Extension as an Emergent Platform — and What It Means for Our Future

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Extension's challenge in the 21st century: Foster optimal conditions for the formation of the most generative platforms of the future.

I’ve mentioned before that I think Steven Johnson’s recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, should serve as a primer for Extension’s transformation into a 21st century knowledge organization.

Our transformation rides on how well we grasp the central lesson of this book: that many of the greatest intellectual advances in history have been generated by emergent platforms, the complex systems that arise from relatively simple interactions.

Cooperative Extension is one such platform — one that has not only advanced human knowledge but that has also provided the basis for other emergent, highly generative platforms.

As Johnson stresses, much of our understanding of emergent platforms stems from what we’ve learned from software design and Web development.

He notes that the most generative platforms come in stacks. One of history’s most significant examples of such a stack is Tim Berners-Lee’s ingenious innovation, which we know today as the Worldwide Web. Indeed, the Web is a kind of archeological site comprised of layer upon layer of platform made possible by the Internet’s open protocols — small wonder why “platform stack” is now a term commonly used in modern programming circles.

Other stacks followed the Web, notably youtube, which was stitched together with elements of the Web, Adobe’s Flash platform and the programming language Javascript, Johnson observes.

Yet, similar kinds of platform occurred long before the Web.  Johnson relates the story of two young scientists at the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University whose responses to the Sputnik crisis produced one of the most generative platforms in history, one that contributed to GPS and, ultimately, to many of the technologies that define 21st century life.

Cooperative Extension is a highly generative platform in its own right. Indeed, speaking as an Extension history buff, I’m struck by the stark resemblance of Extension’s development to that of the Worldwide Web and accompanying Web 2.0 platforms.

Extension is one layer of a considerably dense platform stack, built upon the Experiment Station platform as well as farmer institutes, which, in turn, were constructed on the older agricultural society model.  Extension also borrows heavily from other platforms, including the “university Extension” model begun in England in 1866.

In another stark similarity to 21st century Internet platforms, Extension was shaped by late 19th and early 20th century forerunners of hackers — and, yes, I’m using this term in the commendatory rather than the derogatory sense —self-taught laypersons, beginning with Seaman Knapp, who helped refine and retool outreach methods, much as 21st century hackers have stepped up to enhance the usefulness of everything from Google Maps to Twitter.

In generative terms, Extension turned out to be one of the most valuable platforms of the 20st century, producing or contributing significantly to a host of other platforms.  Boll weevil eradication, which provided the basis for other platforms — crops entomology, crop dusting, crops scouting, to name only a few — is one of the greatest examples.  Other platforms that were built off Extension or that borrowed significantly from it include the U.S. Farm Bureau system, public health education, applied home economics, 4-H, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service), and community resource development.

I’ve spoken in the past of the need for a radical overhaul of our outreach model.  But radical in this context does not imply thoroughgoing or wrenching insomuch as a harkening back to our roots.  Extension educators were building open-source, highly generative platforms long before this term or the underlying concept were conceived.

Our challenge will be to foster the most optimal conditions for the emergent platforms of the future — platforms efficient and generative enough to thrive within this the highly demanding 21st century knowledge environment.

Here’s the good news: Our transformation, while far from easy, is simple — simple in the sense that it requires an understanding of where we have been in order to understand where we’re going.  Despite numerous setbacks of late, we possess an institutional legacy that uniquely equips us with this understanding.

Colleagues have asked me why I remain doggedly optimistic in the face of all this cutting and downsizing.

This is why.

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