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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?

Working Differently in ExtensionYesterday on the Working Differently in Extension podcast, I had a really interesting conversation with Linda Prokopy from Purdue University and Rebecca Power from University of Wisconsin Extension. They're the authors of the commentary, "Envisioning New Roles for Land-Grant University Extension: Lessons Learned from Climate Change Outreach in the Midwest," in the December 2015 issue of the Journal of 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.

Enjoy the podcast!

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Working Differently in Extension