in South Bend played a pivotal role in supporting the system’s development, and it will be in charge of Bendable locally going forward. Meanwhile, participation from local businesses signaled awareness of the mutual benefit of a new approach to learning: it’s in every leader’s best interest to help their community build the skills needed to be resilient in the face of change.

To learn more about how this lifelong learning platform came to be, The IDEO Journal spoke with two people very close to Bendable’s origin story: Sarah Zaner, a Senior Director who led the IDEO project team; and Rick Wartzman, Head of the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society at the Drucker Institute.

First, what exactly does ‘lifelong learning’ mean?

Sarah Zaner: The model of going to school in your youth and then being sustainably employable for the rest of your life is outdated. It hasn’t worked for a lot of people for a long time and we’ve entered an era where it’s not going to work for anyone soon. In order to be resilient in the face of today’s rapid change, you’ve got to be able to turn to learning again and again throughout your life. And it’s not enough to simply want to learn, you also need access to valuable opportunities to learn. You’ve got to have the belief in yourself, and the support you need. Lifelong learning requires an understanding of how to make learning a lever for personal change that ultimately forges resilience.

SZ: Whereas our formal education system has clear structures, roles and responsibilities, it’s not as clear who the responsible parties are for making lifelong learning accessible to those who need it the most. We’re hoping that Bendable can shine a light on what it looks like to start filling that gap.

Rick Wartzman: To build on what Sarah said, one reason that we’re excited about the prospects for Bendable is that people in South Bend—and, we suspect, across the country—have told us over and over again that they’re hungry to learn new things. Many people recoil from the word “education” because they may have had a bad experience in public schools. But most people see themselves as learners. That’s partly because they recognize the need to keep refreshing their skills for work. But in many cases, it’s simply because they’re curious. Learning new things is fundamental to being human.

In fact, there’s a theory baked into the Bendable platform: Nobody is one-dimensional, and different types of learning will reinforce each other—learning for work, learning things to help you and your family thrive (like personal finance or cooking healthy meals), or just learning something because you’re passionate about it. By making sure we cover all of these areas, we hope to instill in people the habit of lifelong learning.

It seems there’s a struggle to shift the current educational system from within, and it might be necessary to build entirely new ecosystems. What’s it like to create and activate a new model that emphasizes lifelong learning?

SZ: We’re seeing a new sector emerging at the intersection of education and the future of work. Some call it lifelong learning or “Pre-K to grey,” but just like with any education reform, disruptor, or intervention that’s aiming to improve the current system, we’ve got to approach change with a “both/and” and not an “either/or” mindset. City services, industries, libraries, existing educational organizations, and others need to come together to innovate. Whole new ecosystems need to be designed, which is what we tried to accomplish with Bendable.

RW: For sure. You won’t make a community more resilient through a lifelong learning system alone. It’s not a silver bullet. There are many other necessary ingredients that must work in parallel—from a city generating enough good-quality jobs, affordable and accessible childcare and transportation options, safe neighborhoods, and much more. Lifelong learning is essential. But it’s just one piece of the puzzle.

In terms of fitting into the educational ecosystem in South Bend, Bendable was never intended to challenge or replace the city’s existing institutions. Rather, it was designed to complement and serve them. To that end, we’ve heard from public high school teachers who plan to use courses on Bendable to augment what’s happening in their classrooms. The local community college, Ivy Tech; and Indiana University South Bend have worked with us to feature some of their courses on the Bendable platform. They see Bendable not as competition but as an avenue to expose more people to what’s happening on their campuses. We likewise have collaborated with local job-training organizations, like Goodwill. They all see Bendable as a tool they can leverage to help them meet their own objectives.

How did South Bend leaders and employers realize Bendable represented a strong investment opportunity? What economic returns will come to stakeholders as a result of their investment?

RW: The world is changing because of automation, artificial intelligence, and so on. People need to keep upskilling and reskilling. And so learning for work is the center of the bullseye for Bendable.

For their part, employers want a well-trained workforce, and Bendable is a way to ensure that they’ll have one. In South Bend, many of the biggest employers in town are putting a lot of effort into helping us create career-oriented collections of courses—learning pathways that show someone exactly what they should study if they want to become the operator of a computer numerically controlled machine at a factory, say, or a medical coder at the hospital. Bendable then gives them the opportunity to take those classes, either online or at a local college or training facility.

RW: Bendable can serve as a mini learning and development platform for employers. The manager of a big distribution plant in South Bend, for example, is planning to rejigger the schedule for his 300 workers so they can go on Bendable for an hour per week and obtain new skills. He’s already told us that it would be beneficial for some of his workers to take courses on logistics. And he has his eye on one employee who might be a strong candidate for a managerial position if he gets some computer training on Bendable. We think that over time, a good number of employers will hack the system this way.

SZ: In terms of the city’s investment, former mayor Pete Buttigieg, Mayor James Mueller and his office of innovation are looking for multiple levers to ensure that they have a healthy, economically vibrant community. Bendable’s funders, like Walmart.org and Google.org, are very interested in the connection between learning and work. They’re asking themselves, “How do we ensure that we have diverse, well-equipped pipelines,“ “How do we make promising career paths accessible? “How do we help people forge their own resilience?” Bendable is helping to reveal answers.

How can cities set the right conditions to leverage lifelong learning as a strategy for weathering automation’s impact?

RW: Having a mid-sized city like South Bend is a great place to start. A population of 100,000 means it’s big enough to have a decent amount of social and economic infrastructure, but small enough to get things done, to really engage a huge part of the community in a deep way. In South Bend, for example, there are 15 to 20 employers who do a significant chunk of the hiring across the city. That’s a small enough number that we’ve been able to involve many of them in building out Bendable. Community is both the unit and agent of change for a platform like Bendable. It’s our secret sauce.

How do you customize a platform for a local community while allowing it to be applicable in other contexts?

RW: We built Bendable to be a system that runs on trust and belonging—and that means that we need to listen closely and carefully to every city that adopts the system. The content curation and customization must happen all over again in each location. If a local learner wants to move from earning $8/hour to $18/hour, they need to know what skills are most meaningful and valuable to local businesses. And that means we have to be present on the ground, digging in and figuring that out.

Another important thing to keep in mind, in terms of localizing Bendable, is that a lot of the classes and other activities provided by the system happen in the physical world in a specific city—not online. As magical as the digital platform may seem to some, Bendable users have made clear that they don’t just want to learn through a phone, tablet or computer. Learning is highly social; people want to learn with each other, and from each other. And so designated brick-and-mortar spaces—in the form of Bendable learning centers—offer face-to-face onboarding to the system, study sessions, learning meetups and other in-person educational opportunities.

SZ: Bendable intentionally leverages technology to foster real-life connection. Of course a digital app provides convenience, access, flexibility, and scale. But the place-based component of Bendable supports the person-to-person connection that learners crave. The app also provides a way of organizing and connecting people to the resources that already exist in South Bend. It’s a community-powered system that’s co-designed with the people we’re trying to serve. This is why it can both scale and be relevant to a local community.

Every prototype and pilot has a moment when its creators know they've proved feasibility. What was that moment in South Bend? What indicators signaled it might scale?

RW: We've actually thought about scale from the beginning. We've always viewed South Bend as our pilot city—the place from which, if things worked out well enough, we'd take the model and then replicate it elsewhere. The question we didn't know, of course, was whether things would "work out well enough." And, in many respects, we still don't. We won't have real results, in terms of whether we're bettering people's lives, until we launch the system and it's up and running for a while. But we are very confident that we're on the right track. By co-creating Bendable with a wide variety of stakeholders from across South Bend, we know that the community is excited about what we're building and ready for it to be unveiled in June.

SZ: In addition to thinking about scale from the beginning of the initiative, we’ve also been aware that Bendable will only be effective in a community if we are able to scale in a hyper-local way. We’ll learn a ton from South Bend, not just about the ways it will (hopefully) help build resilience in the community, but also about the ways that South Bend—the learners, the library, the employers, the city—make it their own. We’re developing a proof of concept platform to pilot in South Bend, and we’re also working on creating a scalable model through building tools, processes, and relationships that will allow every instantiation of Bendable to be truly community bred, led, and fed.

This initiative got a lot of institutional support, mainly from organizations based on the coasts. What types of sensitivities must outsiders develop before they attempt to tackle problems in communities of which they’re not necessarily a part

SZ: No learning product of any kind works if it’s airdropped in. Ultimately, local adoption and implementation are key to success. In Bendable’s case, each new city will need to take ownership and evolve it for their communities. One of our core strategies is to support the creation of a local Bendable team in each location. Like Rick said, Bendable runs on trust. During the design phase of the project, we turned to and empowered South Bend residents to conduct user research with their community. They would show our early prototypes to their friends and family and provided us with valuable feedback. They improved our designs and in the process became advocates for the product within the community.

RW: This also speaks to why having the library steward the system—in South Bend and hopefully in future cities—is so incredibly valuable. These are very trusted and welcoming places. Librarians increasingly see their role as not just shushing people and checking out books, but also providing social services and employment resources. It’s natural for the library to be the backbone of Bendable. Its mission is lifelong learning.

What have you learned about serving under-resourced communities from this project?

SZ: I love this question because communities like South Bend are not actually under-resourced; they’re under-organized and under-connected. This was one of the biggest insights for us. There are tons of opportunities and resources in places like South Bend to support and help people in the greatest need or furthest from opportunity. Through Bendable, we’ve learned how technology can play a role not just in scaling lifelong learning systems, but actually connecting people to the resources that already exist in their community, to the people in their community, and to their own agency.

RW: To echo that, there’s no shortage of great learning content out there. It’s not a supply problem, it’s an organizational and distribution problem. A regular person doesn’t know where to start. This project has taught us how to be good curators.

What’s the process like for selecting the cities you’ll expand to next?

SZ: A certain level of social capital needs to be leveraged within the community. There needs to be an interested group of employers and buy-in from informal community leaders. But honestly, a huge one is patience. We will not come into the next city and say, “Here’s the software, here are your guidebooks, and here are some posters. Good luck.”

RW: Yes, they have to be patient. Bendable isn't an off-the-shelf, plug-and-play product. It may well take a full year of research and preparation—perhaps even longer—before Bendable is up and going in a new city. We need to be on the ground and really listening. We have to replicate the process of building trust and belonging each and every time. I can’t foresee any shortcut around this, ever. This is what makes it all work.

What will nationwide expansion and rollout look like in the coming years?

RW: Our plan is to expand Bendable to 15 or so cities over the next five years. We’ll aim for places that are of a similar size to South Bend (with 100,000 to 250,000 residents) and that stand alone geographically. We know that we can wrap our heads and arms around a place of this size, truly understand the local labor market and bring together key stakeholders to help us grasp, at a deep level, what residents want to learn and need to learn.

RW: With the Drucker Institute serving as the hub of a network of cities of lifelong learning, we can then make technical improvements to the digital platform that we'll share widely, convene leaders from all Bendable cities to exchange best practices, and assess from a broad standpoint what's working well and where we need to improve.

The amazing thing is that, even though we haven't launched yet in South Bend, we've been contacted by more than a dozen other places eager to be "Bendable City No. 2." Word is out.

Illustrations by Thanawat Sakdawisarak

  • Sarah Zaner

    Former Senior Portfolio Director, IDEO San Francisco
    Sarah brings insights and methodologies from the learning sciences and over 20 years of experience in the ed tech field to IDEO's human-centered education practice. Her passion is supporting and amplifying innovations that improve learning experiences, teaching practices, and the systems and structures that support and empower learners throughout a lifetime.
  • Rick Wartzman

    Head of the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society
    Rick leads the Drucker Institute’s KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society, and previously served as Executive Director of the Drucker Institute from its founding in 2007 until early 2016.
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