We talked about the traits of an entrepreneur (according to Gallup) and what it might mean to Cooperative Extension if we were more entrepreneurial.
I think there is definitely potential for us to work differently by thinking like entrepreneurs; innovating to reach new and more diverse audiences, finding new ways to make meaningful impacts and growing the capacity of our communities to address grand challenges.
I do worry that administrators and legislators might think "entrepreneurial" only means Extension professionals chasing after alternative funding.
This is the third in a series of posts on Extension in the year 2050. The posts discuss themes that emerged in a conversation about the future of Extension. So far, I've written about contextualized information and the trend toward open.
I hesitate to bring up networks when talking about Cooperative Extension's future. I don't want to give the impression that working within networks is something we should be preparing for. It is something we should already be doing.
The grand challenges we are being asked to help address involve wicked problems, which arise from extreme uncertainty, risk and social complexity. These wicked problems defy straightforward solutions and are constantly changing, making a linear approach (think logic model) ineffective.
Nate Meyer, program leader and associate Extension professor from University of Minnesota Extension, prepared the video below as an introduction to a session on the power of networks in Extension that we collaborated on (with Anne Adrian and Karen Jeannette) for the 2015 NDSU Extension Service conference. As Nate points out, routine problem solving falls short when dealing with grand challenges, because once the challenge seems to have been met, the situation changes.
As Nate says in the video, these wicked problems demand an iterative approach, focused on finding new ways to address these persistent problems. Networks of people and organizations are very well suited to this approach.
"A generative network is a social-relationship platform - a "human operating system" - for spawning activities. It's a unique and renewable capacity, and this makes it especially useful when taking on complex, unpredictable, large-scale problems..." - Connecting to Change the World, Plastrik, Taylor, and Cleveland.
In networks, people and organizations share a broad goal, but have no defined destination in mind. Knowledge and action in a network are created out of a diversity of opinions, not a predetermined outcome. Networks bring together people and organizations with a unique set of strengths and talents.
While much of a network's potential impact comes from aligning and coordinating around the shared goal, network members are free to innovate on their own as well. A network can apply more talent, effort and innovation to addressing a wicked problem than any single organization.
By working within networks, Extension can be part of that increased capacity, creativity and impact.
No organization, not even Cooperative Extension, can address massive, global problems on its own. Partnerships and coalitions fall short as well. Networks bring a diversity of ideas, expertise and action, often missing in tightly connected coalitions. In networks connections and collaborations emerge and change over time, and the sharing, learning, innovating and adapting keep happening. It's easy to see how the nature of networks aligns with the nature of grand challenges.
Cooperative Extension needs to be working within networks now. As Nate says in the video, Extension should be "finding, building, engineering, and helping to facilitate and strengthen networks" that will enact innovation in their communities.
In 1994, Jessica Lipnak and Jeffrey Stamps wrote, "Life has become too complicated for hierarchy and bureaucracy" (The Age of the Network). In the 21+ years since, life has become even more complex. By 2050, new grand challenges will likely have emerged right alongside those we should already be addressing. If Cooperative Extension expects to be addressing those grand challenges, we had better find and grow our role within diverse, productive, self-directed networks now.
I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about how Extension professionals need to work as part of broad coalitions or networks, if Extension is going to be a part of addressing complex problems like health, climate or water. I have spent considerably less time thinking about the skills Extension professionals will need to be effective in these coalitions and networks.
If we expect Extension professionals to work with coalitions and networks (I think they must if Extension is going to stay relevant), then we need to make sure they have the skills to help build and sustain them. Community development and leadership specialists in Extension already have a lot of those skills, and are prepared to share them. They might be the single most important group to Extension's future.
This is the second in a series of posts on Extension in the year 2050. The posts discuss themes that emerged in a conversation about the future of Extension. You can read the first post in the series here.
"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." - Kevin Gamble
The quote above, from a comment made on the first post in this series, is a perfect lead in to the next theme that could shape the future of Extension, open. I'm using "open" as a general term referring to the trend toward science, education, government and knowledge becoming more accessible, democratic and transparent.
Theme 2 - Openness
The move toward openness will continue to bring sweeping changes in how knowledge is shared, implemented and built upon to create new ideas. A 2004 research project conducted by the Institute of Development Studies points to a possible future where the Internet is a basic right, and researchers, policy makers, and organizations working for change have unfettered access to documentation, datasets and government records. Openness makes possible repositories of locally-produced research that could be critical in delivering the contextualized information I wrote about in my previous post.
In this more open future, data scientists, librarians, knowledge intermediaries and Extension professionals are vital.The trend toward open holds some challenge for Extension (and society), but even more opportunities.
Open science is in Extension's best interest. There is a wide gap between what scientists believe and what the public believes, and that gap is a huge problem for an organization with research-based knowledge at its core. I believe open science can close that gap by making scientific work more accessible and transparent. If research is subject to public scrutiny from the outset, the public will have less reason to distrust the results.
Extension can help hasten and improve the open science movement by building connections between university researchers and the public. We can help citizens learn more about the scientific process and how they can contribute to it. We can also help scientists learn how to talk to and work with the public. To do either of those things we need to give up some of our space. We have to let the public access research-based information without going through us, and we need to allow researchers access to the people we serve.
No government, corporation nor organization, Cooperative Extension included, can address complex global problems like climate change, food security, water quality or health on its own (more on this in my next post). If we are going to find innovative ways to address these issues, we will need to look inside AND outside our organization.
It will not be easy. If it was simply a matter of compiling a list of the people and organizations necessary and establishing the connections needed, someone would have already done it. We cannot predict the connections needed, and we are not aware of some of the necessary people and organizations. They will only be revealed if we begin working openly, making our work discoverable from the beginning, so those who share our vision can find us and connect.
We cannot continue to wait for impact reports or Journal of Extension articles to share our work. We need to make it visible from the initial stages, before there is a curriculum, a logic model or even a plan. If we are going to make a difference regarding complex global problems, we need to move from curriculum to collaboration. When we do create curriculum, can we please stop making it a commodity and selling it, especially to each other? Which brings me to my final point.
It is impossible for Extension to participate in the open movement without providing open access. We cannot hide our information, ideas and knowledge behind paywalls, file formats and all rights reserved copyright.
We need to continue to work on making our content accessible digitally on the widest possible variety of devices, and to start thinking online first.
Extension communication, whether it takes place through a publication, a workshop, a radio broadcast or a newspaper column, is largely built on a 1-to-many model. When we think of entering the online/mobile space, we think of how we can do mass communication online, but online communication is not mass media. It is personal, contextual, interactive, mobile, wearable and embeddable. We need to stop thinking 1-to-many and start thinking how to use our information to encourage a many-to-many communication model.
To do so, we need to release our information from the container we call a publication. When that information is free to be consumed, shared and built upon outside of the constraints of print, we can engage more people with Extension and, more importantly, with each other.
Finally, every Extension publication, curriculum, web page, video, etc., etc. should be available under open access. That means it should be available to use, share and re-mix without a fee and without asking permission. It is unconscionable that government agencies, federally-funded institutions and Cooperative Extension fail to provide free and unfettered access to content that taxpayers have already paid for.
Let's start fixing this by replacing every all rights reserved copyright in Extension with a Creative Commons attribution (only) license or just make that our content part of the public domain. Doing so will signal that Extension believes the public has the right accessible, democratic and transparent data and content from their government and the organizations their government funds. It will also signal Extension is ready to be a part of a future where free-flowing knowledge leads to innovations that improve our lives, our communities and our world.
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.
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?
As part of the "Useful to Usable" project which develops climate information for corn producers in the North Central Region, Linda and Rebecca have conducted surveys with farmers, Extension personnel and agricultural advisers about what they believe, who they are influenced by and who they trust when it comes to climate change.
If you listen to the podcast, you'll hear that I was very interested in the results from their survey that showed Extension educators do not believe in the anthropogenic climate change at the same level as university scientists. Linda and Rebecca call this a "troubling disconnect," and I agree.
In course of the interview, however, my mind was taken by something else. In their survey, Linda and Rebecca asked about both influence and trust. The results showed that, although Extension was a trusted source of information, it came behind family, chemical and seed dealers, consultants, other farmers, Farm Service Agency and other sources when it came to influence.
We have heard often that Extension is a trusted source of information, but what good is that trust if we have no influence over the people we are trying to help. Kudos for Linda and Rebecca for thinking to ask about both trust and influence.