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.

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