Category Archives: The Passing Scene

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?

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.

Post-Morrill America — and What It Means for Extension

Justin Smith Morrill, father of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, scarcely envisioned the technological world that would be secured largely through his efforts.The thought just occurred to me yesterday — and a sobering one at that: We Americans have all been Morillized.

As a matter of fact, all of us have been Morrillized to such a degree that we now live in a post-Morrill nation.

Welcome to post-Morrill America.

If you recall your history, the purpose of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862 was to improve the standard of living in the various American states and, ultimately, the nation as a whole by providing the laboring classes with education in the practical arts.

I would contend that Justin Smith Morrill’s vision has exceeded beyond measure and in ways he scarcely considered at the time.   To be sure, not everyone has ascended to the ranks of the middle class. Not everyone possesses a college education.  Even so, the highly technological world that to a significant degree grew out of the Morrill Act has placed all of these practical arts at the fingertips of virtually every individual in this nation.

One of my colleagues, NDSU Extension’s Bob Bertsch, superbly illustrated this recently in his departmental weblog, “The Winnowing Oar,” with a link and accompanying comments about a 45-year-old paper mill worker named Frank Kovacs, who once dreamed of becoming an astrophysicist.  Taxing college math courses thwarted this dream, but this didn’t stop Kovacs from building his own planetarium in his free time — what he describes to visitors as the “world’s largest rolling, mechanical, globe planetarium.”

Kovacs is now an educator with his own self-constructed learning facility.

Bob is right to point out the immense significance behind one of Kovacs’s statements: “To be a planetarium director you need college, but if you build your own, you can run it!”

If any statement speaks volumes about the post-Morrill world in which we live, it is that one.  In terms of knowledge empowerment, people no longer have to wait on someone else.

As Bob so aptly describes it, “Stepping on a college campus or attending a workshop are not the only ways to pursue an education.”

Frank Kovacs has demonstrated that fact.

In a manner of speaking, all this Morrillizing has helped create a technological order in which people are now fully capable of empowering themselves.

I contend that this reality presents Extension with a fascinating question: What is our purpose in a post-Morrill world?

We live in a drastically altered knowledge landscape, one that is flat. To a significant degree, the flat world is one that Justin Smith Morrill made.

We should give him his due — for that matter, we should give ourselves ample credit for the indispensable role we served in Morrillizing America.

However, post-Morrillization presents us with a new set of challenge perhaps best expressed by this question: Where do we go from here?

We should start by reflecting on the most obvious effect of post-Morrillization: Americans are now fully equipped to empower themselves.

Yes, we remain an agency of empowerment but not in the way we were in the past.  Back to that rather unwieldy neologism: contextualizer.   In the future, we will empower people by providing them with deeper, more enriched learning contexts.  In time, we will learn that these contexts are best secured within social networks — networks that are open, responsive and dense enough to ensure the most optimal levels of enrichment.

We must construct nothing less than a new outreach model — in a manner of speaking, a post-Morrill outreach model.

Granted, we have our work cut out for us — or, as farmers would say, we have a “long row to hoe.”

Even so, I, for one, am convinced that our history and experiences uniquely equip us to undertake this transformation.

One thing is certain: Despite these challenges, post-Morrillization is no cause for demoralization.

The Promise — and Peril — of Open Science to Extension

Timothy Gowers

World renowned mathematician and Cambridge University researcher Timothy Gowers, who has pioneered part of the open science movement with his Polymath Project.

If you’ve been reading my weblog for a while, you’ve possibly garnered some appreciation for one of my driving professional preoccupations: the need for Extension to develop a new outreach model over the next decade.

I’m even more preoccupied after reading and rereading “Open Science: a Future Shaped by Shared Experience” an article by Bobbie Johnson that appeared recently in the Guardian, a British daily.

I’ll even go out on a limb and predict that the open science movement may be every bit as far reaching to the future of humanity as the scientific method, first articulated by Roger Bacon in the 13th century.

Open science is interpreted in several ways, but it essentially boils down to making scientific research more open, more public.  Open science proponents contend that the traditional approach to research is not only a retrograde approach to inquiry but is also hindering progress.  Opening up research — in many cases, crowdsourcing it — not only would revolutionize scientific inquiry but also render it more efficient, they argue.

The article highlights eminent mathematician and Cambridge University researcher Timothy Gowers’s efforts to solve a handful of highly complex mathematical problems by crowdsourcing them — inviting other people to weigh in with their own suggestions for resolving them.  He dubbed it the Polymath Project, an undertaking that ultimately produced a series of new ideas and insights as well as several collaborative papers published under the collective pseudonym DHJ Polymath.

The potential of open science already has also been foreshadowed other areas of science, notably The Human Genome Project’s pioneering efforts to map and share DNA.

Much of this parallels what has already unfolded within the computer software industry, Johnson says.   Science is proving no more immune to the effects of Web 2.0 than any other facet of modern life.  With the lowered transaction costs that have accompanied Web 2.0, much of the research that once required heavily funded research departments can now be conducted in a garage.

The economic downturn has contributed too.  Open science may prove a cost-effective alternative as governments around the world slash conventional research funding, proponents contend.

Needless to say, the implications for Extension are profound.  To a significant degree we’ve been involved in open science from the very beginning of our history.  So much of what we’ve done has foreshadowed this trend.

Even so, a respectable number of Extension educators, many of whom balance research assignments with Extension responsibilities, will steadfastly maintain that the advent of open science portends the end of science as we know it.

Genuine scientific achievement, they would contend, is not possible without research — sometimes even centuries of research — which not only requires immense investments of time and manpower but, certainly in the case of many land-grant university researchers, mentally and physically taxing data collection, often in inhospitable research environments.

Even then, the fruits of this research are wasted efforts unless they are shared with other scientific peers in one or more refereed scientific journals — along with painstaking data collection, a crucial step in the refinement and advancement of scientific advancement.

For their part, many open science proponents freely concede that there is still a place for these rigorous research practices.  But as Johnson observes, they are also right to point out that this highly formalized, institutional research is of relatively recent vintage and that some of the greatest advances in human history have come from autodidactic polymaths — self-taught gentlemen scholars such as Robert Hooke, Charles Darwin and Benjamin Franklin.

My take, for what it’s worth:  I see lots of promise and, yes, some peril in what’s taking place.   The promising part is the valuable role Extension educators can serve as subject matter curators and in helping refine discussion within this new open, freewheeling knowledge environment.  In some respects, it’s the same role we’ve played throughout the past century, although we will be dealing with a much more sophisticated audience who, by every conceivable measure, will no longer be clients in any conventional sense.

Our historical experiences uniquely equip us for many of the challenges that lie ahead.  We were not only early forerunners of open science but also of applied research methods.

Now for the peril: I sometimes despair at the number of Extension professionals who fail to grasp the full implications of Web 2.0 and the imperative need to redefine our role as knowledge providers.  To state it bluntly, I fear that we face the real risk of being sandbagged by the technological, social and cultural effects of Web 2.0.  If we don’t learn quickly how to become effective players in this new environment, we will be quickly bypassed.

We need to give serious thought to what it means to be a knowledge provider in the 21st century — and fast.

We Can’t Go On this Way, but We Never Do

Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly, author, futurist and philosopher of technology, who believes the current agricultural model ultimately will evolve into a more heterogeneous, decentralized model.

This has been a good week for deep, serendipitous insights.

Shortly after reading George Monbiot’s column attesting to the shortfalls of the green movement, I came across an intriguing passage by Kevin Kelly, one of the world’s renowned futurists and philosophers of technology.

His book, What Technology Wants, is one of a handful of books that should serve as operating manuals for Cooperative Extension’s transformation into a 21st century knowledge organization and one that I highly recommend to my colleagues.

The passage further underscored to me that people even within our ranks are not fully aware of the benefits Extension secured for Americans and human beings in general by helping transform subsistence farming into the model that prevails today.

As Kelly stresses, the current agriculture model secured something every bit as valuable as cheap, abundant food:  It also freed up time — precious time that has enabled human beings to do other things, valuable things, which have contributed immensely to the quality of life on this planet.

“It feeds our longevity to keep inventing and, ultimately, this food system fuels the increase in population that generates increasing numbers of ideas,” Kelly says.

As I said, it’s a fascinating and important point and one of which few people, even Extension professionals, are fully aware.

Bear in mind, though, that this applies as much to the detractors of agriculture as it does the rest of us.  Even as they criticize modern agriculture’s overreliance on petroleum, they scarcely consider how much this model contributed to a social and economic order that, in addition to feeding them, also provided adequate levels of education to conceive and marshal such sophisticated critiques.

The current farming model has carried humanity a long way — a distance that would have been impossible via subsistence farming.

Even so, as Kelly is the first to concede, modern farming, despite its colossal achievements, is beset with challenges.  As he stresses, the current model is heavily dependent on a monoculture of only a few staple food crops, which have required “pathological degrees of intervention with drugs, pesticides and herbicides, soil disturbance and overreliance on cheap petro fuels for both energy and nutrients.”

In time, though, elements of a new, decentralized model will emerge, he says — one less monocultural and petroleum dependent than the current one and that perhaps even encompasses “hyperlocal, specialized farms,” manned either by a truly global workforce or by “smart, nimble worker robots.”

Again, most Extension agricultural experts likely would not find much with which to take issue in any of these statements.  Like Kelly, most could conceive of an emerging “convivial agriculture” sitting atop industrial agriculture, much as the current model sits atop older forms of subsistence farming.

Likewise, they, like Kelly, could conceive the current farming model, by remaining the most productive supplier of food on a global scale, as one that continues to fill a critical role for the foreseeable future and forming an integral part of the emerging model.

Speaking of passages, Kelly also shares a quote from another intellectual hero of mine, Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.

“If we go on as we are, it’ll be very difficult to sustain things,” Ridley says. “But we won’t go on as we are. That’s what we never do.”

“We always change what we do and we always get much more efficient at using things — energy, resources, etc.”

These are valuable messages, ones that we should be sharing with our diverse users and stakeholders.

The current agricultural model is undergoing a significant overhaul to accommodate the demands of the emerging global knowledge economy of the 21st century.

So are we.

But that’s the business we’re in.  As Kelly says, “We don’t go on as we are. We address the problems of tomorrow not with today’s tools but with the tools of tomorrow.”

Extension Lessons from Joe Friday

Joe Friday of Dragnet fame: I couldn’t get enough of the guy — or his unfailing partner, Bill Gannon — growing up.

I still chuckle a bit recalling those brass-tacks morality lessons Friday (portrayed by Jack Webb) and Gannon (played by Harry Morgan) freely imparted to whatever social malcontents they were dealing with at the time.

One of their most memorable appeals was served up in The Big Departure, an episode that first aired in March 7, 1968, about four aspiring teenagers who engage in petty larceny of local businesses to finance and provision their own anti-materialistic, utopian country on one of the islands off the California Coast.

In response to one teenager’s contention that they didn’t understand, Friday and Gannon serve a few choice words about how much better he and his collaborators fared in comparison to earlier generations.

“More people are living better right here than anywhere else ever before in history,” Friday says.

“You’re taller, stronger, healthier and better educated — and you’ll live longer than the last generation, and we don’t think that’s altogether bad,” Gannon adds, also pointing out to the kids that none of them had likely seen a quarantine sign in their neighbors’ door warning about diphtheria, scarlet fever or whooping cough.

“Probably none of your classmates are crippled with polio,” he adds.  “You don’t see many mastoid scars anymore.”

To be sure, this sort of optimism would strike many 21st century Americans as hidebound, if not threadbare.  In the midst of recent history’s longest running economic crisis, coupled with a seemingly intractable energy impasse, frustration and resignation seem to have trumped optimism.

Still, I think the two TV cops strike at an essential truth not only for the 60s but also for today: Scientific achievement has carried us a long way, and it will likely carry us an even longer way in the future.

While few advocate their own starter countries, plenty of technological naysayers remain in this century heaping scorn on practices that have secured all of us immense comfort and efficiency.

At the top of the list of these practices: scientific farming methods — yes, those very methods that have been promoted by Extension agents and specialists and other land-grant personnel for more than a century.

To be sure, these farming methods have created one of the most diverse, interdependent economic sectors in the world — a fact that causes some farm critics extreme consternation.

Yet, as Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, stresses, the interdependence and trade that has followed the adoption of these practices have ensured that all of us are immensely better fed and healthier than our 18th century forebears.

As an example, he compares the trebling of wheat prices that occurred between 2006 and 2008 to a similar price hike that occurred from 1315 to 1318.

During the early 14th century, when Europe was sparsely populated, farming was entirely organic and food miles were short, mass starvation and even outbreaks of cannibalism ensued.  Indeed, until the advent of railways, it was cheaper for people to become refugees than to pay the steep prices to transport food into a deprived district.

Today, consumers benefit from a global wheat market in which somebody somewhere has something to sell.  The end result: typically modest price fluctuations but no mass starvation.

The take-home message: The interdependence that has partly grown out of these scientific farming methods has helped spread risk.

To be sure, farming faces its share of challenges.  For the past generation, Extension educators throughout the country have been busily engaged helping the nation’s row-crop and livestock producers build a new farming model that merges scientific farming methods with sustainable practices.

We face challenges, daunting challenges.  Even so, it behooves all of us Extension educators not only to reflect on our achievements but also to defend them with the same zeal as Joe Friday.