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.
Cooperative Extension is being called upon now, not in the distant future, to help address large-scale, complex issues. The “grand challenges of the future, including agricultural and food security, urban programming, health and wellness, resource resilience, and community vitality.” The best way to do that is to start working within networks.
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.