Tag Archives: Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation

Sputnik Lessons for Cooperative Extension

Artist's rendering of Sputnik orbit.

Sputnik sparked a crisis as well as one of the most generative emergent platforms in human history.

Monday, October 7, 1957, was a day of bewilderment mixed with a generous but subdued measure of geekish awe at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

Americans had been confronted the previous weekend by newspaper headlines announcing the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik.

As science writer and bestselling author Steven Johnson relates in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation, APL scientists spent the following Monday reflecting on this troubling event and discussing the implications for the arms race and for the future of U.S. scientific leadership.

Somewhere along the way, in what turned out to be one of the most far-reaching “AH HA!” movements in human history, two young scientists, William Guier and George Weiffenbach, realized that they could use equipment in APL’s inventory to track Sputnik’s microwave emissions.

This insight soon led the young scientists to another discovery: that they could use the Doppler effect to calculate the speed with which Sputnik was moving through space.

Guier and Weiffenbach were on the verge of what they later recalled as “the adventure of their lives,” only they didn’t know it at the time.

Several months later, they were asked by an APL administrator to subject this insight to reverse processing — in other words, to determine if the position of a receiver on the ground could be calculated based on the precise location of an orbiting satellite.

In a manner of speaking, the Soviets ended up being hoisted on their own technological petard.  This reverse processing not only proved to be achievable but also provided the basis for using satellites to navigate nuclear-powered Polaris submarines.

Less than a generation later,in the tragic aftermath of the Korean Airlines 007 crash in 1983, President Reagan declared that satellite-based navigation would become a “common good” open to civilian use to avoid similar tragedies — not to mention, potential nuclear crises —in the future.

In only a short time, this system acquired its current name — GPS — a common good that has provided critical guidance for everything from mobile phones to precision agriculture.

While scarcely aware of it, Guier and Weiffenback had begun initial construction on what Johnson describes in his book as an “emergent platform,” one that has benefited human beings in ways scarcely imaginable a half century ago.

There are a couple of lessons here for Extension educators.  First, much like Guier and Weiffenbach, we have constructed our own emergent platforms within the last century.  Much like the platform that grew out of the Sputnik crisis, these have produced their own far-reaching effects.

One notable example: The emergent platform that developed from efforts to control boll weevil outbreaks in cotton and that led to a wealth of innovations, including row-crop entomology, cotton scouting, crop diversification (notably the introduction of peanuts) and aerial spraying, which, in turn, led directly to the formation of the commercial airline company, Delta.

In fact, the platform that grew out of the Boll Weevil crisis was an unusually generative one  in terms of how information has been recycled and used for other purposes— something we should bear in mind as we reconstruct the new Extension outreach model.

Johnson’s Sputnik account presents Extension educators with another critical insight: Our success in the 21st century will depend on how well we create ecologies of openness — on how well we optimize the conditions for similar highly generative emergent platforms of the future.

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Failure to Meet Code?

Seaman Knapp

Seaman knapp, 19th century forerunner of Extension work, and, arguably, one of the early architects of open-source ecology.

In one respect, I’m not worried about the open-source challenge to Extension.

Who were Seaman Knapp, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver other than early forerunners of collaborative learning?  In a sense, they were architects of open-source ecology long before this term became commonplace.

No doubt about it: Open source ecology is deeply etched into our DNA.

We often forget that that 19th century agricultural societies and expositions and Knapp’s cotton demonstrations were as much attempts to elicit the insight and feedback of growers as they were efforts to disseminate knowledge.  And don’t forget that Washington conceived the Movable School concept after expressing frustration that so many farmers refused to speak up at farmer’s conferences held on the Tuskegee campus.  Much like Knapp’s cotton demonstrations, the movable schools were as much about securing feedback from farmers at the grassroots as they were about educating them.

I was reminded of this reading Donald Tapscott’s and Anthony D. Williams’s Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything.

They apply a really thought-provoking term to the 21st century visionaries — entrepreneurs and university researchers, to name a few — who are striving to ensure that knowledge is shared as widely and as freely as possible among those who seek to advance the boundaries of human knowledge. They call them new Alexandrians.

The Alexandrian Greeks, as you recall, set out with one overarching goal: They wanted to ensure that all the accumulated human knowledge — all the histories, plays, literature and mathematical and scientific treatises — was assembled under one roof.

What they achieved was extraordinary for the time: They accumulated an estimated half million books in the vast library at Alexandria before it was burned in the fifth century.

In a sense, our early Extension visionaries were the new Alexandrians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: They searched for the most effective ways to ensure that all knowledge about agriculture and, later, home economics, youth development, and community resource development was made available to anyone interested in benefiting from it.

Extension educators were constructing open-source platforms long before we understood the significance of that concept.

To be sure, we’re still constructing open-source platforms.  My fear is that our platforms — or, if you prefer, our open-source ecologies — are not up to the task. To put it another way, I fear that we are failing to “meet code” — the building codes of the 21st century knowledge economy.

Our platforms are not dense enough and generative enough to keep pace with others.

What do the best open-source platforms look like?

In his superb book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation, Steve Johnson describes platform building as “a kind of exercise in emergent behavior.” In human knowledge terms, platforms function as “hotbeds of innovation.”

The most optimal open-source platforms create environments within which different kinds of thoughts can “productively collide and recombine,” Johnson says.

I’m more convinced than ever that Extension’s success in the 21st century will ride on how adept we become in building these generative open-source platforms.

The more generative the platforms are, the better, because these ensure the widest possible following among our clients.

As we assess our future, we should begin with an affirmation, followed by a question.

First, the affirmation: Much like the coffeehouses of the 17th century, which provided the basis for so much idea sharing and innovation, Cooperative Extension is one of history’s oldest open-source platforms.

We should derive immense pride and inspiration from that fact.

Next, the sobering part — the question: Are our platforms dense enough and generative enough to compete in the 21st century?

Do they meet code?