Monthly Archives: June 2012

Building Charter Cities in Our Ranks

Panoramic View of Hong Kong

Hong Kong, the precursor to the charter cities concept, a city whose openness to change and innovation has presented a historic challenge to what was until recently the lumbering, centrally planned economy of the People’s Republic of China

I love one educational reformer’s explanation for what ails higher education:  the presence of a pervasive “anti-innovation culture.”

Needless to say, a lot of the technological reforms sorely needed in higher education have been stymied by the dogged resistance of this anti-innovation culture within our ranks.

Even as they resist, a tsunami is washing over our landscape, reordering everything in its wake.

More than ever, we need a legion of change agents or, as Oregon State University Cooperative Extension administrator Dave King describes it, a “coalition of the willing.”

As descriptions go, my personal pick is charter city.  The New York Times ran an article recently about economist Paul Romer’s efforts to establish charter cities aimed at resolving the intractably difficult problems that have historically plagued developing countries — the highly extractive oligarchies and laws that prey on the less fortunate, the one’s striving to succeed.

Romer perceives these charter cities as being insulated from the prevailing laws of the host country. The underlying presumption is that as these charter cities grow and become more prosperous, the host countries will be presented with a sort of fait accompli — a successfully functioning development model that they no longer can ignore.

Charter city proponents cite the prosperous, westernized enclave of Hong Kong, which has pointed the rest of China toward a future of openness, innovation and prosperity, as an especially noteworthy precursor of this concept.

As I see it, this is what the innovators, the coalition of the willing, within higher education in general and Cooperative Extension in particular must do — to create something akin to charter cities within our ranks, to present anti-innovators among us with a kind of fait accompli.

As we act on new insights and adapt them to our everyday work, we build these charter cities brick by brick.

Actually, construction on these new charter cities is already well under way.  Examples within my own state include the Alabama 4-H Youth Development Program’s self-transformation into an inquiry-based learning model and the efforts of two grassroots community foresters to develop Cooperative Extension’s first lecture doodle.

Here’s another point worth considering: As we build these charter cities, we transform ourselves into — dare I say it — agents of creative destruction.

In other words, by increasing the speed with which new ideas are introduced and actively discussed, we challenge the status quo, and by challenging the status quo, we introduce creatively destructive forces into our ranks.

Creative destruction isn’t new to Extension. We played a major role in the course of the 20th century transforming the U.S. farming sector, rendering it more efficient and, consequently, more creatively destructive.

Our challenge now is to focus these creatively destructive forces inwardly, within our own ranks.

Creative destruction is not something from which we can flee. It’s the very basis of the information-driven global economic order that is emerging in the 21st century.

The charter cities that ultimately will emerge within our ranks are inherently creatively destructive. Our long-term organizational survival is closely bound with this concept. By increasing these speed with which new ideas are raised and debated within our ranks and among our clients (who are now co-creators in every sense of the word) we better ensure that higher education and Extension will be fully equipped to thrive within this radically altered information and economic order.

From Programs to Platforms?

Photo of a building under construction.


Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

I’ve raised this issue before, but it never seemed to have garnered the traction I had hoped it would, even though many experts are convinced that an adequate understanding of it and its implications is absolutely critical to the future of Cooperative Extension and higher education in general.

The issue can be summed up in one word: Platform.  We have got to demonstrate to present-day and future Cooperative Extension educators the indispensable, if not central, role platforms will play in defining their work.

I really believe that.

Platforms convey a number of meanings within the English language, but in computer parlance, it’s typically understood in terms of how software and Web development often provide the basis for further tinkering and innovation.

Indeed, we’ve learned a lot about the significance of platforms based on what has come out of these two undertakings.   The simple fact that the text you are reading is posted and readily visible on your monitor is a testament to the foresight and work of Tim Berners-Lee, who essentially built the World Wide Web off earlier software advances.

He built it by stitching it together from components that already existed.   He found a way to stitch all these components together using hypertext markup language. In a matter of speaking, he built a new platform known as the Worldwide Web by stacking it on older ones.   Of course, the Web, in turn, has served a platform for numerous other platform stacks, many of which have changed life on this planet in a myriad of ways.

These platforms have formed the basis for the growth of dense technological ecosystems.

Here’s the really fascinating part: The insights we’ve garnered from software and Web design bear a remarkable resemblance to what we’ve learned from disciplines as far removed as biology.

As Steven Johnson argues in his splendid book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation,” we see the same sorts of processes played out in nature.  For example, what is a beaver dam other than a biological platform?

Beaver dams serve more than just a means of pooling water.  They provide basis for the development entire ecosystems.  To put it another way, dams provide a means by which other species can, in a manner of speaking, stack their own platforms — in other words, to develop their own biological niches.

In this respect, we Extension educators are a lot like beavers.   We have been platform builders from the beginning of our history — a reality reflected in Seaman Knapp’s demonstration plots and Booker T. Washington’s “Movable School On Wheels,” better known as the Jesup Wagon.

Like busy little beavers, we have been developing ecosystems — or, in our case, knowledge ecosystems — for a comparatively long time, longer than most educational entities.

Within the past century, though, a number of factors have forced us to conceive our knowledge products in more lineal terms.  We’re currently defined by how we deliver programs— programs that are still conceived and carried out in the same linear fashion they were at the beginning of the 20th century

There is still a place for this.  Yet, a lot of people in all facets of education are more convinced than ever that the times are calling for a more open-ended approach to outreach.  This will require Extension educators to return to something more familiar — to close the circle, in a manner of speaking.

That will involve changing how we develop our educational products in the future, because closing this circle will require us to focus more on becoming the platform architects and builders of the 21st century.

In other words, we will be valued more for the platforms —the ecosystems of knowledge — we create than for the linear programming that we deliver.

Some in our ranks find such thinking almost inconceivable. Yet, this seems to be where all the trends are pointing.

Yes, it is a scary prospect for some, because it undoubtedly will call for a complete rethinking of how we interact with those we serve.

I, for one, think it could prove to be our finest hour.