Tag Archives: human infrastructure

Seven Reasons Why We Need Cooperative Extension in the 21st Century

Excuse the hyperbole, but I originally titled this “Seven Reasons Why Extension Will Survive and Thrive (and Possibly Even Save the Planet) in the 21st century.

I admit that would have been a tad too rhetorically overblown, but there is a ring of truth to it. Despite these looming budget cuts, despite all this talk of Extension having passed its prime, I still believe that we not only will survive in the 21st century but also carve out a lasting presence that not only will enrich millions more lives but also help make the world a safer, greener, happier place.

Here are seven reasons why:

1. We are Sustainers

Sustainability is taking on new meaning.

Many of the nation’s governors are using it to underscore in these lean fiscal times why Americans must become good stewards in all facets of their lives.

One example: Tightening budgetary restraints on the U.S. healthcare system are prompting more Americans to adopt lifestyle practices that safeguard against chronic disease.

Meanwhile, farmers are gearing up to feed a projected 9 billion people by mid-century with less cropland and water and in the midst of spiking fuel and fertilizer costs, even as they are being called upon to develop safer, greener production systems that emphasize organic- and locally-grown foods.

Even with online sources literally available their fingertips, people can’t solve these problems entirely on their own.

Extension is uniquely equipped to help people adopt sustainable practices in all facets of their lives.

2. We are Catalysts

One Alabama cattle producer underscored recently the invaluable role Cooperative Extension educators serve as catalysts — in this case, helping him install a GPS device to reap substantial costs savings.

“It’s gotten me started a little sooner than I would have,” the farmer wryly observes, admitting that it likely would have been years before he had discovered and installed the device on his own.

Through the Internet, farmers are as readily exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking as the rest of us, but they still need catalysts — trained experts who can see the larger picture and who can point to cost-effective solutions they otherwise would not have considered because of times constraints, professional preoccupations or other factors.

What applies to farmers applies to all of us.

3. We are an Agency of Empowerment

As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen soberly observed recently, the 2008 stock market downturn followed more recently by severe federal and state budgetary cutbacks have left all American in a “different mental place.”

Likewise, as British sociologist Anthony Giddens has stressed, policymakers in this age of austerity are placing an increasing emphasis on dialogue and empowerment, approaches that encourage individuals and groups to address change by making things happen rather than having things happen to them.

A preoccupation with personal empowerment will persist for a long time. The good news for us is that personal empowerment is our business. We are an agency of empowerment.

As government searches for cost-effective alternatives in the midst of these budgetary restraints, the role we serve enabling people to do more with less will garner a renewed appreciation — at least, so long as we are telling our story.

4. We are Human Infrastructure

We all know that in the 21st century, there is a strong emphasis on building technological infrastructure.  Small wonder why: It offers enhanced opportunities for intellectual exchange, which, in turn, creates enhanced opportunities for creativity and innovation.

Let’s not forget that we are infrastructure — not the inanimate stuff like high-speed rail or Internet connections — but the flesh-and-bone variety — human infrastructure.

Even in this wired age, there remains an enormous value in the dense network of face-to-face relationships that characterize the Cooperative Extension mission.  They have enormous potential for enhancing the connections that emerge from this newer, technological infrastructure.

5. We are Contextualizers

The bad news: As flesh-and-bone knowledge providers, we cannot hold a candle to virtual knowledge sources, especially search engines — no doubt about that.

The good news is that we still possess something that search engines and other online applications lack: the ability to provide our audiences knowledge within deep, enriched learning contexts.  We help our diverse audiences not only understand knowledge within a wider learning context but, even more important, how to use it to enhance their lives in lasting, meaningful ways.

6. We are Synergists

Our longstanding experience with forging and cultivating partnerships among diverse groups has often enabled us to succeed where others have failed.

As our work in community resource development has underscored time and again, Extension educators have provided the crucial impetus that moves ideas from the drawing board to the assembly floor and, ultimately, to the end user.

7. We are Collaborators

To an increasing degree, wikinomics, which emphasizes the power of collaborative wisdom and learning, is being adopted by everyone from global companies to educational institutions.

Extension pioneers Seaman Knapp and Booker T. Washington anticipated this 21st century mindset more than a century ago: They didn’t view their clients as passive subjects; they considered them equals — more than that, they regarded them as active collaborators in their outreach efforts.

Wikinomics is written into our organizational DNA — a trait that gives us an enormous competitive advantage over other public and private entities that are just now coming to terms with new demands of the 21st century knowledge economy.

A Charge to Keep

I’ll close this by admitting to something — bias.  I love Extension work.  I feel fortunate to have served a quarter century in an agency — an educational movement — that puts knowledge to practical use.

Even in this cash-strapped era, we have a charge to keep.  In the midst of this gloom, I believe that our longstanding appreciation for dialogue, forging partnerships and empowering people uniquely equips for the challenges of the 21st century.

[Note: I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the extent to which I have merely followed the tracks of one of this century’s true visionaries: Thomas Friedman, whose observations about the flat world and all of its sundry implications provided much of the intellectual basis for this piece.]

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We Are Human Infrastructure!

I’ve experienced an epiphany within the last couple of weeks.

We need to be proclaiming Cooperative Extension for what it is, what it’s always been: infrastructure — not the inanimate stuff like Interstates and sprawling high-speed rail or airport terminals but the flesh-and-bone variety — human infrastructure.

I owe New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman for that insight. He used a couple of recent columns to illustrate how technological infrastructural development under way in China and India is destined to change the world as we know it.

Actually, that troubles him a bit. It’s led him to wonder whether the frantic effort under way in these countries within the past couple of decades to put this technological and educational structure in place is only the beginning of something even bigger and more far-reaching.

One thing is certain: These technologies are popping up on the Asian landscape like mushrooms after a heavy summer rain — so many, in fact, that they appear to be attracting many Chinese and Indians who otherwise would have stayed behind after graduate school to seek their fortunes in the United States.

Of course, there is every reason in the world for the Chinese and Indians to follow this path, to put more and more of this infrastructure in place: Each innovation offers more opportunity for intellectual exchange, which, in turn, creates enhanced opportunities for creativity and innovation.

Our own history has driven home this essential truth: Think of the enormous intellectual and economic advantages telegraphs provided American society in the 19th century.

That’s precisely what concerns Friedman: the threat these immense leaps in Asia pose to America’s leadership as the world’s preeminent creator and innovator.

He may be right.  The technological implications of this infrastructure to our future are immense. But so are the implications of the human infrastructure. 

Until now, we Americans have been way ahead of the curve on the human dimension.  The Morrill Act of 1862, which established land-grant institutions, followed by the Hatch Act and the Smith-Lever Act, represented a few of history’s most visionary attempts to develop human infrastructure.

Granted, some would contend that this type of human infrastructure is antiquated and that the sole emphasis in the future should be on building the same kind of infrastructure as Asia.

I disagree. We Americans run the risk of selling ourselves short if we emphasize technological infrastructure at the expense of human infrastructure.  There is still enormous value in the dense network face-to-face relationships that characterize the Cooperative Extension mission.  They have enormous potential for enhancing the connections that emerge from this newer, technological infrastructure.

I’ve already seen this through my own experiences working with Extension educators who already have successfully merged their traditional Extension roles with the emerging roles of networked educators. Yes, they’re learning how to use social media tools to expand their reach to newer, larger numbers of clientele, thereby increasing the speed and volume of intellectual exchange.

But through their traditional face-to-face relationships, they’re also enriching this dialogue.  And by enriching this dialogue, they are equipping themselves with a comparative advantage that many other educational entities lack. 

One effort that speaks volumes about the continued relevance of this older infrastructure is the work of Alabama Extension precision farming educators.  Using social media, they are drawing on the experiences they’ve gained through longstanding face-to-face relationships with row-crop producers in their regions to provide producers in other states and even other regions of the world with a clearer picture of some of the challenges they will face in adopting this new technology.

Of course, this is only one of many imaginative ways a successful marriage of older and newer infrastructure is occurring.

In this era of ultra-lean budgeting, it behooves all of us in Extension to take stock of our comparative advantages. 

We represent some of the best human infrastructure ever developed in any place of the world and at any time in history.  With some technological enhancements, we can become even better.

One other important point to bear in mind: We should be proclaiming this essential truth to the people who hold our future in their hands — our stakeholders.