Extension 2050…Yes, I said 2050

No "future" for the Future Shop

Photo by Jamie McCaffrey. Used under CC BY 2.0

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post attributed the quote from “The 4 Things CES Taught Us About the Future of Extension” to Jamie Seger, the co-author of the post. – Feb. 2, 2016

Recently I met with an Extension specialist at NDSU to talk about Extension in 2050. I know. I thought the same thing, “2050! It’s hard enough predicting what the world will look like in 3 or 5 years. How the hell can we see 34 years into the future?” I mean, really. The first commercial compact disc was produced in 1982. Now, 34 years later, compact discs are mostly obsolete. It’s entirely possible that by 2050 there will be obsolete technology that, as of today, has not yet been invented. So, sure, let’s talk about Extension in 2050.

The Extension specialist was filling in for a colleague who had originally proposed the “Extension 2050” session for a conference. Long story short, we had to find a way to talk about the future, no matter how hard that future was to see. The task was further complicated by the current state of technology. As Paul Hill put it in  a recent post co-written with Jamie Seger, “The 4 Things CES Taught Us About the Future of Extension,”

“We are currently living through an exciting in-between phase of emerging technologies. It’s a special time for humanity, all these things have their place but someday we’ll be able to look back on this time and talk about how we saw virtual reality, AI, smart cars, and drones advance from concepts and prototypes to the market adoption and integration into our daily lives. But for now, it’s all in an awkward stage of adolescence.”

The fact is a lot of the “emerging technology” has been discussed for years now. It didn’t seem like talking about that technology again was going to get us any closer to an idea of what Extension might look like to 2050.

So instead of talking about technology, we began talking about themes. My next few posts will discuss each of the themes that emerged in our conversation, beginning with “contextualized information.”

Theme 1 – Contextualized Information

Emerging technologies like wearable tech, embedded tech, augmented reality and virtual reality deliver information in context. Knowing the normal resting heart rate for an adult ranges from 60 – 100 beats per minute is different from knowing your heart rate after cooling down at the gym on Tuesday night. Having heart rate information specific to you at a specific time in a specific place, may make that information more meaningful to you and possibly more actionable.

Augmented reality, the layering of digital information on top of the real world, is all about information in context. The video below was made 7 years ago. Bob Johansen from the Institute for the Future shared it at an eXtension conference in Louisville. This digital story is what IFTF calls an artifact of the future. It is a simulation; a prediction brought to life.

Blended Reality Digital Story: The World As I Choose to See It from Institute for the Future on Vimeo.

It ‘s a pretty accurate prediction in light of the Google Glass project and the mysterious Magic Leap augmented reality devices that may soon make their way to market.

So how does Extension need to change when information alone is trumped by information in context? In the last third of the 20th century, Cooperative Extension exerted a lot of effort to take context out of information. It was the age of mass media. If you were going to produce a publication read by hundreds of people or a television show watched by thousands, you needed to deliver information with little or no context. Information that could appeal to, and possibly be applied by people in a variety of situations. Extension needs to adjust to deliver value in a time when personalized information in context is valued over information with wide applicability.

Intelligent personal assistants like Cortana, Google Now and Siri demonstrate how valuable information in context can be. These personal assistants can deliver information based on data they know about you. If you booked a trip using your Gmail address, Google Now can push you information about restaurants or sights to see in your destination city.

It’s not a big leap to imagine buying tomato plants at a big box hardware store, swiping your credit card (paying with your smartphone) and having your personal assistant deliver information about planting tomatoes to you based on the data generated by the transaction. That information could be unique based on your location, the date of your purchase and, possibly, the weather forecast. There is no doubt to me that information specific to that context is more valuable than generic information aimed at meeting the needs of hundreds or thousands of people. Will that contextualized information come from Home Depot or Loews, or will it come from Cooperative Extension?

Comments

  1. 2050
    Extension if it still exists must be very relevant and further into the cutting edge than we are now. Not just technology, but on the big issues. Climate change, plant and animal species, damaged habitats, rising sea levels, availability of clean water, extreme heat and weather events, poverty, etc. will change the way we have to work and live. It will not be business as usual but business with the environment. A graduate level professor talked about “man over environment,” man with the environment,” and “environment over man.” We are living in a period of time when man over environment is a primary system of operating. The natural environment, plants and animals, are used for our needs and wants as if they will always be there. The world is over populated and the environment is stressed by over consumption and waste and esp. in the developed world. If we are to remain somewhat “stable” in some l ways, we must address 2050 now not in the future. Personally, it is probably to late.

    • Thanks for the comment, Shirley. I agree that being involved in complex issues like the ones you listed is critical. I think Extension has been hesitant to engage with these issues, especially those that might be politically charged. I don’t know if it is too late, but Extension needs to make some changes.

  2. Great post, and great question to conclude with! I’m thinking the answer to your question will be directly related to issues of openness. If the future is open Cooperative Extension has a chance. If it’s closed we’re toast. We need to make sure we resist proprietary, and stay on the people’s side of these issues.

    • I agree completely, Kevin. I think it is time to challenge Extension leaders to start moving in that direction. Let’s start by removing all rights reserved copyright from all Extension content. Can we please stop “protecting” the monetary value of content that will never be monetized and has already been paid for by taxpayers?

      But then you’ve been fighting that fight longer than I have.

      Thanks for reading the post and taking time to comment.

      • Yes! Exactly! Many seem to forget that the Land Grants where created to provide access to knowledge to those who couldn’t afford or were unable to go to college. Extension is supposed to exist for their benefit, not ours.

        • I agree, Victor. I think there is a point of critical mass for a non-profit or educational organization where maintaining the organization can become more important than achieving the mission.

          An organization can avoid reaching that point or move on from that point by asking pointed and difficult questions about what they are willing to do to achieve the mission.

          If we truly believed that there was a better system or method for helping people use scientific research to improve their lives, would we go to our funders and tell them they should instead invest in that new system or method? It’s a crazy hypothetical, but my guess is that most Extension leaders wouldn’t. So what’s more important, the mission or the organization?