Monthly Archives: July 2011

Economic Malaise, Cooperative Extension Opportunity

While house and car sales will eventually rise to their old numbers, the old consumer economy is gone and isn't coming back, writes New York Times economist journalist David Leonhardt

“We’re spent,” writes David Leonhardt in The New York Times’s July 18 Sunday Review section, and this hard reality has major implications for the prospects of America’s long-term recovery.

Deficits, inadequate stimulus packages, the looming threat of China may all play a part in our economic woes, but the pink elephant is consumer spending — or, more accurately, the acute lack of it.

The economic statistics are telling: The auto industry is predicted to sell 28 percent fewer vehicles in 2011. Sales of stoves and ovens are projected to be at their lowest level since 1992.

This bad news brings me back to a point I’ve raised time and again in this forum: the growing American preoccupation with leaner, more sustainable lifestyles — the challenge of doing more with less — and the role Cooperative Extension educators can play at all levels and in all disciplines in pointing the way toward these new ways of living and working.

Mind you, I’m not just talking about environmental sustainability.  In these lean times, sustainability is now a term used liberally, not only to stress the need for federal and state fiscal prudence but also to foster healthier personal and family finances.

As the New York Times’s Roger Cohen argued in a column several years ago, the shock that followed the 2008 market crash put Americans into a “different mental place.”

It is small wonder why, considering in retrospect how unsustainable the old consumer mindset was.  As Leonhardt observes:

In past years, many of these consumers could have relied on debt, often a home-equity line of credit or a credit card, to tide them over. Debt soared in the late 1980s, 1990s and the last decade, which allowed spending to grow faster than incomes and helped cushion every recession in that period.

Sooner or later, Leonhardt stresses, a newer, more sustainable economic model inevitably will take its place — a model that lays considerably greater emphasis on investment and production.

One thing is certain, Leonhardt stresses: “The old consumer economy is gone, and it’s not coming back.”

While house and car sales eventually will surpass their old highs following economic recovery and population increases, levels of consumer spending will not return to their old levels, he contends.

Why? Because it was driven by money that people didn’t have.

“The choice, then, is between starting to make the transition to a different economy and enduring years of stop-and-start economic malaise,” Leonhardt writes.

This hard reality presents Extension educators with a tremendous opportunity.  A breach has formed within the American psyche, one that we are primed to fill.

Americans are taking their first tepid steps toward this new, considerably more sustainable model — steps that will require a rethinking of the way they conduct their lives both at work and at home.

No other public or private entity is better equipped than we are to fill the deep psychological breach that has formed during the Great Recession. Likewise, no one is better equipped to help Americans undertake the initial steps toward a new economic model.

As I see it, this presents an even bigger opportunity than demonstrating our continued relevance.  It is also an opportunity to undertake a much-needed organizational transformation in the way we conceive and deliver our programs.

Are we up to the challenge?

Video Version of “A Social Media Call to Action” Now Available

If you’re a frequent visitor to this site, you are familiar with one of my overriding professional preoccupations: that the techniques Cooperative Extension educators once used to dominate the knowledge landscape — face-to-face encounters and traditional print and broadcast media — are being replaced by a new information order in which online sources of knowledge accessed literally at the speed of light out compete everything.

The availability of so much information explains why we are being shoved off the turf we once considered exclusively our own.  And here’s the really scary part: We face the real risk of extinction unless we learn how to operate effectively within this increasingly crowded landscape and in ways that distinguish us from tens of millions of others.

There is a place for Extension educators in this new 21st century information order, but only if we transform ourselves into engaged, networked educators — people who not only inspire their clients but also help them learn and adapt within this radically new world and flattened knowledge landscape.  We must become fully engaged, fully networked educators who use social media to disseminate knowledge to much larger audiences and to develop two-way, reciprocal relationships with those audiences.

This video, which serves as a companion piece for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s online publication, “A Social Media Call to Action,” is an appeal to Extension educators everywhere to undertake the requisite steps to transform themselves into the 21st century educators they must become, not only for the sake of their clients but also for their organizational survival.

The Key to Extension’s Survival in One Word

Trump Tower, Chicago

Extension's 21st century charge in one word: platform - building efficient, generative platforms of the 21st century.

One of Cooperative Extension’s most astute social media users, Dr. John Fulton, recently drove home a critical insight to me: that many of us beating the drums for rapid adoption of social media within Extension ranks are consistently missing the mark.

We talk incessantly about the critical need for adopting social media, but we’re not instilling our educators with the bigger picture.

Make no mistake about it: Many educators are yearning for this bigger picture. In dealing with budget crunches and a host of other challenges, they’re wondering why they should be making all this fuss about social media. Why should they stop long enough from all these other pressing demands to learn all this stuff?

Why? Because it’s not just about adopting social media. That’s important, yes, but the bigger issue is mastering this in order to become platform architects of the 21st century.

If Extension’s survival could be summed up in a word it’s that one — platform.

Adopting social media is a critical first step, but it’s only that — a first step.  The end goal is building the most generative, open-source platforms of the 21st century.  That’s what we’re missing.

Learning how to conceive, build and nurture these platforms is our charge for the foreseeable future.  Equally important, we must learn how to collaborate among ourselves and our audiences to build these new platforms.

As one of our administrators aptly described it recently, much of this will involve learning how to “pull” instead of “push” — the reason why the old plan-and-push Extension model ultimately must be replaced with a new outreach model that underscores the value of active collaboration with our clients.

Detractors of this view undoubtedly would contend that we’re already in the platform-building business — that we were building platforms long before this term became fashionable.

I agree.  Our predecessors built one platform after another — corn and tomato clubs, which begat 4-H; boll weevil eradication efforts, which led to everything from crops entomology and crops scouting to crop dusting and Delta Airlines. Decades ago, Cooperative Extension functioned as one of the most efficient and generative platforms on the planet.

We can lay claim to scores of platforms, some of which are still functioning today.

The problem is that our platform, the Cooperative Extension platform, is no longer generative enough to compete with the other platforms being built by other 21st century platform architects.

Simply put, our platform is failing to meet code — the building code of the 21st century knowledge economy.

We must retool our outreach methods to ensure that we’re up to this new task.

Policymakers and public intellectuals strongly emphasize the value of building technological infrastructure to ensure America’s competitive survival in the 21st century.

They have every reason for doing so.   Technological infrastructure has contributed immensely to American economic and scientific leadership, but so has human infrastructure — the sort of human infrastructure that Extension educators routinely and unfailingly provided throughout the last century.

Yet, there is every bit as much need for human infrastructure — the sort of infrastructure Extension professionals routinely and unfailingly provided throughout the last century.

We Extension educators have immense potential for building human infrastructure in the 21st century. We can still serve a valuable role enhancing the connections that are being generated at breakneck speed by this emerging Web 2.0 technological infrastructure.

But reaching this potential will require a complete rethinking of how we develop and deliver our products.

It will require nothing less than learning how to ensure the most optimal conditions for intellectual exchange and innovation.

It will require nothing less than our learning how to become platform architects and builders of the 21st century.